What Chocolate and Marathons Have in Common?

So what does chocolate and a marathon have in common?  Well you probably think that they sit on opposite ends of the field. Here I will explain to you what they do have in common, and how actually, you could almost call it the marathon process effects the flavour of chocolate.

I first learned all about the process of fermentation when I was training for my Ironman. It’s a kind of long race (3.6km swim, 180km bike ride, 42.2km run). And basically, during the time of training for my Ironman, I learned a lot about physiology and the body and energy systems; basically, aerobic and anaerobic processes.

When it came to starting and setting up my company and learning about chocolate, I was completely surprised when I learned about that the cacao beans go through exactly the same process as what happened to me when I did my Ironman.

Cacao is grown 20 degrees north and south of the equator, and the key times for growing and picking is in the wet season. There’s a secondary time in the dry season, but the wet season is where the good stuff really happens. The reason why this is important to you is because I’m going to explain the fermentation processes, but what you should understand is it’s always dependent on the weather.

For example, sometimes we have a longer or a shorter fermentation time depending how much wind is in the air, how hot the day is, how much sun is out, if there’s cloud cover, and all of these things. So, just be aware that this is a huge influence.

The big thing, if you know anything about wine making, is about the use of the yeast and bacteria. Those are actually the processes of fermentation of chocolate, and that’s what makes the flavour happen. So, let’s get ready to start our marathon. I’m going to explain the three phases and yeah, you’re going to have to put your running shoes on, because that’s pretty much how we feel when we start a race. I am literally in preparing for ultra marathon now, so let’s take that metaphor.

At a marathon, you have that excited feeling. Your family’s on the sidelines. You’re feeling like a gazelle. You jump out of the gates and you start running fast. You’re looking at the guy next to you and somehow, he’s going fast and you just want to keep up. You have nerves from the starter gun. You have nerves from your family. You have nerves because you’re about to run this race.

Well, in the end, the cacao bean kind of feels the same way too.

In the first 20 to 40 hours, the cacao bean goes through an anaerobic phase. What that means is that the sugars turn to ethanol from anaerobic yeast. What this does, in effect, is basically lowers the pH of the cacao. It’s the first and the hardest process of fermentation and it’s really important that this happens because it’s like the cacao bean is just running, without oxygen, and moving into a new pH cycle.

Phase two is very similar to Forest Gump. That’s where you start getting a bit of a lactic acid build up. You remember the pain that you get in your legs when you’ve been running too long but you can still keep going? Phase two in the fermentation process, and in a marathon, is where you slow down a little bit. It’s from about 40 to 60 hours in length, and that’s where you start using oxygen as the primary fuel.

At 60 to 90 hours, there’s an exothermic reaction where the bacteria oxidises ethanol. What this means is it’s almost all over, Red Rover. There’s a magic point at about 45 to 50 degrees centigrade, and you could call this the wall. Like many of us have heard about the wall in the marathon; that’s where you’re running like the gazelle, and you’ve got the whole Forest Gump thing happening, and boom! You just hit the wall.

This is the most important part for chocolate makers to be very, very aware of because at this point, you can either have too little or too much fermentation. And of course, for every type of bean, there’s a completely different marathon that’s run.

Different cacao beans take different times to reach this magic point. A forestero takes about six days to go through a fermentation process, whereas the more delicate Criollo or Arriba Nacional, take about two days. And then, you’ve got the hybrid, the Trinitario, that takes three to four days. So, every type of bean has it’s own type of process, and then, of course, depending on the weather.

So, if your cacao beans have been fermented too little, what you’re going to get is astringency, bitterness and green grass – these are the notes.  If you want to know what astringency is like, because often, those of us new into sensory profiling can’t exactly tell the difference between astringency and bitterness.

What it specifically is, is something is astringent, it’s like tasting raw, red grapes, or celery, that’s that shrinking feeling that you get in your mouth. Bitterness is something like a good, strong espresso. That’s how you pretty much guess the differences between the two. And green grass is also a sign of low fermentation in your cacao, and I like the idea of a freshly mowed lawn. So, look out for these notes and see, for example, if you’re going to your favourite chocolate maker, ask him to try the beans. See what you can taste and see if you can tell the differences in fermentation.

What happens when your cacao beans have been too fermented is, well, it’s going off. Unfortunately, we still see a lot of beans in the chocolate industry that are using kind of slightly rancid beans. The way you will know in your chocolate if your beans have been fermented too much, is that they’re going to be acidic, cheesy, and kind of fermented.

What that means is, acidic is that taste of dry white vinegar, like cheese. Nobody wants cheesy chocolate. You know, kind of that stinky cheese that you’ve got in the fridge that’s been going off for a few days? Kind of smell like socks and wet feet. And then fermented fruit, like a really bad, cheap red wine that can also be a flavour note in your chocolate if you’ve had beans that have been fermented too long.

To truly understand the differences between the acidic, some of us get a little confused with sour. And what that really means is an acidic flavour is like a dry, white vinegar, and a sour flavour is like the dry white wine. So, when we’re looking for the two fermented flavours in the cacao beans; acidic, think dry, white vinegar.

So, there you have it, the similarities between marathons and chocolate. You know that we have all these happy little chocolate beans starting off their little race and basically, getting themselves prepared to come and excite your tongue. I want you to really stand up to your chocolate makers, go behind their shelves and ask to see their beans in raw.

You know, any chocolate maker will be super proud and excited that you’re kind of caring about our art. Just like, you know, we can go to wine makers and see their vineyards; come along, we will always open our doors. We will be super proud to show you the different beans. And we probably have examples of some that have been fermented too long and too short, and the same with the rest of the processes.

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