Great chocolate starts with quality beans.
Any craft chocolate maker who has been working is this space for over a year will tell you that. In dark chocolate, the cacao bean accounts for 60% or more of the composition. So it's a no surprise that quality beans = quality chocolate.
Selection of origin, variety and process (harvest, fermentation & drying) are crucial for any chocolate maker. For us, we work with local beans because we'd like to showcase what India has to offer.
Selection of a farm/farming group is equally important. Annual visits to Kerala & TN to touch base with our suppliers helps build trust and a relationship. Over the years we have groups who specifically ferment & dry cacao as per our requirements.
Parameters for cacao include, but are not limited to:
- Moisture Content (anywhere between 6-7%) it is also a hint of how well cacao was dried or how old are the beans supplied to you.
- Bean count (between 85-105) per 100g. This is a rule of thumb..there have been times where the count is over 120 and the flavour profile is fantastic. Generally we have found that a higher count gives a lower yield of nibs.
- Fermentation level (75-80%), meaning that if you were to cut up 100 beans, 75-80 beans would be light brown/brown in color (compared to purple). Again, this is a rule of thumb. There are chocolate makers who defy and push these boundaries but it take years of training and knowledge to work with beans that are below this level.
- Appearances can be deceiving. Just because beans are reddish in color with no mold on the outside does not necessarily mean they are good quality. Mold on the inside is a big no-no. If you see mold on the inside, discard the beans and bring it up with your supplier. The true test in in taste & smell.
- Taste the bean. Crush a few beans and separate out the husks. Taste them. If they seem to have a harsh bitterness chances are these and not good to start with. If they are too acidic and are "citric" you may have to tweak your roast. Further crush the nibs and rub them between your palms for a few seconds. Smell the aroma. If its bright, fruity, floral & pleasant, you are sure to make good chocolate. If there are any "off" notes, such as wet jute bag or any other Umami sort of notes, chances are the ferment went wrong somewhere and you need to bring this up with your supplier.
The above are just guidelines and you may find exceptions or different parameters that work for you. We have found these useful and as a young craft chocolate maker we are learning everyday.