The taste of chocolate can be vastly improved by adding starter cultures during cacao bean fermentation, according to Barry Callebaut.
Speaking to ConfectioneryNews at ISM in Cologne, Germany, last week, Nicholas Camu, group manager of Barry Callebaut’s sustainable sourcing program Cocoa Horizons said: “We believe that fermentation is the most important step in introducing taste in your cocoa beans.”
Barry Callebaut is running a project in the Ivory Coast to supply cocoa farmers with starter cultures that promote the growth of certain yeasts during cacao bean fermentation. The company believes beans developed through the process, which it is using in its premium quality Terra Cacao chocolate, lead to an improved chocolate flavor.
Keeping fermentation at farm level
Fermentation usually takes place at plantations, where cacao beans are heaped into a pile, covered by banana leaves and left to rest for seven days.
The fermentation usually happens at farm level, but some companies collect the beans to ferment themselves.
“Quality-wise it’s the best solution, but it doesn’t give a farmer an incentive to stay in cocoa,” said Barry Callebaut’s marketing director for Food Manufacturers Western Europe Sofie De Lathouwer. “At Barry Callebaut, we keep it at the farm level because we believe it is important for farmers’ income because if you ferment your beans you get more money out of it.”
Camu explained how the controlled fermentation process worked. “We are using yeasts that are known in the food industry, just like they do in beer, wine and whisky fermentation. It’s the normal Saccharomyces strains that we are using to produce the fruity taste.”
“We are supplying this to our farmers in origin and are training them. We give them the starter culture for free and then they deliver the beans to us and we pay them a premium for the work and the extra quality they produce.”
It was only recently confirmed by researchers at the University of New South Wales that yeasts produced during cacao bean fermentation were essential to the final quality of chocolate. The researchers in that study hinted at the future use of starter cultures, but Barry Callebaut has been using starter cultures for five years.
Benefits to quality and the farmer
It began with 150 farmers – now more than 8,000 farmers in the Ivory Coast take part. Participating farmers receive a €60 ($81) per metric ton premium for using the cultures.
“I no longer have to convince them, they come to us to ask if they can join,” said Camu.
The Cocoa Horizons head added that some farmers lost up to 20% of their harvest through poor fermentation, but said the starter cultures ensured all of a farmers produce was utilized.
Barry Callebaut’s four-day controlled fermentation is also shorter than conventional fermentation, which typically lasts a week.
“For a farmer it means a lot. If he can shorten his process it means that he has less risk of losing his crop since it can be stolen,” said Camu.
Controlled fermentation yields
Barry Callebaut started by buying 150 MT of cacao beans grown with controlled fermentation. In 2013, that figure rose to 8,000 MT and the company is aiming to grow by another 2,000 MT this year in the Ivory Coast. But controlled fermentation still accounts for only a minuscule amount of the company's 920,000 MT annual cocoa volumes.
“For the moment we use one specific starter culture for all the countries where we are active but we are still developing new ones because depending on what starter culture you add you can end up with very different tastes and different profiles,” said Camu.
The company is still discovering how fermentation impacts the final chocolate product. Camu said that the smallest of changes, such as turning the beans during fermentation on day two or day three gave a very different taste profile even when the same starter culture was used.
On top of using the starter cultures for beans for its Terra Cacao range, Barry Callebaut has also begun to use the cultures to make tailor made recipes for some customers.