The Rise of Specialty Chocolate

You’ve heard the term over and over as it has matured in the world of coffee, how about in chocolate?

While specialty chocolate is still new, “couverture” is perhaps more popular term in chocolate. According to Irvan Helmi, owner of Pipiltin Cocoa, couverture and specialty chocolate are used in different context. While couverture refers to the amount of cocoa butter, specialty chocolate shares the same spirit and approach as specialty coffee. How they handle the raw materials, how they view consistency and refuse the use of synthetic additives are some of the approaches that belong to the world of specialty. “Not all couverture chocolate is specialty, because specialty chocolate requires the cacao bean to be fermented first hand. Non fermented bean doesn’t have any acidity. Fermented cacao bean is sold in higher price because the fermentation process takes longer time,” explained Irvan.

The “specialty” approach starts from farming the cacao bean. The ripe cacao is sorted one by one with very little defects, to get good quality cacao bean. “How can you tell whether the bean is good or bad? One of the criteria is by using bean count. In Pipiltin, we use ‘95 bean count’, which means that there are less than 95 pieces in 100 gr of cacao bean. Visually, it means that our cacao bean is big, because if they’re small, it will obviously take more than 95 to reach 100 gr. This kind of standards actually belongs in the realm of specialty, similar to cupping score in coffee. But somehow, no one has written any regulations about it in chocolate,” said Irvan.

Why bother using big bean? It’s because specialty chocolate requires the bean to be fermented to develop complex flavor. “Big bean has higher sugar content. Sugar is very important in flavor development because it’s like fuel in fermentation. Let’s take tapai (fermented cassava) for example, before fermented, cassava has totally different flavor than tapai. The same thing happened in cacao bean. After fermented, cacao bean will lose 60-80% of its bitterness,” said Irvan. It explains why higher cacao content in specialty chocolate doesn’t equal more bitterness.

The use of additive flavoring such as vanilla extract is a common practice, even for the big chocolate companies, because they need consistency. “Let’s take a famous Swiss chocolate brand for example. Because they’re produced in mass scale, the one you tasted somewhere in Africa need to have the same consistent taste as the one you have in your nearest Indomaret. Is it specialty? I don’t think so. In coffee, someone brew Sumatera Mandheling Natal for you, he even mentions the district of the coffee bean. But when asked where the sweet aroma comes from, he answered, ‘we use vanilla extract’. Well, that’s not specialty! In the world of specialty, people want natural taste of the product.”

Sometimes, the concept of specialty goes against the mass industry’s obsession over consistency. “The question is: can the nature guarantee consistency? Is there anyone who can guarantee that we’ll have the same quality crops over the years? The climate constantly changing, some regions may have droughts; some may rain all along the year. It affects the flavor.”

“The only way to have consistency is to use synthetic additive. Can plastic or paper be consistent? Sure. However, crops like coffee, rice can never be consistent, and it’s a natural consequence. We’re used to mass scale consistent products to a point that we abandon the source and the ingredients. As long as the taste is consistent, I’m happy, right? Wrong! The right approach is to take the best of what the nature can give. We guarantee that we have the best possible cacao bean, not the most consistent one. In fact, I don’t want Pipiltin to have consistent taste.”

However there are some areas in the business that need consistency. “We don’t position ourselves to train the cacao farmers, we respect their local wisdoms. But for the practice for fermenting the cacao bean, now we’re talking consistency. As long as they follow the Good Agricultural Practises (GAP), there should be no problem.”


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