Cacao Fermentation with Luisa Abram

Luisa Abram’s bean-to-bar chocolate features bars made from Brazilian wild cacao harvested in the Amazon Rainforest. Besides loving Luisa’s chocolate I’ve also attended her talks on Brazilian cacao the past two years at the NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle and this lady knows her stuff! I don’t know if she will have a talk next year at the festival, but if she does I highly recommended attending it!

Luisa has been helping to educate and improve on the process of cacao fermentation in Brazil and this blog post is entirely about cacao fermentation.

Why is cacao fermentation important? What is the process? How does it affect the flavor of the cacao beans? Read on to find out more!

*All photos used in this blog were provided by Luisa Abram and were taken from the first ferment on Juruá river, Novo Horizonte Community early 2018.

Luisa Abram checking cacao fermentation in Brazil

Victoria Cooksey: Will you give a brief description of the cacao fermentation process?

Luisa Abram: I can give a rather technical answer, but you can find about all that on the web. Instead, I will say what I smell, sense and see. The cocoa pods are broken and inside them there are several beans covered with a thick white pulp. Beans are thrown in a wooden box and covered with banana leaves. After 24 hours, I remove the leaves and look at them. They should still be green. Then I get my face close to the beans in the box, close my eyes and take a deep breath. My nose searches for a very typical smell, a smell that takes my mind to a bakery, when the baker is making bread! Then I check the temperature of the beans. I don’t use a thermometer. Instead, I stick my arms inside the mass. Should be a bit warm, not hot. I look at the mass to see its colour, should be white still, and to check if little white dots are present at the edges of the box, the coldest part of it. These dots are the yeasts, the same ones responsible for bread making bread. Next couple of days, the beans are moved to another box, so that oxygen can end the anaerobic conditions the beans were subjected until then. The smell changes , from a bread like odour to an alcoholic one. The pulp begins to disappear and the colours of the beans change to ochre. By the fourth day, a light vinegar smell appears in the mass, the temperature reaches close 50 C and you can really feel that the beans are being cooked! More turnings of the boxes are done for the next few days, until the mass loses temperature. This indicates the end of the fermentation. It should last between 5 to 7 days depending on the size of the beans, outside temperature, the size of the mass and how mature the fruits were in the beginning.

VC: Why is the fermentation process of cacao important?

LA: Fermentation is important if you want to really taste different and more complex notes in your chocolate. Fermentation unleashes a series of chemical reaction inside the beans and these reactions create the precursors of of flavours and smells of a chocolate bar. In the Amazon, there’s an extra bonus. Fermented beans get higher prices, since it adds value to the beans.

VC: What are some “off” flavors you have noticed if cacao is under fermented? If it is over fermented?

LA: Under fermentation will produce a higher acidity on the beans, as well as, astringency. The acidity can be lowered at the chocolate maker´s factory, but not the astringency. 

Now, over fermentation must be avoided at all costs! Over fermented beans will taste like rotten meat, very matured cheese and ammonia.
Personally I prefer the bean a bit under fermented than a bean slightly over.

VC: Does the type of material/wood the cacao is fermented in affect the final flavor?

LA: Yes, it does. The wood is part of the terroir. In our case all the boxes are made with local odourless wood. But you can play a bit of that and insert an extra touch of flavor in your bean.

VC: Is any of the cacao used in your chocolate bars farmed, or is it all wild cacao that is collected?

LA: All the cacao we work with grows spontaneously in the forest, no plantation, orchard of farms. So yes, it’s all wild.

VC: Did you begin to make chocolate before you worked on fermentation with growers/cacao collectors, or after?

LA: My story with chocolate begins with a cooperative called Cooperar in Acre, Brazil. But on my first visit it wasn’t harvesting period, so no fermentation was taking place at the time. I carried back home to Sao Paulo 20 kg of fermented and dried beans.
That being said, I started making chocolate before I started fermenting the beans I use.

VC: What has been the biggest challenges in educating growers/collectors on how to ferment cacao?

LA: When you go away and the locals take care of the entire process, the biggest challenge is to make sure that they are following all the steps we taught them. For that, we provide constant feedback about the material they send us. This takes a lot of time since there´s only one harvest per year. 

VC: What has been the most rewarding part of helping others improve the fermentation process?

LA: To get a positive feedback from the families in the communities about how cacao increased their income and improved their livelihood.

VC: What has been the most surprising thing you have learned about cacao fermentation?

LA: I’ve learned to really pay attention to my senses. I can also say I learned a lot about communication and how to explain such a complex process with words that even a person who has never heard of fermentation can understand and reproduce the entire process alone.

VC: Is it possible to complete fermentation on a very small scale, for example, if a bean-to-bar maker wanted to ferment beans from a few pods is that possible? If yes, what tips would you give a maker on small scale fermentation techniques?

LA: Yes, it is possible to ferment a very small amount of beans. A lot of fermenting tests are made in a small scale. I would recommend a minimum of 50 pods, a small foam box and a light over it to reproduce the hot tropical environment. However, it will never taste the same as it would if you would ferment at origin simply because the microbiological presence is unique to each environment. 

VC: Have you experimented adding in other inclusions during the fermentation process to add to the final flavor? If so, what are your thoughts on that process?

LA: I wish I could. I never experiment with inclusions on the fermentation stage simply because I don’t have a lot of material available so every pod counts. And also my time at origin is limited so I have to teach a lot.  

VC: Is there anything you would like to see change about cacao fermentation in the future?

LA: I would like to educate the locals in the Amazon that the fermentation process is important to add value and quality to their hard labour.

Thank you so much Luisa Abram for sharing your cacao fermentation knowledge with all of us!

Want more info on Luisa Abram? Check out the Chocolate Fascination podcast and Kekao Box Chocolate Purveyors blog series for more interviews with Luisa.

Luisa Abram:

Victoria Cooksey: