Quality Control & Evaluation in Cacao

Quality Control & Evaluation in Cacao

Uncommon Cacao has worked for years to calibrate with our origins, and set quality expectations around fermentation, bean size, humidity, defects, flavor profiles, microbial presence, and heavy metals. We also lay out our standard process for evaluation—from pre-shipment sampling timelines to approval, shipment, and landed sample evaluations.

Our export partners agree to these expectations in advance of their first shipment of the year. Uncommon receives a pre-shipment sample of each product in each container, and we conduct a full physical and sensory evaluation of each one. We also send the sample to a partner laboratory to do microbial and metals tests. Once the beans are approved, the container is packed and shipped from origin, landing 3-7 weeks later in the US or Europe.

Upon arrival, we request a landed sample (either 30% representative or 100% representative, depending on our assessed "risk"), and run a full identical physical and sensory evaluation of the cacao, to ensure the products match. These are the results we share with customers, and the sensory evaluation done at this step is what dictates the flavors we advertise for the beans.

This quality control process is simple in concept, but is complicated by the fact that the chocolate industry, as a whole, lacks universal industry standards for evaluating quality. Furthermore, the degree of nuance required to effectively evaluate each separate origin takes a long time to establish. 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 necessarily mean they are under-fermented. In fact, a Guatemalan bean that is well fermented (i.e. demonstrates the deep fissures caused by acetic acid during aerobic fermentation) may still have a purple hue. 

Physical evaluation of cut tests thus will not tell us all the information we need, which means we must taste the cocoa liquor to determine whether the beans meet our expectations for that particular product. We seek to understand the beans holistically—in the farming practices (genetics, soil, weather, etc.), in physical evaluation of the beans (cut tests, humidity, external and internal mold), and through the flavor profiles in liquor (astringency, bitterness, citrus, or potential defects). In this way, we can not only calibrate with origins using our own standardized system for cut tests and sensorial evaluation, but we can also discuss the nuanced changes that are inevitable in an agricultural product, that may not be able to be explained so prescriptively with a cut test.

This section of an approved pre-shipment sample of a Guatemalan origin highlights the variety in genetics and visual clues regarding fermentation that can be seen in cocoa beans. This is why understanding farms, and doing sensory evaluations are critical to determine origin- specific traits. What may look like signs of under fermentation from one origin may not lead to the characteristic “defects” usually associated with under-fermentation.)

Outside of industry professionals like yourselves, we recognize that chocolate customers are building a knowledge base and developing preferences for the different flavor profiles expressed in high-quality cacao. We maintain rigorous control over quality and flavor evaluation of beans so that you can continue to rely on our origins for the flavor characteristics that satisfy your consumers. 

This year, we are adding another level of our quality control process that requires incorporating finished chocolate made from our beans into our sensory evaluation protocols. We feel this is important because we see the gap in bean flavor expression between the minimally processed liquor we make, and refined chocolate. We seek to study this gap in order to better calibrate our palates to our customers.

Combining our tasting protocols of liquor with chocolate tastings allows us to better communicate which flavors will be expressed when our beans are processed into chocolate. 

An obvious concern is that every chocolate maker is unique, using different roast profiles and equipment to evoke different flavors and textures. This is true, there is no doubt about it. We seek to learn what flavors in cacao can be enhanced, or muted, through different processes and represent the full potential of the cacao. The very fact that each chocolate maker uses such unique processes is exactly why using chocolate to find these trends helps us communicate accurate flavor descriptions for each of our products. 

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