Ask the Alchemist #74

I am trying to minimize the chances of moldy nibs. Basically, if it’s cracked or germinated I toss it. I tossed 21% of them as they were very cracked.

What IS a good way to sort beans?

I don’t sort beans.

I have over heard quite a bit about people sorting beans, under the assumption, and sometimes even hubris, that that extra work makes for a better chocolate. Quite simply I don’t agree with this and have never come across a comparison example to demonstrate this is true.

There are many reasons why I don’t sort and actively recommend you don’t sort either, except in very particular cases which I’ll go over.

One of the primary reasons I don’t sort or suggest you sort the beans I offer is very simply that the chocolate I make and evaluate and write up tasting notes on have not been sorted. And presumably you are purchasing these beans based on those notes. This is not to say that some beans that have come into my possession would not have been improved by sorting, but I reject this beans. I actively don’t want you having to sort so I only supply beans that I feel are good as presented.

Honestly, I would not have tossed those beans that you did. You may have your own standards but IMO that is overkill and really isn’t a good way to sort beans. I understand trying to minimize moldy nibs, but cracks and germination don’t necessarily lead to that. In short, I don’t supply beans that I find mold in. Some beans in particular are rather dry (Conacado is a good example), so they are friable and simply cracks more. It’s no indication of them being inferior. It’s just their nature.

The California wine industry started off making wine by the numbers. They ‘cherry picked’ their grapes. Ran everything by the numbers. Everything was perfect, and even and ‘just so’….and totally uninspiring and lacking in character. They used the same grapes as those of a great Boudreaux, had all the same numbers and it was not the same. They had sorted all the vibrancy out of it. I feel the same way about beans and chocolate. A heavily sorted crop of beans seems to lose character. Sure, it does not have any defects…but it seems too often to be lacking soul and vibrancy.

This leads me to another aspect of sorting. What criteria are you using and is it really appropriate. In the industry there is something called a cut test. You take 100 beans, slice them in half and look inside. You can see moldy beans. Slatty beans. Unfermented beans and good beans. The point here is if you could tell those characteristic from the outside you would not have had to cut them in half and the cut test would not exist. But it does for just that reason. You can and do have beautiful looking beans that look like they have no need of sorting, but upon cutting, show a whole host of defect. Mold, slatty and unfermented. And on the other side, you have cracked and mis-shapen beans that upon cutting open look just great. Do you see the inherent flaw in sorting by eye? This is the other huge reason I advocate not sorting. You have really nothing to use as a valid criteria….unless you want to cut every single bean open…but that is insane.

But….isn’t there always one? But I do sort. Naturally. When I roast, really damaged beans, especially ones with moths (yes, that happens, particular in organic ones) tend to break in the roaster and drop out into the chaff tray. Those that don’t drop out, tend to over roast, and break up further. The majority of these drop through the 1/8” mesh screen I cool on. And anything left over is so extra brittle it basically shatters in the cracker and is carried over into the husk stream. Natural sorting. Flats and slatty beans don’t roast right, nor crack right and are caught on the filter screen I use in the winnower. And mold? All I can say about this is that it is a particular characteristic I taste for when evaluating beans to sell. And if I can’t taste it and it does not detract from the chocolate, why bother trying to remove it. Oh, and the occasional twig or bit of debris? Sure, if I see it post roast (so much drops out during a roast) I ‘sort’ it.

So much of this sorting and such seems to come from applying the right tools at the wrong time. If you are buying beans of unknown quality direct from a farm, then sure, you might want to sort. And if you are deciding whether to purchase a large amount beans (like a container) then a cut test in the field can be a helpful tool and one that will allow you to measure certain quality parameters so that you can legal reject a lot of beans. But everything you buy here has had cut tests. And passed. And have been evaluated for defects. And passed. And been deemed to have a good flavor. It is why I don’t even do cut tests. The data us useless to me. I need to decide if a bean is ‘good’ and the only criteria at the end of the day, at this stage of the game, is does it taste good. I trust my suppliers (through experience) that I won’t be offered beans that show a poor cut test. That is their job. My job is to make sure I offer beans that are not flawed (it’s hard to say taste good because everyone’s taste is different) and that are good to go ‘as is’ without additional sorting. I’m not offended if you sort…but think you are potentially doing everyone up the line a disservice in not trusting them to do their job. And if you don’t have trust in whom you buy from, then you really don’t have much of anything in my opinion.

So if you like the description of a bean, go for that bean as is. Trust that I’ve rigorously tested and tasted and approved what you are buying. And don’t delude yourself that you ‘have’ to sort because it’s what you are ‘supposed’ to do to be a great chocolate maker.

Oh. And if you are getting them somewhere else and you REALLY have to sort the beans to make them good, do yourself a favor and just pass on them. None of us need to support that kind of bean on the market. It’s what I do. I just ‘sort’ the entire lot into the reject pile and move on. I suggest you do the same.

One Response to “Ask the Alchemist #74”

  1. […] To put it bluntly, there are two reasons: sorting reduces some of the flavor variation and sorting means you don’t trust your supplier. Let’s start with the second. If you have a wonderful working relationship with your cocoa bean supplier, you would hope they would provide you with beans that would make the best chocolate possible. We learned from John Nanci, Chocolate Alchemist, when we visited him in Oregon, that he screens his suppliers carefully before selling beans to his customers. He believes that any beans he sells you shouldn’t need to be sorted. Maybe he’d recommend a cursory glance for any obvious foreign objects, but other than that, we should trust him on the rest of the beans. He writes more on his opinion on sorting here. […]

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