June 21, 2017

How to Evaluate Cacao & Chocolate


Looking to improve your understanding of cacao and chocolate? This delicious food increases our happiness, is a common gift on dates, and was famously used as currency by the Aztecs.

The US spent $18 billion on retail chocolate in 2015 – and while much of it may be poor quality, there’s a growing interest in fine cacao. So if you appreciate cacao and chocolate as much as you do coffee, there’s no better time to start learning about it.

Dr Carla Martin, Founder and Executive Director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI), agreed to talk to us about how the institute grades cacao and chocolate. Here’s what we learnt.

Spanish Version: Cómo Evaluar el Cacao y el Chocolate


A producer harvests cacao.  

What Is Fine Cacao & Chocolate?

Specialty coffee is clearly defined: it is 80+ points as graded by a qualified Q Grader in a rigorously controlled setting. Those 80 points can further be broken down into different categories.

Fine cacao and chocolate, on the other hand, lack definitions. “At this point in time, the categories of fine cacao and chocolate are ill-defined,” Dr Martin tells me. “There have been attempts at definitions from a variety of angles, though these have yet to be adopted widely by the specialty sector. As a scholar who studies the history and culture of fine cacao, I could go on at length about the influence of politics and power on these conversations.”

However, she tells me that there is some consensus over which bean qualities are good and bad. “For example, there are widely agreed-upon attributes of bean quality, such as external and flavor defects in cacao, that impact the quality of final chocolate products,” she explains.

While the lack of clear definitions may make it hard to discuss quality – and therefore pricing – it also offers an opportunity. At this point in time, stakeholders can decide how they want to define fine cacao and chocolate.

“Cacao producers have been central to the development of our sampling protocol and curriculum,” Dr Martin tells me, “especially through interviews and research exploring their wants and needs. This is not a system based simply on communication of industry needs, though that is still important; it is a system based on the needs of all stakeholders.

Ultimately, our course is about imparting knowledge and promoting wisdom and critical thinking, and about allowing everyone in the supply chain to become a part of conversations on the future of fine cacao and fine chocolate.”

In addition to interviewing producers, the FCCI also worked with the SCA and Q graders.


A bag of Criollo cacao ready for export.

What Do The FCCI Believe Cacao Graders Should Know?

The FCCI runs a three-day the Cacao Grader Intensive training course. This is not currently graded, although Dr Martin tells me the FCCI “eventually plan to offer a certification course, in some ways modeled after the Q certification process in coffee”.

Describing the current course as an “introductory” one, she tells me it includes lectures on the history and culture of fine cacao and chocolate, the factors that affect quality (genetics and agronomy, post-harvest processing, storage and transport, chocolate-making), the science of flavour and sensory analysis, the supply chain, and ethics and transparency.

It also involves hands-on training for:

  • The external evaluation of raw cacao
  • Cut tests
  • Cacao sample protocol and preparation
  • Cacao sample organoleptic (sensory) evaluation
  • Sensory analysis techniques, e.g. defect tasting, sensory deprivation, triangulation, calibration, and the sensory lexicon
  • Evaluating chocolate liquor and finished chocolate products

And to prepare, students should “carefully read a number of key scholarly texts”.

Let’s take a look at how the FCCI recommend evaluating fine cacao and chocolate in more depth.


A cacao pod and beans. Credit: BATCH

Step 1: Cacao External Evaluation

When cupping coffee, the first step will be analysis of dry grounds. But with cacao, the FCCI begin with an analysis of the exterior of the beans.

“We look for basic attributes, e.g. bean count per 100g, moisture content percentage, qualitative bean size, and detritus percentage by weight,” Dr Martin explains, “and external defects visible on the cacao, e.g. black, severely mouldy, germinated, insect damaged, clumped, or cut.”

And just like in coffee, this information is useful for both buyers and producers.

“For FCCI’s purposes, we record this information as a first step in evaluating a sample. For cacao producers especially, this provides them with important information so that they might figuratively rewind and identify when and how defects entered the sample through processing.”

Then, once you’ve evaluated the exterior of the cacao bean, it’s time to analyse the interior.

Step 2: Cacao Cut Tests

Simply put, a cut test involves taking raw cacao beans and cutting them in half lengthwise to view their insides,” Dr Martin tells me. “This allows an evaluator to then determine the level of fermentation and physical defects in the cacao.”

Just like with coffee, fermentation is important for cacao and chocolate. “Fermentation level is a classic hot button issue for many in the industry, and debates on its links to quality are ongoing,” Dr. Martin tells me.

While it’s unclear exactly what impact fermentation has, she says that it’s important fine chocolate makers and producers can do cut tests. They should gain as much knowledge as possible about the product. What’s more, they can then communicate this information to other people using the same system of analysis.

“The chance to draw inferences about cacao based on sight remains invaluable to cacao producers, and cut tests are legally required throughout the C market [the Cocoa market] as the primary quality evaluation metric,” she tells me.

“When we teach at origin, producers are most often familiar with cut tests practically, but want the chance to discuss their value intellectually, to practice calibration, and to think together about how cut tests (and particularly education on cut tests) might fit into their quality control strategies at the cooperative level.”


Cut test of cacao beans. Credit: The Chocolate Conspiracy

SEE ALSO: How to Cup Cascara & Evaluate Quality

Step 3: Tasting Samples

Next, it’s time to start tasting the cacao. Dr Martin tells me that there are many methods, and “most often involve making chocolate liquor or a finished chocolate product”. The FCCI, however, use a “simple, repeatable, accessible” option.

I ask how this is done, and she breaks it down for me. First, it’s important to randomly select 30–50 raw cacao beans from a sample. Next, the beans need to be deshelled; at the FCCI, they heat them in a popcorn popper for “about 45 seconds” beforehand to puff the shells without roasting. The beans should then be ground in a blade coffee grinder.

“Participants then taste 1 teaspoon of the grounds and evaluate the sample for intensity of acidity, bitterness, and astringency,” Dr Martin says, “as well as for a variety of aromas (e.g. cocoa, fruit, herbal, floral, nutty, spicy, caramel) and defects (e.g. hammy, smoky, mouldy, putrid/garbage, rancid/cheesy, medicinal/phenolic).”

While Dr Martin’s process may be, as she says, “simple”, she also tells me there are a variety of ways they work to improve accuracy. This includes triangulation, or selecting the odd one in a group of three, and sensory deprivation.

In our course, sensory deprivation typically involves removing access to one sense,” Dr Martin explains. “This means that participants taste a sample without looking at it, because colour can influence perception, or that they taste a sample while blocking the nose to challenge themselves to identify tastes over aromas.”


Cacao beans vary in colour. Credit: Sirene Chocolate

Improving your sensory analysis of a product merely increases your enjoyment of it – whether it’s coffee, wine, or fine chocolate you’re trying. And while cacao and chocolate analysis might be less evolved than coffee analysis, these developing systems are signs of an exciting future for chocolate lovers.

Perfect Daily Grind is not affiliated with any of the individuals or bodies mentioned in this article, and cannot directly endorse them.

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