Friday, March 4, 2016

Fresco Part 4: Cacao Harvest Year and How It Affects Chocolate Flavour

If you have been reading my series on Fresco Chocolate this week, you'll certainly know by now that this chocolate maker is different than the rest.  So different in fact, that I had to devote an entire series of articles to truly explore the complexities and flavour profiles showcased in Fresco chocolate. Fresco shows us what chocolate tastes like in its purest 100% form, and when conched or unconched, and even how different roasts of the cocoa beans affect chocolate flavour. But finally, Fresco is showing us how the same cocoa beans, harvested in different years, affects chocolate flavour.

Rob Anderson, Fresco's owner and chocolate maker, has acquired the coveted Peru Nacional cacao beans from the remote Maranon River Canyon of Peru. The beans are a mix of white and purple, a rare combination. This may sound strange to you, since you've probably never seen a white or purple chocolate bar. But don't worry, even the white beans turn to a brown chocolaty colour during the roasting process, although still lighter in colour than most regular beans after roasting. This can result in even the most bitter chocolates taking on a 'milk chocolate' colour.

When I opened the two chocolate bars that Rob made from the beans, from two different harvest years (2014 and 2015), I immediately could see a colour difference between them (see pic below).  The 2015 harvest chocolate appears to be darker in colour, almost like the shade you might expect from any 70% dark chocolate. The 2014 harvest chocolate had a slightly lighter, milky brown colour. Since the pure Nacional cacao has a high percentage of white beans, I was not surprised by the colour difference, since one could expect each harvest to produce a varying amount of white beans.

This is a blurry pic, but it is not easy to capture slight
colour differences in chocolate - this was the best I could get!
As for taste, the 2015 harvest chocolate was definitely pleasant on the palate, with notes of purple grape and tobacco. The 2014 harvest was immediately harsher on the taste buds, with a slight industrial flavour that I can't place, and some earthiness. But yet, it was slightly creamier and more cocoa buttery than the 2015.

During one of my tastings, I also found the 2014 had an almost nutty taste in comparison to the 2015 harvest. Although both gave me the impression of nuttiness, like the flavor an Ecuadorian origin 'Nacional' bean might produce, the 2015 seemed to have some brighter fruit flavours like citrus and berry. Whereas the 2014 chocolate had pronounced dried fruit flavours, like prunes and raisins, and some earthiness.

I asked Rob some questions about this chocolate, and he shared a little insight with me about the harvest years of the Nacional beans. After working with the beans harvested in 2014, Rob noticed they were more acidic than he expected. Chocolate made from 2013 harvests had been "exceptional", Rob explained to me, and he learned from other chocolate makers that they too had found 2014's harvest to be challenging to work with. So when he got hold of beans from the 2015 harvest, and noticed the difference in taste and reduced acidity, he created two chocolate bars that highlighted the differences in the cacao's harvest year.

What did I learn about the cacao harvest year?

I learned when it comes to tasting craft chocolate, it is important to know the harvest year of the cacao used to make the chocolate. For instance, when I first reviewed Fresco's 100% Peru Nacional chocolate bar, I commented that I was surprised by its high acidity. I had tasted Soma's earlier-released Peru Nacional chocolate, and several other chocolate bars made with the Nacional beans, and had never detected such levels of acidity. It was only when Rob Anderson explained to me that the 100% chocolate I tasted was made with 2014 harvest cacao, and how it differed from the exceptional 2013 harvest, and from the good 2015 harvest, that I understood why the chocolate surprised me.

For a chocolate maker, this can pose problems. Cacao is limiting. Once you use it up to make a batch of chocolate, you can't always get more of the same.  So what may be a well-received product one year, may be poorly received the next.

Large, commercial chocolate makers solve these problems by mixing beans of different origins, and by adding high amounts of vanilla (or artificial vanillin) to mask odd flavours, and to give the product a consistent taste from year to year. But for small chocolate makers who rely on one shipment per year to make single origin chocolate, this can be troublesome.  Or not.  Simply stating harvest year on the package will let customers know, and compare their experiences. And why not? We already expect this of wine labels.

So as a taster, this teaches me to always go back for a second try. What may not have been my 'cup of tea' on the first try, may be something I truly enjoy one or two years later. And don't give up on a chocolate that I once tried and loved, but was disappointed with the second time around. Who knows, the third time may be the charm.


Fresco Chocolate Summary:

Fresco offers such a wonderful range of chocolate that enables a chocolate lover educate themselves on the importance of each step in chocolate making. Without the right equipment, a chocolate-tasting enthusiast could not really perform all the steps to understand how each variable (i.e. conche length, roasting length, etc.) affect the resulting flavour of the chocolate.  Fresco is the only chocolate maker I know that provides this wonderful opportunity to learn.

Learn more about Fresco Chocolate...

Visit Fresco's website at www.frescochocolate.com for information about the company and chocolate, as well as to order online (that's how I bought mine!).

Read my previous articles on Fresco:

Introduction to Fresco Chocolate
Fresco Part 1: 100% dark chocolate bars
Fresco Part 2: Conching and how it affects chocolate flavour
Fresco Part 3: Roasting cocoa beans, and how it affects chocolate flavour.

Further reading...

Megan Giller was tasting and writing about Fresco Chocolate at the same time as I was, coincidentally. Her article offers some insight into chocolate maker Rob Anderson that is worthy of a read. Check it out at http://www.chocolatenoise.com/.

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