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Cocoa Beans


Ask the Alchemist #116

How important is it that my cocoa beans pop when I roast them? Sometimes I only get a couple pops but the chocolate seems fine.

I don’t have a great answer for this. Well, I have answers, but they are not definitive. Overall, I have an unsubstantiated preference for beans and roasts that pop and crack, but pretty clearly it is not a necessity for a good roast, nor is it an indicator of a good roast….but it does fall into the more favorable category for me.

What in the world does that all mean? Let’s face it. Listen for pops and stopping your roast there is easy. If you follow most any of my roasting suggestions you will get a few beans to pop most of the time, and the results will be good. And I’ve personally found with my roasting style, if beans are popping I am satisfied by the roast. That said, JUST making the beans pop isn’t the goal. You can really sear and char the beans by applying too much heat and they will pop just great. But they may mot taste very good.

Taking a small step back, popping is something you are probably familiar with. Most seeds pop if you heat them. Popcorn. Classic example and the most dramatic. Heat up the kernel and the water inside super heats and pressure increases. When that pressure can no longer be contained, the kernel ruptures, water vapor is explosively released and you hear a pop. It’s basically the same thing with sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, coffee (it actually pops twice, 1st and 2nd crack) ……and cocoa.

That said, you can see there are three factors (at least) for getting cocoa to pop. Heat, moisture and intact cell structure. If you heat the beans very slow the moisture will have time to make its way out without cracking or popping. If the beans are very dry there isn’t anything there to make them want to pop and if the beans are broken or cracked already, no pressure can build up. Remove any one of those and the beans won’t pop.

In the first case, there are many people out there that like very long (over 30 minutes) and/or cool (under 225 F) roasts. Beans won’t generally pop under those conditions. I’ve found it takes getting the bean temperature to around 250-260 F before it will occur. Can these be good roasts and make good chocolate? Yeah, it’s possible. But I’ve found it is not generally to my taste, so I try to avoid those kinds of roasts.

In the next two cases, you are more dealing with possible quality issues. Good beans that have been fermented and dried well should have an intact cell structure and a moisture content of around 7-8 %. Outside those parameters and it’s easier to have beans that don’t taste as good. Cracked beans can give paths of ingress for bacteria. Not good. The can indicate rough handling. Not good. Low moisture can make beans for friable (brittle) and prone to cracking. And why are they low in moisture? Were they artificially dried at too high of a temperature thus changing the flavor?

And taking the other side, have a look at these Honduras beans that just came in (and are gone) that I roasted.  Just an amazing amounts of pops.  10-15%.  Maybe even 20%.  And they tasted great.


But correlation is NOT causation.  Just because they popped did not make them good.  More likely the moisture was a tad high because they were very fresh having been flown in from origin just last week.  It helped too that I roasted them very strongly and they were pristine beans.  Basically a perfect storm for snap, crackle pop!  But I've had some Brazil that did the same thing that I did not offer because it tasted like soggy cardboard - aggressive cracks and all.

If you notice I am using lots of qualifiers. It is so difficult to make absolute statements of fact about these things as I’ve found so many exceptions. I’ve had very dry beans that popped just fine. I’ve had beans that showed poorly because they were cracked and very dry and didn’t pop, but the resulting chocolate was great. And I have had pristine, intact beans that popped like crazy that tasted like dirt. There is almost no predicting it….from this side of the tasting table. But really, this isn’t something you have to worry about.

You are not having to evaluate beans. That is my job. I’m pre-sorting for you and only offering beans that I’ve found taste good. Regardless of whether the popped when I roasted them. So from your point of view, at least with our beans, you don’t have to worry whether they pop or not. If they do, great. If they don’t, no harm, no foul. To be fair, most of the beans I offer do pop at 250-260 F when roasted in 12-18 minutes and can be considered done with they do. And I try to warn you when they don’t. Regardless, if they don’t pop for you, that is fine. You are not necessarily doing anything wrong and it’s not an indicator you have ruined the roast.

As a final side note, I have found I particularly like the taste of popped beans compared to their unpopped compatriots in the same roasting batch. But that is very specifically for eating whole. Given that even on a good batch, you may only see 5% popped, I’ve yet to ever sort out popped specifically to see if they make exceptional chocolate compared against the rest of the batch. Maybe I’ll try it some day, but mostly it would be purely an academic exercise as it just isn’t a practical way to make chocolate.

So, to bring It home, you really answered your own question when you said the chocolate with only a couple pops was fine. That is par for the course. A few pops and the chocolate tastes fine and those two things are only barely related. Remember, correlation is NOT causation. It’s just an observation. Happy chocolate making everyone.



Ask the Alchemist #115

I am new to the cacao scene and wanted to know the answer to a question that I have had for a while. How do you know what type of cacao bean you have? Is it by the shape of the bean? Is it the taste? Is it the combination of both? The reason I am asking every year my family send over some cacao beans to me for hot coco. They tell me it’s trinitario and sometimes criollo but I wouldn’t know because I have no experience. I just want to know for my owe sake because my friends are always asking but I don’t have an answer. The cacao beans are from Haiti by the way.

Unfortunately, without some form of solid traceability, or hard data, it is very hard to tell one strain from another with anything close to certainty.

On the far extremes, Forastero and really pure Criollo you can tell apart since the interior of the bean of the former is purple, and the later a light brown to cream. But after that it gets pretty non-helpful as the natural variation runs from purpleish to brownish and everywhere in between with little correlation to parentage. But those are bean colors. Not pod colors.

There is a nice article that shows there are genetic markers for color and in certain regions (Ecuador in this case) some relationship to desired qualities. But not really what it is. And it makes this point. “Now, the color of the cocoa pod – red or green – does not mean much to either cocoa farmers or consumers,”

The same goes for shape. Cocoa pods come ribbed, smooth, oblong, round. But the issue is that they are what are considered non-exclusive sets. To use an arbitrary example,

Sometimes you can get lucky. Amelonado is known for it’s very round melon shape (hence the name). It has a dark violet cotyledon (the fancy name for the bean). And it is verified Forastero. That’s great. Most likely given that very specific description, you can say what it is. But it is also true that not all round, purple cotyledon are Amelondo. Beniano is a good example.

Likewise, certain Criollo bear some pretty striking characteristics. Very elongated fruits with nipple-like apex and wart like surface, often with a redish coloration.

But then we get to others that are described as “ multi-variegated fruit pods, some colored red-brick brown filled with relatively small beans”. That is for Chuao, a Criollo. That totally does not match the previous Criollo

If we get to something like Ocumare, it’s noted as elongated, ribbed and red. Which could easily be the description of Chuao.

And it goes on and on like this. Many types look a certain way, but they also look a lot like other strains. It basically takes genetic sequencing to tell them apart. And when you do that, it is not at uncommon to find out that two pods that look radically different are actually pretty closely related. The Amazon, Guiana and Amelonado all sharing pretty common genetic ground, yet looking nothing alike.

So what it comes down to is some educated guessing. Pod size, shape, color, texture, bean color and count, flavor and aroma all play into getting an idea of what you have. And to me, at the end of the day, what you have to show for it is the pod you started with. It does not change the flavor. It’s a name. And sure, it’s nice to know a name sometimes. But to me what is important is the flavor of the chocolate you make from it.

That all said, if you want to send me a photo of what you have, I’ll give it a guess…but know, it’s just that, and if it isn’t one of the really distinctive morphotypes, a wild guess is all it will be. If it is one of the distinctive morphotypes, then it will be an educated guess. I did some brief searching on the G-engine and found Haitian cocoa that was red, orange, green and all ribbed and elongated…..meaning I have not a clue.



Ecuador Micro lots are in

First off, there is no telling how long these will be around.  I have a few hundred pounds of each at the moment.  If one or two in particular go over well, I may try and bring in a bit more.  Regardless, get them while they are here.

Ecuador - Cedeno  - The chocolate carries that aroma of fresh wheat and bright tangy rose.  There is a solid chocolate base, a touch of earthiness and a balancing acidity and fruit.


Ecuador Cultivagro  -A touch of oak wood plays well with the leather leaving a dry yet satisfying finish.


Ecuador - La Buceta - The chocolate’s aroma is tangy (a nice way to say softly acidic in a nice way) in the way of mace and cinnamon.


Ecuador - Pichincha - There is a floral malty sweetness over a solid chocolate backbone.  There is virtually no astringency


Up coming beans: A savory Mexican that I have approved the evaluation sample should soon be on the way.

And if you like this kind of thing (just business as it were) you can subscribe to our newsletter where we make this same announcements when beans and new products come out.  Usually about once a month.  Sometimes a little more, sometimes a bit less.


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Ask the Alchemist #106

I am a little disappointed in the wild boliva I got. I have thrown away a third of the beans. They are full of webs and moth eaten beans. Can I still make chocolate out of these? I’ve read from some chocolate makers that they are throwing out 30%. I’m assuming you got them from the same supplier. Is that right?


I’m a bit disappointed in the appearance of the Wild Bolivia too. It didn’t match the approval sample. And they are also full of dust. This clearly is not right and I’ve been talking with the supplier and they are likewise not happy. That said, they are what they are. And they still taste fantastic (more on this in a bit).

We have taken to sieving the beans for dust and tossing the worst beans. But that is probably only 2-3%, not 30%. So you may still see something in the beans. But (knock on wood) nothing live. Just old damage.

Regardless, I don’t like it and I just don’t feel right charging a premium for these beans. I have dropped the price by 20%. This is NOT to try and unload them on you. It just like I said. I don’t feel right charging a premium for something not in really great condition. Why am I still offering them you might ask? Because I stand behind my assessment that they are still great tasting beans…..without additional sorting or picking.

But I have partly withdrawn them from the wholesale side. If you are interested in full bags from the warehouse, please contact me directly and I’ll see what is left. I’m not going to be carrying warehouse inventory on this for now.

Up on seeing them (after panicking slightly), I immediately roasted up a batch, as is, without sorting. I let the process do the sorting for me. My winnowed recovery was a little less than normal (74 vs 80%, another reason for the discount) but the nibs looked and tasted great. And the resulting chocolate, although a little different from the sample (which isn’t super uncommon) was still a really great flavored chocolate. Let me show you something. This is yet again that you should not judge a bean by its appearance.


That is some of the worst of the Wild Bolivian (not what you would see or receive) and a stunningly prepared sample. The result? No surprise since I am making a point. The Bolivia is full of great character and flavor – AS IS. The beautiful unnamed sample was one dimensional, a bit astringent and mostly a comparative disappointment.

So I say to you again, you do NOT have to pick through these. At least not to the 20-30% level. Analogy time. Say you cut up a nice loaf of bread so you can make stuffing. You take a chaste nibble off half of the cubes of bread and then make croutons and stuffing out of the result. Are you going to notice that you took off nibbles of bread? I challenge you to say yes. You will have less bread (hence again the discount) but it just isn’t going to affect the quality especially if you blow away the crumbs. This isn’t just theory. Every single one of my tests and tasting notes are based on beans as you will receive them.

Why are some chocolate makers tossing out 30%? You would have to ask them. I am not them and don’t agree with it. Visual clues are just not a good indicator of quality. I’ve seen it over and over. Go to the supermarket and check out much of the organic vs conventional. Generally speaking the conventional will look nicer (it’s often bred to be more durable). But generally speaking the organic will taste better (because it tends to be more heirloom, not just because it is organic). Moving on. That horse is dead for the time being.

As for the supplier question. That is a touchy subject. But this has been a ‘full disclosure’ Q&A so no reason to stop now. Yes, I and others got this bean from the same supplier (which I will do the courtesy of not naming). The rub here is that I have been working with this supplier to bring these beans in for me and me alone. But unfortunately they decided it would work better for them to bring in more and sell direct to whomever they wanted. Our gentleman’s agreement clearly fell apart. Many of the customers were ones had I cultivated and only knew about wild Bolvian beans because I was so captivated by them years ago and have been making a big deal of having them again.  To their credit, they have stopped selling them for the time being until a handle can be gotten on the extent of the damage and condition of the remain bags. But I guess life has a way of balancing things out. I’m actually kind of relieved I do not have to deal with a bunch of less than happy people. Lemons to lemonade, what goes around comes around and all that fun such stuff.

So you could say I am somewhat disappointed on this this whole endeavor. The beans are not as nice as I’d hoped. My supplier went around me. Some of you are not super happy. I am not super happy. But it is tempered against others who have stuck with me, who agree these taste just as good as they hoped and at the end of the day these beans still make a damn fine chocolate and for that I am happy and grateful. I would not be offering them otherwise. Please trust me and give them a chance. You won’t be disappointed.

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New Beans in stock

Announcing four new beans in stock.  Two new Peru plus the new crop of the old favorite.  Like I needed more Peru.  But these are great so you need them too! And the LONG awaited Wild Bolivia.Peru FT/Org - Oro Verde 2015 This is the 'standard' Peru that we have had for years - Fruit galore. Peru FT/Org - Lamas 2015  - This is the same region as the Oro Verde but with more nut flavors

Peru FT/Org - Tumbes 2015 - Very creamy with toasted wheat aromas.  This is a different 'Tumbes' than the 2013 crop.  It's a different source all together, hand picked for the quality and tastes.  The new(er) 2015 Tumbes will be in a couple months.  I hope that makes sense.

Bolivia Wild Harvest - Org 2014/15 - These are the wild harvested, tiny flavor packed Bolivia.  Sesame, toasted malt and dates.  And Organic to boot. That is two dozen beans to choose from people.  I hope you enjoy them.

We will see if I can get to Ask the Alchemist.  Clearly I've been busy tasting and getting these beans up for you.



Ask the Alchemist #101

I was reading about a process implemented by Bühler (a maker of coffee and cocoa processing machines) that applies dry steam of water for 25sec under 5.5 bar pressure directly before drying and roasting the beans. They say this reduces the infection from 100 Million anaerobe mesophile per gram to less than 100.

Now I wonder if it makes sense (despite your “no”) in my home setup to take the strong and dry steam of my commercial grade espresso machine (a vintage model with a 5 liter boiler) and blow it over the beans for half a minute immediate before roasting them? Could that have a positive effect?

The pressure in my machine is about 1.1bar, but a lot of this pressure is lost while spraying at the beans. I just thought that the high temperature could be of any use ( boiling or at least boiling temperature at the moment hitting the beans).

Unsurprisingly my answer is still 'no'. And the why is because your home steaming would not be under 5.5 bar pressure. That is critical to the kill rate. Without that, it serves no purpose at all.

As for the steaming option, and the link to that page, I will point out the first thing I saw:

"Basically, a debacterization is not absolutely necessary. The normal roasting process is quite sufficient for the number of bacteria sufficiently reduce and to comply with legal requirements."

I’ll grant that 212 F can burn you, but there just isn’t a lot of total energy there spraying out of your steam wand. And it is completely uncontained. It’s just blowing past the beans. And the top of them at that. There is too much hidden space that isn’t seeing even that temperature. That is another reason that the beans are pressurized. It contains all that energy.

For your machine, that is 1.1 bar total. Atmospheric pressure by definition is 1 bar. Totally disregarding (for the moment) that it drops instantly to 1 bar as you steam, and loses a lot of heat, it at a 10% increase as opposed to what they use: 530%. To put it in perspective (in a loose allegorical way), say it takes 530 lbs of crushing force to kill you. But someone puts 10 lbs on you. Are you going to die? Or even be hurt? Even if it is put on your for a hour? Or a day? See what I am getting at?

That said, they do make a nice point that the introduction of moisture to the whole beans will facilitate a nicer separation in some beans of the husk from the nib. But again, it takes pressure or time to inject that moisture. Just hitting the beans with atmospheric steam is not going to penetrate very well.

I am not trying to be a nay-sayer. I just would hate to have you waste time for no purpose or reason.

Just roast the beans well, starting with a good high temperature (350-400 F), and your bacteria counts will be just fine.



New Origin in stock

For the first time in 10 years I have a Brazilian cocoa that doesn't taste like dirt.  In this case, it smells like the State Fair.  At least when it's roasting and you associate deep fried donuts with the State Fair.  Really.  Crazy I know. Brazil Organic 2014

".... character comes through with dry leather and leaf (not smoke) Tabaco and wood oak tannins.  There is this really interesting hint of white peppercorn and spicy fruit....."

And look for Fair Trade Ivory coast (the ONLY way I will offer Ivory Coast), a delightful Venezuelan Cuyagua and a third Peru in the next week or so.



Beans and Blends

Three new offerings: First I want to introduce a new Alchemist's Chocolate Blend Series.  As the Inspiration Muse strikes me, expect a new blend.  Occasionally, they may even contain beans not sold individually! Alchemist's Chocolate Blend #1 "Balance" - Nuanced, structured and satisfying.


Guatemalan 2014:  There are nuts (walnut), dry spice (like cinnamon and nutmeg), and a delicate bitterness and tangy fruitiness (like tamarind), bringing it all together.

Alchemist Blend #4 - "Fire and Brimstone" - Brewing cocoa.  Deep, rich, smokey with an aggressive pungency that let's you know it's there to combat the chill outside.




Ask the Alchemist #91

A few of your Venezuela beans (Carupano Corona and Canoabo) are described as "no bitterness to speak of". Do they work for a higher than normal cocoa bean/ lower sugar (over 70%) without getting into baking chocolate flavor? My main goal with that is to make a dark chocolate that my mother in law (who doesn't like the bitterness of dark chocolate) would like. She tried a dark cocoa (55% cocoa bean, 7.5% cocoa butter) chocolate that had too many bitter notes for her. (She’s a super taster).

This question has so many things going on I hardly know where to start, so I guess it will just be the top.

I personally do not consider 70% ‘higher than normal’. Day in, day out, my everyday testing bar (that I use to evaluate cocoa samples) is 75% and it is noticeably sweet, but not distractingly so. I really don’t consider it higher than ‘normal’ until you hit the mid 80’s. But even then, it is just a number (and I've seen a somewhat snobbish attitude toward eating higher percentage bars, like it is some kind of great accomplishment that I don't understand).  As for the two beans you mention, my taste evaluation is based both off the roasted bean and that 70% chocolate sample. So would they work? Yes….but no, I am afraid. It has to do with your other goal. Making a chocolate that your super tasting MIL would like and not find bitter or ‘like baking chocolate’.

Well, I have to say that in all my years I’ve only tasted beans a couple times that made liquor that tasted like baking chocolate….and I rejected the samples. In my experience, the beans used to make that ‘baking chocolate’ are inferior, often with defects, and bear no relation to the specialty cocoa I carry. They are just worlds apart.

There is a ‘magic trick’ I like to do when I have a group of random people. Every year I show the 8th grade of my daughter’s school how to make chocolate. At the beginning I pass around some roasted nibs, count up the number in the class, and written another number down hidden from view. I then have everyone taste the nibs and raise their hands if they find the beans REALLY bitter (and not just ‘not sweet’). I then reveal the number and in most cases, that is the number of hands up. 6 out of 8 years in a row, I have predicted the number of hands, and the other two years I was only one off (both small classes). How? I just divide the number in class by 10.

I have found that about 10% of the population has a gene that tastes a compound in chocolate that the rest of us do not taste. No matter how 'not bitter' it is to us, it is horridly bitter to them.

There are 30 genes that are responsible for bitter taste perception, one of them being TAS2R32. Different variations of this gene affect ability to detect bitter compounds, like for example feniltiocarbamids and glucosinolates. About 25% of people lack ability to detect these compounds due to gene mutations. A classic way of testing for this case is tasting 6-N-propylthiouracl (PROP). To some people very low concentrations of PROP are very bitter, while others do not detect it or detection is very weak. In general, the data saying that 75% of all people taste PROP and the other 25% do not holds true. Apparently (to me) there is a variation one of those 30 genes causes about 10% of the population to ‘super taste’ the bitterness in chocolate. And generally speaking, none of them like dark chocolate, and ‘only like milk chocolate’ and when pushed, seem to only eat it due to peer pressure and don’t really like it either. Yep, it seems 10% of the population doesn’t like chocolate!

So, with that in mind, and while I am not saying your MIL is not also a super taster, it sounds to me that she is one of the 10%. And that no matter what bean you pick, no matter how ‘not bitter’ she will never like it. It’s not your chocolate making ability. It’s just genetic. And to be clear. She is just using the terms (like baking chocolate) that she thinks fits what she is tasting. But to her and the 10% they are tasting a different bitterness than of which we speak when we talk about a bean with no bitterness to speak of. The 'no bitterness to speak of' phrase does not to apply to them.



Ask the Alchemist #88

I am intrigued with the different bean varieties and constantly like to experiment, I am intrigued by things like the Arriba Nacional bean and especially the porcelano one I have read so much about. Do you ever get beans that are at least close to what people would call true Nacional or beans with a mostly porcelano heritage? Which of the Venezuelan beans you sell are closest to porcelano? Or do you ever get any small quantities of true porcelano beans?

So funny about Porcelano. Please smile with have been taken in by marketing and hype!! What I mean by this is that I have had Porcelano a few times....and in all cases but one it was BORING! Somehow, being rare makes people want it, and when people want it they start to justify why they want it, and determine it must be because it is fantastic when instead it is simply hard to grow and keep pure. Same with Nacional. I've found nothing any more or less special about it than they are hybrids.

In both cases they can be very good....but genetics is ONLY the starting point, and I've found, if anything, just means the fermenter has to know their business even better or they can ruin the potential that MIGHT be there. It's just like various bowyers looking for the holy grail of wood for their bow. English Yew. Because it was traditional. And was used to make the famous English longbow...and because it is R A R E. It's rare now because it is a slow growing, gnarly tree that often warps, and is native to one small area. It was common at the time when we didn't have a global market. Now it is. Supply vs. demand. And price is high because demand is high and supply is low. And the rub is this; if the person cutting it does not take care to dry it right, it's ruined. If it is not stored right, it is ruined. And if the bowyer doesn't know how to handle it, they can make a bow that will break in a few pulls. Now if each person in the line knows what they are doing, a strong, resilient bow can be made....but a strong, resilient bow can be made from LOTS of other much more common woods that are much more forgiving and won't break the bank if you mess up. Sounding at all familiar?

At the end of the day, trust your tastes and/or the tastes of the person you buy from.  Never buy or trust only on a what someone says a beans is or what piece of paper it has, as you very well might end up with a bean that tastes like that piece of paper!  I am going to go out on a limb here, and hope to not offend anyone.  I was told once by a cocoa supplier that Porcelano is like pieces of the cross or Noah's arc.  If every piece that was claimed to come from one of those was gathered together you could build 100 or 1000 of each.  Each and every person who has a piece might well believe it with all their heart what they are telling your is the truth, but that does make what they say the truth.  It only means they are not intentionally lying to you.  The same is true of Porcelano.  Just because someone says it is Porcelano does not make it true.  There is just too much out there if you see what I mean.  From what I've researched, the ONLY way to verify if it is Porcelano is with a DNA sequencing.  Yes, in that case it is a piece of paper, but it is paper based on defensible data.

So, yes. I've had it. Once it was good. Very good as a matter of fact. It tasted of cedar and sex. Seriously. And it was $30/lb. My cost. Every other time it was as bland as cardboard. And over $100/lb!!!! Sorry, no bean is worth that in my most humble opinion.



Ask the Alchemist #84

Your Madagascar bean is listed as from the “Sambriana Valley.” Is this a typo? I see people also referring to “Sambirano” and “Sambriano”. Can you shine some light on the names?

This is a bit embarrassing, and at the same time rather amusing in an infamous way.

Let’s get the name straight. First and foremost the proper name of the region in Madagascar is Sambirano Valley. And that is what you will see on my site….(blush, hanging head in shame)…now. I’ve corrected it.

Yes, I did list those two other versions mistakenly for years. How and why? Just an honest mistake really. At some point my supplier spoke the name, I heard SamBRIano, not SamBIRano, and the rest is history. But….(and here is the interesting, and oddly gratifying part) those two misspellings are out there A LOT. They come up quite a bit on that famous search engine, with some pretty well known chocolate makers, and a lot of small artisan makers. "So maybe there are two legitimate spellings" you say? "I read it on the Internet, so it must be true" you say? I am really sorry to break it to you, but no. The simple answer is that I recognize each and every one I saw as having roots in Chocolate Alchemy and my mistake.

Thanks for the trust folks, but yes, (tongue in cheek here) I do make mistakes and typos, and this one has propagated far and wide. It’s kind of gratifying in an infamous sort of way. I didn’t mean to re-name an entire region of a country. I apologize Madagascar.

Anyway, it is all changed on my site. And if you see someone with the name incorrect, be delicate and not haughty. Maybe just send them the link to this Ask the Alchemist and leave it at that.



New beans in stock

I hope everyone has had a fantastic summer and welcome to the beginning of Fall.  That means new cocoa and getting ready for the busy time of the year.  And believe it or not, that means starting to think about Halloween and even the Christmas/Yule/Winter holiday of your choice.  And for that, I've got a bunch of new beans to choose from. It’s always exciting for me when I get to sample of a new crop of beans or better yet, an origin I've never had.  The first the anticipatory aroma of the raw beans, the delicate 'clack' as  I heft some in my hand, and then finally, the enveloping smells of roasting; anticipating at each step what the finished product will taste like.

These are exciting beans, picked by none other than yours truly, after looking at way too many samples from around the world over the past few months.  By now, I would hope you know where my standards are, so be assured these are the cream of the crop.  And if you are into brewing cocoa, I’ve developed a new blend, including a mysterious one that started out as Anakin but ended up much darker…read on....

First, two new beans:

Dominican Republic Riog RFA/Org 2014 Mouth watering.  Just go read about it.  There is too much to tell here! Jamaican 2014 -  RAISIN and RUM!!!!

Some returning favorites:

Belize Organic 2014.  The new crop is in and beautiful. Bolivia Organic 2014  Also the new crop and as nice as ever. Peru FT/Org 2014.  A great old friend

And a couple that are outside of my norm.  I mention the samples I go through to offer you what I do.  Some people have this romantic notion of me tasting tantalizing cocoa and chocolate, day in and day out...and sometimes it is...but sometimes it's just one of those dirty jobs you have to push through.  No really.  I'm serious.  You have no idea how bad some cocoa can be and that it is used day in day out by some large companies to make what some people consider chocolate.  And honestly, I have to give some of them credit.  I couldn't make good chocolate out of these.  Ok, so some isn't good, but it's still better than I could make these taste.   So I want to share (inflict?) a couple samples with you.  May I present two terrible beans, with really great pedigrees, really lovely origins and organic to boot!

Ugh!! Cocoa beans

Uhg #1  Fuzzy, musty and funky with hints of skunk, motor oil and musk! Uhg #2  Diesel fuel and mold with layers of astringent, sour bitterness

Go right ahead, jump on them before they are gone!  Seriously, they are for sale, but only $1/lb...with a 1 lb limit (no one deserves more than that, maybe I'll offer less)...just enough to cover my time and materials.  It really is worth seeing what's out there and what you can get if you don't have someone looking out for you.  But don't make chocolate out of them.  Please.

On an up note, I have a new batch of Testing and Evaluation beans in.  There is only a little, so please share and play nice and don't ask for a full bag.  Thanks.

Plus I have added the Riog as a Brewing cocoa (Roasted a touch darker than average)

And have the third expression in the Alchemist's Blend Series -

Shot in the Dark.  Mocha without the coffee, and a great intro to Brewing cocoa if you are a coffee lover like me.

Finally, keep an eye out for a bunch of new hobby grade molds.  Great for getting started and for gifts.


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Ask the Alchemist #78

How long can raw beans keep prior to roasting? After roasting ? Is the bean roasted, at its most vulnerable stage? How stable is chocolate tempered and non tempered? After removing finished chocolate from the melanger , can or should chocolate be tempered first or can it be put in ziplock bags straight from melanger ?

I for one was blown away by my first hand made chocolate. To this day I think it was due to the freshness. It had a vitality and liveliness to it that I just had never tasted in any other chocolate. But there are so many stages. And clearly some are more important than others. What I had was still months old, so absolute age is not always an indicator of ‘freshness’. Let’s break it down and have a brief look at each potential stage and where you should be careful, and where it isn’t quite as important.

When it comes down to it, staleness (the opposite of freshness) is caused by the beans, nibs or chocolate reacting wit air, or more specifically oxygen. As a good rule of thumb, the cooler you have the beans/nibs/chocolate, the slower the reaction. But I can hear you now “but we roast! That’s really hot”…yep, and I will get to that. Not all heat is bad. It’s a matter of application, length of time and form. Hang tight.

Raw beans are by far the most stable. They are sealed up in the shell/husk/covering. They are basically sealed away from oxygen. Like this, kept cool (let’s just call cool, anything you can comfortably live in), most beans will easily keep 1 year. Most will keep two years. And some will keep 3 years. How do you know? Really, you don’t, but between throwing out 3 year old beans and taking a chance and making chocolate, I’m going to make chocolate. What is there to lose?

Next, a quick side note on temperatures. There is a running joke about this. What do you get if you put your cocoa in the freezer? Cold beans. Ok, it’s not really funny, but the point is is that once you are below a certain temperature, the oxidation reactions are so slow, that they are basically stopped. My experience is around 50 F for cocoa. Below that, are you are doing is making cold beans. Think of it like falling. Once you are within 12 inches of the ground, it really doesn’t matter if you are closer. You simply are not going to be ‘hurt less’ by falling 6 or 3 or 1 inch. You’ve passed the level of ‘hurt’ at 12 inches. Below that you are just closer to the ground. And a quicker side note to the side note. It is even possible that if you freeze your beans, you may even damage them via ice crystals in the cells and such. I don’t know, but think of freezing fresh fruit. It’s great refergerated, but not good frozen and thawed. Such, it’s still ‘not bad’ but that does NOT mean it is good. It’s just not spoiled. Moving on. Next, let’s move to nibs.

At this point, you have exposed the interior to oxygen. Also, they could either have been roasted or raw.

In the case of raw nibs, I find that over the span of about a week, they will lighten in color around the edges. I don’t know for sure what this is, but it seems to be a good enough indication something is going on….but it also stops. So, basically, you have about a week for raw nibs, but the good news is that it’s just a little staling, and not ‘they are only good for a week’. But then they are stable as raw beans. 1-3 years. But since there is more surface area per volume, let’s just be safe and call it 1-2 years.

In the case of roasted beans and nibs, we have introduced heat. Quite a bit of it. But lucky for use, this level of heat does not promote instantaneous staling. It’s way beyond that level and other chemical reactions are happening. But what it does do is give us a new host of chemicals that are in higher energy states that are just ready and waiting for ‘cooler’ chemical reactions, i.e. staling. Analogy time. You have a slab of meat. Or vegetable. Or toast. Toast is a really good one. Toast is a great one. Bread it good (i.e. not stale) for about a week. Fresh toast is not stale right out of the toaster. It’s got this great….toasty goodness going on. And it’s still ‘good’ toast for a couple hours even if it’s cold. But let it sit out all day and by bed time….and it’s gone stale….but then it just kind stops. It continues to dry out, but doesn’t really get any worse. Basically like roasted beans….except I’d give roasted beans a couple weeks. But if we break up the toast into bit, we get croutons. The stale quicker. Why? More surface area. Same with nibs. I’d give roasted nibs about a week.

Now before you all go off panicking that you have been using bad, stale, roasted nibs, keep in mind a few things. First, I was talking about leaving your bread/toast/beans/nibs out in the air. What happens if you seal up your croutons? They keep longer. Much longer. You have excluded oxygen and so you have limited the chemical reactions. And lucky for you and me, I keep everything sealed here, and ship in ziplock bags….for a reason. In a good sealed bag, I’d give roasted beans 1-2 months, and roasted nibs just a little less. 4-6 weeks off the top of my head. But if you were to store roasted beans at 95-100 F instead of 70 F (I’ve done this, so it’s not empirical but experimental) they go stale much faster. As in maybe a week for roasted beans and a few days for nibs.

Are you noticing a pattern here? The less surface area, and the less heat input, the longer they will keep. It’s really that simple. To explicitly answer your question, yes, your roasted nibs are the most ‘vulnerable’…but still not all that vulnerable.

But this is a good place to re-iterate something I’ve said before. Let your roasted beans fully and completely cool before cracking and winnowing. This is why. If you have freshly roasted beans, even if they are cool to the touch after one hour, they are still teaming with chemical reactions and the best way to introduce staling reactions is to break them open into nibs and give them a bunch more surface area. Relax. Let them rest a good 6 hours to tie off those reactions and ‘calm down’.

So, to review. Assuming ‘cool and dry’ and seal in an air tight bag.

  • Whole raw cocoa beans – 1-3 years
  • Raw cocoa nibs 1-2 years with very minor staling
  • Whole roasted cocoa beans - 1-2 months with a little more staling
  • Roasted cocoa nibs 4-6 weeks with just a touch more staling.

Ok, that’s enough for this one. There were a lot of questions in that one questions, so consider this Part 1 of 2. I’ll talk about chocolate next week. Same choc time, same choc station.

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New Crop Venezuelan

The new crop is in and lovely.  Right now just the raw Retail pages are up.  Roasted and Wholesale will take me a little longer, but it's coming. Canoabo - A new region and farm, by a farmer (Rodrigo) who knows his cocoa.  This is a delightedly soft cocoa.

Mantuano - It's back, and even better than before.  Delicate and integrated.  And this year, there is plenty to go around.

Ocumare Lugo - This is from the farmers who made Ocumare what it was.  Is this different from the co-op Ocumare.

Patanemo and a micro-lot.  Patanemo Donaldo.  See what different hands can do for the same basic bean.  Donaldo is the farmer who hand selected and fermented this micro-lot.

And so it is not forgotten, I have new fair trade Ghana



Ask the Alchemist #50

I got a bean from you that you said was milder ... I thought you had mentioned that criollo was more difficult to make chocolate than Forestaro or Trinitario. but from what i've been reading, criollo is more mild b/c less polyphenols. Shouldn’t this make it easier to make chocolate from? I’m finding my criollo kind of bitter and astringent.

I've looked over our correspondence, and honestly, I don't see where you asked for milder. You initially asked for Criollo, and chocolaty and less fruity. That led me to Peru because it is NOT mild. I didn't mean to give you that impression. But you illustrate a good point that you asked for Criollo, but remember asking for mild.  They are not synonyms, but people constantly try and make them such.

"caution - lecturing rambling alchemist ahead"..

The main thing here is that chocolate is a living thing. It has bred and cross bred a lot. It very, very, rarely can be stuffed into neat and tidy cubbyholes that many of us humans desire. Most everything you have said, and most everything I've said are true....and totally a lie...because they are not the full truth. For instance "criollo is more mild b/c less polyphenols" is true but not the whole truth. The better phrase is "the milder criollo are more mild because they have less polyphenols that the ones that are not as mild". The even better phrase is 'it has been observed there is a statistical correlation (r^2 > 0.90 {which is actually pretty horrible from a cause and effect and prediction relationship - that falls into the 'general trend' category}) between polyphenols amounts and perceived bitter/astringent flavors' and 'many Forastero have polyphenol counts (warning bogus example numbers) from 50-100 mg/kg, many Trinitario have polyphenol counts from 30-80 mg/kg and many Criollo have polyphenol counts from 20-60 mg/kg". Note the "many", the hedging language, the overlapping ranges but the general trend? THAT is much closer to the truth. That there is a lot of variation in beans and you simply can’t make an all-encompassing statement and hand a hope it will be true. .

As for Criollo harder to CAN be, but does not have to be. And note, you are writing me just because of that. No contradiction there. And given that Peru is not one of the milder Criollo, (but is still on the milder side of cocoa in general) it needs a 'full' roast. It's very possible I over emphasized how delicate to be on this bean. It needs a good roast to develop flavor, but not one so strong to drive off all the flavor. If you under roast, you get more astringency. When you fully roast, you develop the flavors we think of as chocolate. When you over roast, you add bitter flavors and in some of these ‘milder’ beans, burn off some of the already mild chocolate flavor.

And if you have made it this far, there is a new bean in.  A Fair Trade Certified Ghana.  And bucking the Forastero expectation a small amount, it's a little bit floral.



Ask the Alchemist #47

You say the efficiency on your winnowers re 75-82%. As others say 99-100%, I’m sure I am not understanding something because can’t believe you would sell something that doesn’t work that well. Can you explain what is going on.

Lovely question. The crux of the issue is that one number does not do justice to the answer of efficiency of winnowing. When you winnow cocoa there are actually a few factors that come into play that make one number impossible. It’s because three things can happen when you winnow.

1 - You can have husk in your nibs

2 - You can have nib in your husk

3 - You can have both.

So, in the ONE CASE where there is no nib in your husk, and no husk in your nib, you can claim 100% efficiency. But there is no winnower out there to my knowledge that can do that. So anything that bases off that system is inherently not telling the whole story, and should be suspect. Let me lay out a couple cases.

You winnow and have 1 % of your starting weight of nibs in your husk.

Is this 99% recovery because you lost 1%? Not really.

You winnow and have 1% husk in you nibs.

Is this 99% recovery because it could not remove 1% husk?

You winnow and have 1% husk in your nib AND 1% nib in your husk?

Is this 98% recovery? Certainly not as that is absurd.

The first two MIGHT be 99% but are totally misleading because they are describing two different outcomes but are using the same number and language.

Really, you need multiple numbers. Any my preference is to note that depending on the bean, the weight of the husk is anywhere from 18-25% of the weight of the bean. And why I usually say that the recovery is 75-82 % (100 – 18 = 82 got it? Good) AND there is usually less than 0.5% husk in the nib and vise versa. Three pieces of data because there are three things going on.

Furthermore, you will notice I say usually. Any winnower can only work as well as what is fed into it. Irregular, raw, or cocoa beans with a lot of flats simply will not winnow as well as clean, even, roasted cocoa beans.

So there you go. I hope that clears up why I can’t give an exact number and why if you see one, you might want to be suspicious.

And I’ll leave you with a quote I found today that sums this up nicely.

Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise. -- Bertrand Russell

Finally, after 4 years, Fair Trade from Koapa Kokoo is back.  It's on the way.  Look for it, and a bunch of new crop Venezuela in the next week or two.



Ask the Alchemist #37 and Chuao is back for a limited time

First off, I am moving Ask the Alchemist to Thursdays. Next, I have a very limited supply of Venezuelan Chuao (3 bags) available for wholesale only, by the bag.

Finally, on to our question.

As I've discovered chocolate is so surprisingly similar to coffee in that I'm finding beans from different regions taste differently. Also the different levels of cocoa butter. What if I find a bean I love for my recipe and the roasts are varied or I can't get that particular bean anymore?

We live in such a homogenous world. Or maybe we strive for homogeneity. Or it’s a result of a world market and huge production lines. I’m really not sure. But regardless, we seem to expect products to always be the same…except when we don’t.

What I mean by that last statement is the crux of the answer and maybe even the crux of the question. Cocoa is a crop. No two crops are ever the same. Ever. Sometimes the differences are insignificant. Sometimes they aren’t (insignificant). The best example of this to me is grapes and wine. Virtually no one expects wines to be the same year to year. They have vintages. Some years are good. Some are great. Even the poor years, most good winemakers can make a reasonable wine (assuming the grapes are actually good). And no one is upset at the wine maker when a wine changes subtlety year to year. If anything, it’s like a new car. Wow, a new model that is different and exciting.

That is how artisan chocolate (and make no mistake, if you are making your own chocolate, it is artisan chocolate and you an artisan) should be. And your job, as a chocolate artisan, is to educate your customer base that you are not the chocolate equivalent of Mondovi wine – drinkable but the same from year to year, blended and standardized to mediocrity. Basically you are not Hershey or Callebaut or Ghirardelli (thank goodness) and chocolate can and does change year to year and it is to embraced, not worried over or criticized.

Now sure, you would not want to start your chocolate line with something like the Chuao I just put up. But it’s absolutely PERFECT for a small, artisan LIMITED RELEASE chocolate. Something special. As for the rest, it’s why I put years on all my beans. So you can tell them apart. Every so often a review changes very little because a given origin is that consistent (Ghana, Peru and Conacado are good examples) but they are different year to year.

In a word, promote the difference, don’t hide it or try to minimize it.

I will admit I am spinning this up a little. But just a little. I’m very serious that we should not be expecting our chocolate not to change. We are not Kraft or Bud or Mondovi or Pepsi and personally I don’t want to be. But from a practical standpoint, there is something to be taken from these giants – and that is blending. They blend to the lowest common factor and blend out everything special about their product. There is nothing wrong with picking 2 or 3 origins and blending those into your own signature creation. If the worst was to happen, and a cocoa bean does indeed become not available, you are not totally out of luck. In all likelihood you will be able to find another bean to take its place without totally changing the taste profile of your chocolate. Let’s learn from the giants, but not emulate them or become them. Nearly all good French Bordeaux are blends. But it’s intent. They are blending to create the best product they can, not to make the most consistent product they can. It’s all about intent.

That reminds me of a quote I have always loved.

“Remember who you wanted to be when you were a child”

Why are you making chocolate? Just to make a living or to make something special? Both have their place, but which drives you? I’ll leave you to answer that yourself and make your own connections as to what I have written. Remember who you wanted to be!


Ask the Alchemist #36


Ask the Alchemist #36

Why is cocoa so much more expensive than coffee? …and… Is there anyone who sells the ground roasted cocoa in quantities of 2 lbs or larger?



Organic Madagascar is back

If you are not familiar with Madagascar cocoa, then prepare for a wild ride. It is a real powerhouse. It has generally gained the reputation as an immensely complex cocoa bean with a huge potential.  If you are familiar with coffee origins, then I put this akin to a bright, citrusy Kenyen. As always, you can have it however you with.  Raw and Roasted, Retail or Wholesale.