Quality Control & Evaluation in Cacao

Let’s talk about “Quality” in the cacao industry, which, as it stands now, is an amorphous topic. In any widespread premium food or beverage industry, it’s virtually unheard of not to have common quality standards regulating the grade and evaluation of the product. Wine, beer and coffee all have defined criteria and standards, which help everyone from suppliers to end consumers understand and appreciate the quality of their products.

At the end of the day, cacao producers are growing and processing their cacao for others, not for themselves. The vast majority of chocolate makers are not in control of processing their own beans at origin; they can only control their chocolate making process. Each party needs the other to truly perfect their craft, and without industry standards and a common language around quality the possibility of problems in the supply chain increases.

While we at Uncommon Cacao have internally set standards for the work we do, we have yet to see agreed-upon industry standards take hold, even as more cacao steadily streams into market for ultra premium and craft chocolate makers.

Since Uncommon Cacao represents a “gatekeeper” so to speak in our industry, we hold ourselves highly accountable to the evaluations we conduct and have studied various methods for quality evaluation. We actively incorporate the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Industry (FCCI) bean quality protocol and the TCHO/USAID/Equal Exchange liquor evaluation protocols into the steps outlined below. However, the lack of a shared set of standards in our industry on quality and flavor evaluations is an enormous gap. Therefore, we’d like to discuss!

The protocols and standards we use internally apply to:

  • Physical evaluation of raw beans at origin and in pre-ship and landed container samples

  • Tasting cacao (sensory evaluation) in liquor format (100% cacao mass) in the early stages of each harvest to evaluate flavor impact of fermentation protocols and make protocol changes if needed

  • Sensory evaluation of cacao liquor from individual fermentation batches to approve for blending into container lots (in the case of Cacao Verapaz)

  • Sensory evaluation of liquor from pre-shipment samples of cacao

  • Sensory evaluation of liquor from landed samples of cacao to match to the pre-shipment liquor flavor profile

  • Sensory evaluation of liquor to vet and approve of new suppliers.

Consistency is the backbone of quality, and thus is the most important factor to measure and ensure -- alongside optimization of flavor driven by quality from the farm, fermentation, drying, storage and logistics. Climate, agricultural production cycles, and other factors outside of human control can affect the flavor profile and quality of cacao from harvest to harvest, but using best practices in sensory evaluation can still help cacao producers and chocolate makers get the most consistent flavor possible from their beans. Tasting cacao liquor from the same producer using standard sensory evaluation protocols across multiple harvests, and evaluating lots from a single harvest, is the best approach to ensure as much consistency as possible.

The challenge, however, is that our method is not necessarily the same method that others use across the industry. To date, there are no standard protocols or criteria for evaluating quality and flavor. We don’t have a Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) for cacao. As an industry we have come to expect certain practices in the processing of specialty cacao, such as centralized fermentation and careful drying, but we lack a common language and approach to evaluate the actual outcomes of these practices.

The degree of nuance required to effectively evaluate each origin takes a long time to nail down. For example, we’ve worked with Guatemalan beans long enough to know that the purple color inherent in the beans from some regions does not mean they will taste under fermented. In fact, a well-fermented tasting Guatemalan bean may still have a purple hue. Physical evaluation of cut tests will not tell us all the information we need, which means we must taste liquor to determine whether the beans are actually “good” or not. We seek to match the physical evaluation results with the flavor profiles in liquor, so we can best train producers on fermentation protocols and visual inspections of beans during post-harvest, determine the optimal overall fermentation rate at which this specific bean tastes its best, and ultimately consistently produce the flavor chocolate makers expect and love.

Confounding the situation further, we’ve found different variables, which would seemingly label one outcome as poor quality and another outcome as good quality, can actually both produce fantastic sensory results. And, while what primarily matters to most chocolate makers is flavor, sensory standards can vary greatly from person to person because at the moment all flavor evaluations in cacao are essentially subjective. This is one reason we love the TCHO tasting form: it includes both an objective “intensity” grade and a subjective “quality” grade. Over time, our team has become calibrated in understanding how an intensity grade in bitterness or acidity registers for others on the team in terms of quality. We hold bi-monthly sensory evaluation calibrations with our teams in Belize, Guatemala and the U.S. to keep our palates fresh and calibrated.

Outside of industry professionals, we’re also starting to see that end customers are building a knowledge and preference for the different flavor profiles expressed through high quality cacao. Only through tight control over quality and flavor evaluation of beans can consistency be maintained, so that chocolate makers and end consumers alike can continue to rely on their favorite origins for specific flavor characteristics.

Uncommon Cacao recently took a first attempt at differentiating quality in our supply chain by describing the quality of our cacao as pertaining to one of two buckets, either “Ultra premium” or “Premium.” Ultra premium beans achieve a highly consistent flavor profile across harvests, and we will reject fermentation lots that do not strictly match the target flavor profile. Ultra premium beans are always centrally fermented, are held to a strict physical evaluation standard, and are hand-sorted at origin to ensure peak cleanliness. Premium beans, on the other hand, have a bit more “wiggle room.” While we still test all pre-shipment and landed containers with both physical and sensory protocols to evaluate flavor profile and quality, these beans are not necessarily centrally fermented. They are not hand-sorted. Less financial investment has been expended in the processing of the beans, and thus they are more competitively priced. It is simply more expensive to produce ultra premium beans than premium.

We are still only scratching the surface when it comes to an in-depth look at the full spectrum of quality that exists across cacao globally. We’d like to see this collaborative understanding grow so the entire supply chain is clear on what makes quality cacao. In our supply chain, we know that it’s the people behind the beans, and behind the bar, that make quality cacao and chocolate happen. We are highly supportive of the ongoing efforts in the industry that are seeking to create international standards for cacao quality and flavor evaluation.  We believe it is only through this collaboration that cacao producers, supply chain actors, and makers can produce and have access to the highest quality cacao available to make the best chocolate that keeps consumers coming back for more.