Forget Everything you know about Chocolate

Walking into the Kakao Akademy there is a bunch of very earnest chocolate-heads sitting around a table, listening attentively while Alyssa Jade McDonald-Bärtl (Lyss) from BLYSSchocolate.com breaks down the inner workings of the chocolate industry.

We’re happily hosting the 2015 Kakao Akademy in Germany, where over the course of the year we’re exploring 10 topics from genetics to origin, trade, regulation and trends, alongside cacao and chocolate tasting. Armed with videos, slides, and jars of cacao beans, Lyss is our guide in this so-called, ‘thinking person’s chocolate class,’ which could be likened to barista or sommelier training.

Whether or not you’ve already tasted chocolate outside the mainstream box, you can be guaranteed that even after just one class, your taste buds will never be the same again.

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In Europe (especially Germany and France), the USA and the UK, the hunger for chocolate is pretty much insatiable. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 4.6 million tonnes of cocoa beans were produced in 2013. 1.3 million tonnes were produced by the Ivory Coast, that has also been criticised for unethical working conditions including child labour and slavery. Four major companies dominate the chocolate industry: KRAFT, Nestle, Mars and Ferrero.

You might not know it, but just like coffee, there are different kinds of cacao beans. The three main kinds used for chocolate are Forastero, Criollo, and Trinitario. (Although in 2008, scientists found that there “ten genetically distinct varieties of cacao actually exist instead of just three.”) Criollo is grown in Central, South America and the Caribbean and is more rare, making up only 5% of the market. Trinitario is a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero, and is grown in South America and South-East Asia. The most commonly used bean is Forastero, grown on the Ivory Coast and in other West African countries. It makes up almost 90% of the market (some of which is genetically modified). Even though it was first regarded as ‘inferior’ to Criollo, Forastero is the tougher plant, and is mostly grown in monoculture. Often in the fermentation process the beans are overheated, which means that the product then needs sugar to make it taste good, and often contains emulsifiers, thickeners, artificial flavours and other ingredients.

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BLYSSchocolate.com is a 3rd generation social enterprise in agroecology, making ‘single bean virgin chocolate’ for chefs and foodies. BLYSS works directly with 450 families in Ecuador to grow a rare and high quality kind of cacao called Arriba Nacionale. Botanically speaking, this bean is naturally sweet. Lyss explains that it has the “subtle fruity nuances of a Criollo cacao, yet a front of palette pronunciation like a Forastero.” The beans are certified organic according to EU Organic Regulation 2092/91 (BKS Öko-Garantie).

Lyss explains that just like wine, cacao has a terroir and vintage influence. Other factors affecting flavour include: sand vs nitrogen elements in the soil, harvesting in the wet season or the dry season, and how much sugar the pods have received during their final stages of growth. “The nuances and profiles of chocolate are formed from 1200 chemical constituencies, and is not the taste of ‘chocolate’ per se. Our goal is to explain that, and I bring various jars of vintages, genetic varieties and terroirs of cacao to demonstrate this,” says Lyss and cracks open a jar.

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There are different kinds of beans and chocolate from Lyss and Berlin-based chocolatiers being passed around the table. Compared to grabbing a Mars Bar or a block of Milka chocolate, this really is an education for your taste buds.

Lyss breaks the chocolate bubble in a different way, “The general public has a false sense of chocolate, which is typically over-roasted, badly grown, genetic cacao, made to taste nicer with sugar, milk, vanilla and gosh-knows-what.” For people who find commercial chocolate too sweet, raw cacao beans are a new experience. But for those used to a sugar-hit, the palette may take some time to readjust to these new flavors.

Compared to cacao mass production, BLYSS is completely transparent about the cost breakdown and the harvesting process, which means immediate fermentation, drying away from the ground and pests and animals. Lyss encourages people to look at chocolate packaging and to ask questions about production and certification – just like we do in other areas of the food industry.

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Sitting at the Kakao Academy table is Berlin-based chocolatier, Christoph Wohlfarth. He comes from a long line of bakers going back to the 1600s. After baking, he learned the art of pastry and confectionery in a hotel, where he began working with chocolate in desserts and for big, showpieces. Christoph’s love of chocolate continued to grow and he began to specialize, eventually opening his own business, Wohlfarth Schokolade, 5 years ago.

All his chocolate is sourced from organic and largely fair-trade producers in Ecuador, Peru and Madagascar. He signed up for the Kakao Akademy to find out more about the production process and to meet other like-minded chocolatiers in Berlin, and he brought us samples to try.

In Christoph’s shop you can taste all of his products – which are incredibly smooth. He makes everything from chocolate salt sticks to chocolate records that actually play! The chocolate record was originally invented by a Berliner in the 80s, but with the introduction of CDs, was slowly forgotten. Christoph has since taken up the challenge, and produces records of chocolate-inspired German songs from the 1920s. One word of advice: put the record in the fridge before giving it a spin.

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Fabian Mertins is the chocolate, confectionery and pastry manager at the Berliner Kaffeerösterei that specializes in coffee roasting and fine chocolate. Fascinated by cakes since childhood, he decided to become a pastry chef at age 15. The Berliner Kaffeerösterei sources their chocolate from a plantation in Peru where the workers are permanently employed and receive a fair and regular salary. The chocolate is a special blend created especially for them in collaboration with French chocolatiers.

As the evening goes on it becomes a learning and cultural exchange centered around the cacao bean, and different people share their experiences, opinions, beans and chocolate. Fabian breaks up a super smooth dark chocolate for us to taste. Like Lyss and Christoph, Fabian agrees that chocolate should be treated like wine, however it can be difficult to convince the general public when we’re so accustomed to buying chocolate bars for 60 cents.

“The problem is that the general public wants to buy as cheap as possible. The industry fulfills that wish and adds a lot of sugar to keep it cheap,” says Fabian, “so people just get used to bad chocolate.”

But he thinks once people get a of taste high quality chocolate, things will start to change.

If you want to find out more and taste the difference for yourself, the next Kakao Akademy meeting will take place on Mai 31st in Berlin.

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