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Fermentation of cocoa beans

The flavor of chocolate develops during the processing of cocoa beans, and new research shows how tweaks made at this step can produce new flavors.

More specifically, the research investigated how different fermentation conditions affect the activity of the microorganisms naturally present on the cocoa beans and how this affects the flavor of the beans after they are fermented.

Fermentation is one of the steps where flavor develops (roasting is another), and it is important to the final quality of chocolate. “Our research confirms this and we have also learned how to fine-tune the cocoa by fine-tuning the process itself, which means that you can get a higher quality out of your raw materials if you understand these processes,” says Dennis Sandris Nielsen, a professor in the Dept. of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen.

For the study, the international team of researchers from Denmark, Nicaragua, and Belgium analyzed fermentations of cocoa beans from different parts of Nicaragua and fermentations under different oxygen levels using a combination of high throughput sequencing, chromatography, and sensory analysis. This gave the researchers an understanding of the quality of the cocoa in relation to the processing, says Nielsen. “Overall, our findings show that the treatment the cocoa receives after the harvest is at least as important for the quality and flavor as the genetics of the cocoa. Where the cocoa was grown also has some significance. By varying the conditions during fermentation, we can therefore also reasonably predict the final taste, which provides good opportunities for high-end producers in particular to develop chocolate with different flavors and scents.”

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