Bean to Bonbon with Gaston Chocolat, Fifth Dimension Chocolates, Chocolatasm, Bella Sophia Chocolates and David Upchurch

Who doesn’t enjoy a great bonbon? But what makes a bonbon great in the first place? It used to be that the majority of options were boxes of chocolates with an unknown filling (until you perhaps took a bite out of each one to find out), and honestly not the best flavors in some of the cheaper options. Now that craft chocolate is continuing to grow the chocolates may be made from single-origin, high quality cacao beans by craft makers.

Sometimes bean-to-bar craft chocolate makers are using their own chocolate to make bonbons (hence the term bean-to-bonbon), but now chocolatiers are also experimenting with different maker’s chocolate in their own creations. Then there’s the craft makers with chocolatier backgrounds and chocolatiers that also now make their own chocolate.  Confused yet? Don’t worry! It’s all delicious!

In this blog post we will deep dive into this bean-to-bonbon topic by exploring the chocolately minds of amazing chocolatiers and bean-to-bar chocolate makers alike for a solid knowledge foundation of chocolate in regards to working with craft versus more industrial chocolate in chocolate work and the challenges with pairing single-origin chocolate flavors with inclusions. (Single-origin chocolate can have different flavors occurring in the cacao from each origin and even each harvest year-to-year). In fact, we are going to learn quite a lot of information, and yes, we will even find out what makes a bonbon great!

Chocolatasm Bonbons

A huge thank you to Olivier Fernadez of Gaston Chocolat in Vanuatu, Steph Shafer of Bella Sophia Chocolates in California, chocolatier David Upchurch in California, Paul John Kearins of Chocolatasm in Massachusetts and both Russell Pullan and Albert Chau of Fifth Dimension Chocolate in England for sharing all their experience, amazing talent and knowledge for this post!

*Special Note: Not every chocolatier in this article uses bean-to-bar/craft chocolate every time in their creations. Some may use it for special collaboration projects, on certain occasions, for fun experimentation of items, or sometimes it is single-origin chocolate, but not from a small craft maker every time. This article is looking at the information/experience gained from the occasions that the chocolatiers have created with bean-to-bar/craft chocolate, but also to learn from their overall knowledge of their skills as a chocolatier regardless of the type of chocolate used each time. (Often on their website’s product description, wrappers or social media posts chocolatiers will list when they have used craft chocolate/bean-to-bar in a particular item).

Most chocolate makers are using their own chocolate for their bonbons, but they might also be commenting on their previous experience in the realm of chocolatiers prior to using their own bean-to-bar chocolate. Bean-to-bonbon refers to using this high quality craft chocolate to make bonbons.

In regards to terminology, technically all chocolate, small or industrial, could be bean-to-bar since it is made from cacao beans of varying qualities, however, for the purpose of this post when I ask for experience with “bean-to-bar” and “craft chocolate” I’m referring to chocolate made with high-quality beans by craft makers.

Victoria Cooksey: What experience do you have in the realm of a chocolatier?

Olivier Fernandez/Gaston Chocolat: At Gaston our endeavour from day one was to get the best of the Vanuatu terroir into fine chocolate and this was never limited to Cacao and chocolate bars. With this in mind, I started experimenting on bonbons and truffles a little short after we had our first Vanuatu origin chocolate out of the refiner back in 2014. At the time, it was a two ingredient rustic type of Dark 70% and, though it was rich in flavours, it proved hard to work with due to a low fat content. It wasn’t until 2017 after we opened Gaston’s manufacture and retail shop that I really got the time and room to start making and selling chocolate truffles and bonbons on a more regular basis.

Most of what I learned on truffles and bonbons is connected to a special relationship that goes as far back as when I was 7 years old and I visited Jean-Louis Vaissaud’s chocolate and truffles shop in my hometown on the French Riviera. Later I have come to know Jean-Louis as a friend and mentor and he played a key role in developing Gaston, being my go to person to train with and one I can chat for hours and days with about confection and pairing flavours.

Olivier Fernandez of Gaston Chocolat

Steph Shafer/Bella Sophia Chocolates: I am a self-taught chocolatier, with 4 years’ experience. I have participated in the chocolatier Primer Book, the Oscars and the Daytime Emmy’s. I have made chocolates for restaurants, hotel turn down service, Bourbon distillery, weddings and charity events.

Steph Shafer of Bella Sophia Chocolates at the 2019 Day Time Emmys

VC: What inspired you to become a chocolatier?

David Upchurch: My relationship with my mother was at it’s best when cooking and we both loved to bake. So I had basic baking skills as a Southern kid. My senior year of college I lived in Paris, France. There I experienced culture shock, in so many ways. Pastry and chocolate were a revelation. I ate chocolate bars with marked percentages. I ate my first truffle on the parvis outside of Chartres cathedral. I was smitten. So chocolate, the romance of it, the complexities, the art of pastry work, it stayed with me. I began my profession career in chocolate in 2010 when the recession changed my career path.

David Upchurch

VC: How does a chocolatier approach differ from a bean-to-bar chocolate maker? What are the similarities? 

Olivier Fernandez/Gaston Chocolat: If I had to compare a chocolatier and a maker I would picture a DJ and a producer, one is a living library and knowledge of tunes that he masters at mixing to create a moment, while the second makes the very music from scratch in refining sounds and frequencies. Both have in common a universe of their own that they share through their creations, a make and a signature.

In terms of technique, the chocolatier has a wide palette of ingredients to work with which comes with a serious amount of knowledge of food processing required for it could affect the shelf-life of the products while a maker has more room on this end but less variables to create bars. It might prove even more challenging when commitment is made to an origin as tree to bar since you cut yourself from the option of sourcing different origins and works on a narrower range of genetics. It triggers creativity to come-up with novelty. But if you look at music, again, you would think after centuries of using a guitar and a drum that we might have exhausted the things that were never done before or revisit them in brilliant ways. This is how I would picture it best.

Steph Shafer/Bella Sophia Chocolates: With a chocolatier, there is a lot of thought that goes into which percentage of cacao to use with each filling, not all percentages go with each other, you need a perfect balance, or it won’t taste as good.

I feel like, all of us who share a passion for chocolate also share a passion for making everyone happy, we do this through our chocolate. One of the best feelings, is watching someone take a bite of your perfectly thought out confection, we scream inside quietly, with anticipation to see the thrill on your face, every one of us. We all end up melting, tempering and molding chocolate, whether we make it ourselves or buy it from a maker already prepared.

VC: When did you first start using bean-to-bar in some of your creations?

David Upchurch: Friends who happen to be growing cacao in Costa Rica, convinced me to join them at the Northwest Chocolate Festival in 2017. I was hooked immediately into the craft chocolate movement. The social justice goals, the rainbow of humanity involved, the positive energy and camaraderie, the possibilities of chocolate, all that clicked with me.  It was there that I made a few lasting friendships.  Among those are the ladies who create and promote Conexion Chocolates out of Quito, Ecuador.  Since then I have moved toward chocolate makers that are more ethical and work directly with farmers / producers.

VC: How long have you been using single-origin chocolate in your creations?

Russell Pullan/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: We have been using single-origin chocolate since we started in since 2013 – this is something we have decided to do, as we like the different flavour characteristics of various single-origin chocolates.

Russell Pullan and Albert Chau of Fifth Dimension Chocolates

VC: What are you looking for when you pick out someone’s bean-to-bar chocolate to work with?

Paul John Kearins/Chocolatasm: Well, up until now it has always been with someone who I know on a personal level. In this somewhat intimate community in the US it’s not unusual to spark up friendships. That leads to conversations exchanging of ideas and then of course being a chocolatier I am eager to try out their chocolate. What I am looking for is something that is ethical/sustainable, apart from that it’s kind of random; I will take some of the chocolate and taste it first and go from there.

Paul John Kearins of Chocolatasm

David Upchurch: I look for fluidity and refinement. I look at the ingredients and fat content. I look to the maker for the intended use of the chocolate. A bar of rare cacao may not be best used in a peanut butter cup. There are a growing number of small batch makers offering couverture. I look for flavor and what could unfold from that chocolate. 

I have collaborated with local makers 9th and Larkin, and Jay Holechek of The Latest Batch. My workhorse chocolates are by Felchlin, made in Switzerland, Conexion and Republica del Cacao, made at origin in Ecuador. These are all direct-trade chocolate makers

Bonbons by David Upchurch

VC: What inspired you to recently start making some of your own bean-to-bar creations?

Paul John Kearins/Chocolatasm: A friend of mine who was formally operating as Carbon Chocolate told me he was stopping and I asked him what he was doing with his grinders, he sold one to me and I have the opportunity now to play around and create small amounts of chocolate for my own specific recipes. When I started with a blend of coffee and cocoa beans I was humbled at the process that my friends in the craft chocolate Making world are masters of… ITS HARD! 

It is not something I intend on making a big thing of; just small, fun, playtime projects.

Bars and Bonbons by Chocolatasm

VC: Does bean-to-bar chocolate behave differently when it comes to tempering than with larger produced/standard type of chocolate you might have practiced with before switching to bean-to-bar? How does bean-to-bar chocolate affect the making of a ganache or other fillings versus standard chocolate?

Russell Pullan/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: Yes, fluidity of the melted chocolate is the most noticeable difference. In a bean-to-bar chocolate, the lower amount of cocoa butter and the type of cocoa butter used would affect the viscosity of the chocolate – This would increase the chance of air bubbles on the shells as well as thicker shells when we make molded chocolates. Ganache is not being affected as much, because we would add cream and other ingredients into the chocolate, and thus we can control the fluidity more easily.

Albert Chau/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: Also, with bean-to-bar chocolate, the flavour may not be so consistent over time. Just like wine, we expect variations in the harvest of cacao every year due to weather etc, and that can affect the flavour of the chocolate. However, without careful control of the post-harvest processing such as fermentation and roasting profile, the flavour can vary widely, and that can make it challenging for flavoured ganache, as the pairing of flavour with the chocolate may work in one bean-to-bar batch but not in another.

Russell Pullan of Fifth Dimension Chocolates Tempering Chocolate

VC: Does bean-to-bar chocolate behave differently when it comes to tempering than with larger produced/standard type of chocolate you might have practiced with before becoming a chocolate maker? How does bean-to-bar chocolate effect the making of a ganache or other fillings versus standard chocolate?

Olivier Fernandez/Gaston Chocolat: Indeed, commercial types of chocolates tend to have much higher contents of fat and sugar which alters their viscosity, and the lecithin will also have an impact. It proves harder to work with craft chocolate, they’re usually thicker and solidify faster, but it adds so much flavours and generosity to the recipe and it’s an integral part of it, not just a vehicle for the ganache. I would tend to use higher percentage of cacao and low sugar in the chocolate we make for bonbons to balance the sugar contained in ganache and fruits. Sugar will increase your shelf life but I don’t like it when it overpowers your senses, it’s almost anaesthetic for me though we keep it as low as possible and mostly in ganache for the preservation of the bonbon. And I love the way everything melts when you crack the shell and get that explosion of flavours from the ganache blending in the chocolate.

Gaston Chocolate Bean-to-Bonbon

VC: Does bean-to-bar chocolate behave differently when it comes to tempering than with larger produced/standard type of chocolate you might have created with? How does bean-to-bar chocolate effect the making of a ganache or other fillings versus standard chocolate? Does it change how the chocolate works in molds for larger decorative pieces?

David Upchurch: Ha! Let’s write a book!  Industrial chocolate, marketed toward pastry professionals, is designed to be easy to use in a variety of applications. Pastry professionals are intensely busy and need consistent and facile chocolate.  Working with small batch chocolate requires more knowledge of the chocolate material which most pastry professionals lack.  The variations in small batch chocolate create the adventure.  Flavor of course is the fun part.  Fat content of beans varies by genetics and terroir. Tempering is based on fat crystallization and so the science will be consistent in any chocolate. Conching and refinement varies by maker and these variables affect every aspect of workability.  Couverture chocolates vary in added fat content as well as refining. It all comes down to viscosity and the varying factors that play into viscosity. Chocolatiers need fluid chocolates that can work in molding and shaping.  We need to know fat content as an ingredient as it will affect any application of that chocolate. Working with bean-to-bar or small batch chocolates requires more knowledge of the material and more testing for consistency.

Lecithin is a key ingredient in most couvertures. It provides more fluidity than added fat which can mute flavor.  Two ingredient chocolates have very limited applications because of their viscosity.  They are just too thick.

Bonbons by David Upchurch

VC: Does bean-to-bar chocolate behave differently when it comes to tempering than with larger produced/standard type of chocolate you might have created with? How does bean-to-bar chocolate effect the making of a ganache or other fillings versus standard chocolate?

Paul John Kearins/Chocolatasm: Yes it does behave differently in the majority of cases, it is often much thicker than “conventional” couvertures. Also the majority of craft chocolates contain no emulsifying ingredients as do mass produced chocolates.  the addition of lecithin aids in the manufacture of ganache, which is an emulsion. There is some controversy about the use of Lecithin with claims to health issues which are largely unfounded, for a chocolatier lecithin a bonus not a hindrance As it keeps the chocolate fluid and allows cream and other liquids to be incorporated into the Chocolate without separating. I am sure any lecithin in the chocolate I use comes from ethically produced organic sources. 

VC: What are the challenges of pairing single-origin chocolate to the various caramels that you make?

Albert Chau/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: It is very much down to pairing the flavour profile of the chocolate with the caramel. At the start of the development process, we might like to have the caramel in milk chocolate ideally. However, during the development process, we might find that it works better with dark chocolate, and then we would find out that it works with one particular origin’s dark chocolate and not another.

Fifth Dimension Chocolates Bonbons

VC: What are the challenges and the pleasures of matching inclusions with the bean-to-bar chocolate?

David Upchurch: Flavor and texture and color are the most fun parts of the game for a chocolatier.  The flavor of a chocolate is usually a starting point, then we have fun with possibilities. The challenge again is viscosity.  If it is fluid it has more sculptural applications than if it is viscous. What inclusions I pair with a chocolate are partly decided by the shape or texture of the final piece. Two-ingredient chocolates suggest simplicity as bars, mendiants or rustic shapes. Fluid chocolates offer more options. Each has their place.

Paul John Kearins/Chocolatasm: The pleasures are of course knowing that the chocolate has been produced in a purely hands-on manner just as the products I make from them have been. It fortifies the artisan element. In small batch craft chocolate flavors can be much more nuanced and at the same time much broader if that makes sense! Flavors can be extremely bold and that allows me to be equally as bold in my flavor combinations. Challenges are that often a successful flavor pairing will not be as successful with subsequent batches from small makers as they are at the mercy of the harvest, which can deliver subtly different flavor profiles and even the source of that harvest can just dry up.

VC: What makes you decide a flavor/inclusion/filling would be better suited to making a bonbon instead of making a chocolate bar?

Steph Shafer/Bell Sophia Chocolates:I like the fact that you can fill a bonbon with all kinds of yumminess, from a dark chocolate silky smooth ganache to a crème brulee, you can’t really stuff a bar with multiple layers like you can with a bonbon.

Bella Sophia Chocolates Making Bean-to-Bar Chocolate

VC: What makes you choose to make a bonbon instead of an inclusion bar?

Paul John Kearins/Chocolatasm: There is no pre or immediate choice made, I will use it for a variety of items once I have it in a significant amount in my possession. Some creative processes result in me discovering that the chocolate is probably not best suited for enrobing and small-cavity molding due to its viscosity which means I continue only using it for bars or solid pieces for bars or solid pieces.

Olivier Fernandez/Gaston Chocolat: Mostly the ingredient and the way its flavour varies in the processing. Some fruits work better in ganache than dehydrated for inclusion in a bar, with evaporation of the water you tend to lose flavours and end up with acidity only. Cooking alters flavours too and might work adversely. This might be even more relevant to the Vanuatu terroir which fruits are usually high in water contents and very subtle. The season and what’s available from the producers, in our garden, or at the market is usually what triggers inspiration.

We also pay a lot of attention to the textures. An inclusion should not be to hard or unevenly spread over the bar or else you end up with unpleasant mouth fell or huge variations in flavours from one bite to the next. For textures we use a wide range of local nuts that are very tasty and with different fat contents. We have developed a range of coated products specifically to put forward the local nut and some pairings with craft chocolate are insane.  

Gaston Chocolate Bonbons

VC: What characteristics make a bonbon great?

Russell Pullan/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: When every element comes together and it has that “wow” factor. It doesn’t have to be a complex or unusual flavour combination – good quality ingredients that balance well with the chocolate used is crucial. The texture is also important – whether it’s a silky smooth caramel or different layers of contrasting texture in a bonbon. And of course, it has to look good too, and the appearance should be part of the story behind the chocolate.

Albert Chau/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: I agree with Russell. For me, there’s no one set of characteristics for a great bonbon, but usually after eating one and I want to eat another one, that’s a good start. The best indicator is when I would have that strong desire to go to the chocolatier’s shop just to buy that bonbon, even when it’s in a different part of the world!

Steph Shafer/Bella Sophia Chocolates: Visual/Taste/Smell/Texture/ First people eat with their eyes, so my passion for art gets to take center stage, each one a mini abstract piece of art. It’s also important that the smell, texture and taste of the chocolate shell blend perfectly with the filling, because the wrong percentage can throw off the balance.

Bella Sophia Chocolates Bonbons

VC: What makes a bonbon special?

David Upchurch:texture + flavor + presentation – It is magical when those elements come together and just sing.

Context and associations – A simple truffle enjoyed at Chartres cathederal changed my world.  The last food my mother ate before passing, was a rose caramel that I made. Bonbons shared in unique moments, with people dear to us, can become very potent memories. 

Olivier Fernandez/Gaston Chocolat: The balance between flavours and textures. You have to have both the taste and mouth feel right. When you have both, it’s like an intense kiss. The tempering for a perfect mirror shine, like jewels. The shape, it gives your bonbon a personality. Some use colours and I find it beautiful, but I like sober, intense dark.

Gaston Chocolat Bonbons

VC: What do you want the consumer to experience in a bonbon versus a bar?

Olivier Fernandez/Gaston Chocolat: To me a bonbon is the perfect bite, an explosion of flavours and textures that blows all your senses. The bar is more of an intimate relationship, a nice ride that develops bite after bite in layers and complexity. Somehow I find it easier to have expectations when I crack a bar whereas the bonbon is always a question mark. I want the consumer to be adventurous in bonbons and try something unexpected, intense, be carried away and live the moment like time has stopped for a blink. With bars, it’s more like flirting and becoming comfortable, this little happy place they can get back to every time they open a bar. I often ask clients about their chocolate rituals and it is always special. 

Paul John Kearins/Chocolatasm: Well naturally I want it to be a journey. I like to create layers of flavor resulting in an overall experience that is memorable. The same goes for bonbons and bars and confections. There is no distinction between them.

VC: What do you want the consumer to experience when they try one of your bonbons?

Russell Pullan/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: First and foremost – I’d like them to enjoy our bonbons. If it’s one of our more innovative or unusual flavours, I want them to be open-minded and try them – we love it when they are introduced to flavours that are not often paired with chocolate, and we see that surprise on their faces. Our “Siem Reap” (Cambodian Curry) is a classic example – savoury Southeast Asian curry in a sweet white chocolate is such an alien concept, but we just love the customers’ eye lit up when they taste this bonbon and experience that flavour journey, and open their eyes and minds to some new combination of ingredients.

Alber Chau/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: I also like the consumer to enjoy some of the more mainstream flavours – often the simpler ones are harder to do. We do a fair amount of research when it comes to sourcing ingredients too, and we use the best quality ingredients we can get, and let the ingredients do the talking.

VC: What other confections do you like to use craft chocolate in? What challenges does single-origin chocolate bring when incorporating it into confections?

Paul John Kearins/Chocolatasm: Well, my products consist largely of solid pieces and filled bonbons and I use craft chocolate in all of them. The biggest challenge of using single origin is there is no challenge! I treat a single origin exactly the same way I treat all the other craft chocolate I receive it has a flavor profile and I do my best to honor that. There is leveling off sanctity regarding single origin and people who know me I’ve probably already gathered that I’m like “whatever, Let’s make some shit”.

Russell Pullan/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: One of our recent projects is the collaboration with Pump Street Chocolate. Some of their most famous flavoured bars contains baked products e.g. Eccles, Sourdough & Sea Salt, Rye, etc. We are huge fans of their bars, and when they asked us to create the bonbon version of their bars, we just had to say yes straight away! It’s not as simple as just melting these bars and turning them into ganache – the breadcrumbs from sourdough and rye would go soggy in ganache very quickly, and we want to keep to the distinct characters that made their bars famous. So we have to use some different techniques and tricks to make the bonbons.

David Upchurch: The challenge again is viscosity and fat content. Some confections need more care and balance, and some are more forgiving. Understanding the material is important. A rare cocoa should be used appropriately and not muddied.  I use fine chocolate in pâte de fruit and jams / spreads.  The range of flavors can be fun.

David Upchurch

VC: What other types of confections do you like to experiment making with craft chocolate?

Olivier Fernandez/Gaston Chocolat: Baking! Revisit all the classics dropping the sugar content and using craft chocolate is always a recipe for success. Now I have to be honest and sometimes simple is nice. In Vanuatu most of the traditional cooking is steamed, food wrapped in leaves and covered in hot stones straight of the fire pit for hours long slow cooking. Inspired by the custom we experimented on Chocolate fondants steamed on firewood and it is just mind blowing.

VC: How do you keep the “fun” in your bonbon creation?

Paul John Kearins/Chocolatasm: Well look at me! Most people who know me and follow me get that I’m pretty frivolous, silly, thoughtful and, most importantly, creative. The expression “you do you” kind of applies when it comes to Chocolatasm, Keeping the fun is being the fun.

Russell Pullan/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: We are always on the lookout for new ideas and flavours when we eat. Some of our friends find it rather amusing when eating out with us, as the conversation always ends up with one of us asking “will this work in chocolate?” and then we start analysing the dish in front of us and debating why a certain flavour would or would not work.

Albert Chau/Fifth Dimension Chocolate: We love a challenge! Every year we set ourselves a challenge. For example, the perception of a caramel in white chocolate is usually frowned upon because it’s considered too sweet. So last year we decided that we wanted to do a white chocolate caramel bonbon, and the result was our “Stockholm” (Salt & Malt Caramel in White Chocolate).

VC: What makes bonbon creation fun?

David Upchurch: Playfulness, finding the time to play and create. I enjoy watching the seasons change and make associations with chocolate.  Also the camaraderie of playing with other makers. The challenge of making all the techniques work can be fun, and, and frustrating too.

VC: What would help consumers, and the chocolate word, understand that a person can be both a chocolatier and also sometimes a chocolate maker?

Paul John Kearins/Chocolatasm: Well as far as “Joe public” goes there is often no distinction between the two when I tell them I am a chocolatier and they fully assumed that I also grind up the beans to make chocolate; that’s when I have to educate. I think in this time of social media a good presents with your public and your product is imperative in showing what it is you actually do. The “big cacao” Industrial chocolate making companies focus on imagery of people eating their product, running around laughing; you get it. In the craft chocolate world our social media is based on images of the sourcing of the ingredients and the manufacture of the products, so people are becoming aware through social media what different branches of the chocolate world are actually doing. Anyone in this business who doesn’t have a solid social media presence is missing out on enormous opportunities for exposure, sales, education of the general public.

Chocolate Cacao Pod by Chocolatasm

VC: What would help consumers, and the chocolate word, understand that a person can be both a chocolate maker and a chocolatier?

Steph Shafer/Bella Sophia Chocolates: I’m proof that you can be both, I have learned both ends of the maker/chocolatier world, while one side turns the bean into the chocolate, the other side has to thoughtfully plan out fillings, inclusions and artwork, both of these together make a perfect marriage.

Bella Sophia Chocolates Bonbon

Olivier Fernandez/Gaston Chocolat: It’s interesting because in France when you train for chocolatier you have to pick another major like bakery or pastry chef, you can’t be just a chocolatier by graduation. It is hard for me to imagine making chocolate and not making bonbons. It would feel like forcing creativity to fit in boxes. Most successful chocolate makers also do bonbons and I believe it tells a beautiful story when your clients feel the link between your bars and bonbons and understand why you chose to develop certain flavours in a bonbon and others in a bar. Certainly, chocolatier is more academic and I find it a lot more technical than chocolate making for the number of ingredients and variables you can adjust but you can be super-creative in both fields and turning beans into chocolate often proves equally challenging. I believe working and training on both bonbons and bars helps me to become a more accomplished craftsperson and also opens an infinite field of possibilities which will have me driven for a while.

Thank you to Gaston Chocolat, Bella Sophia Chocolates, David Upchurch, Chocolatasm and Fifth Dimension Chocolates for all this wonderful bonbon information!

Thank you to all of you who take the time to check out this blog and read all of the interviews!

Gaston Chocolat:

Bella Sophia Chocolates:

Fifth Dimension Chocolates:


David Upchurch:

Victoria Cooksey:

Cacao Fermentation with Olivier Fernandez of Gaston Chocolat

Olivier Fernandez of Gaston Chocolat

Cacao fermentation? What is it all about? How does it affect cacao flavor? Why is it so important?

Olivier Fernandez of Gaston Chocolat makes tree-to-bar craft chocolate in Vanuatu from cacao beans that are grown there. This interview is specific to cacao fermentation and Olivier’s experience/knowledge with fermentation in regards to Vanuatu cacao and location. Quite informative!

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

Olivier Fernandez: The fermentation is the second step in the process right after harvesting. It is said to require a minimum of 80kg of green beans to work and could possibly be done on a smaller scale with heating assistance but our experience in the field led us to use a standard 200kg size box. Below, we believe the critical mass to get to the right temperatures is not achieved. It is common to see farmers ferment into bags or digging holes in the ground covered in banana leaves, however we never experienced favourable tasting results from such practices and always witnessed inconsistency from one batch to the next. The fermentation is a two-step transformation of sugars and fats, with a first step consisting of a transformation of the sweet flesh wrapping every bean into a juice which has to drip through the box and out to create space in-between beans and activate the second phase with air and bacteria coming into play. Beans are braised a few times in the second phase to re-introduce fresh air and revive fermentation. Both the length of the fermentation and number of braising vary based on the genetics, the outside temperatures and the flavours you want to develop.

VC: Why is the fermentation process of cacao important?

OF: To us, fermentation is the most critical step in the whole process, the moment you develop the precursor of the chocolate aromas and magnify the cacao you are working with. Let’s put it that way, you could have the finest genetics to work with, if you miss on fermentation your chocolate will taste terrible. Now you could work with mainstream cacao and master fermentation and end up with beautiful and unique chocolate. We believe it speaks volume on how critical fermentation is, and this is common to both cacao and coffee, with a trend for more and more experimenting on flavours and complexity of both when altering variables in the fermentation process. 

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

OF: An under-fermented cacao will have a high level of ammonia and literally smell pee, it’s simply terrible and beans will have a typical purple colour when you do your cut test. For the over-fermented, it is more the mouldy flavours, cheese flavours that you will detect. Now you should realize that unless you practice grading upstream in the process, you will have a disparity of size in the beans entering into the box, and it implies that smaller beans will ferment faster than larger ones, thus you will always have a disparity in cut test and what you are looking for is the mass result. In previous interviews we pointed out how the pre and post-harvest handling of beans could make a difference and this is mostly related to what will enter the fermentation box. 

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

OF: Yes and no. We believe that essences of woods which are prone to release sap in the process should be avoided and so are any type of treated wood like timber used in building or logistic for palettes which are loaded in chemicals for long resistance. At Gaston we used reclaimed wood from trees that were damaged during cyclones. Now telling you that a particular type of wood would give a specific flavour, we believe it would be exaggerated. Not that there is no interaction between the wood and the beans, though we use banana leaves to isolate the beans from the box, but because the magnitude of other variables on the final flavour like the duration or the type of bacteria interacting with the beans in the process is way more important. It is also to be said that we do not work in labs thus each batch has slight variations from the previous one since we have no grip on weather and outside temperatures.

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

OF: The Cacao grows in plantations in Vanuatu, you would get wild trees in random places from birds and animals moving seeds but cacao was all man planted in the beginning and plantations are mostly dual crops with a shed from coconut trees. That said, some abandoned plantations would now look a lot closer to wild than a proper plantation and these are still harvested. A main work we are conducting is to restore some old plantations and get them back into operations with a source of income for the farmers. Know that in Vanuatu the amount of man planted areas is small compared to the vast size of tropical lush rainforest. Logging is limited and there is no mining. We do not face issues of deforestation and people have a profound sense of balance and respect for nature. 60% of agriculture in Vanuatu is for subsistence, not commercial.

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

OF: Like most chocolate makers yes. I was blending beans with sugar and other ingredients and enjoyed what came out no matter what or how terrible it was. Always had fun in the process. However, I would say it is only after we went back into the field and spent a few years on fermentation and plantations rehab that we really started to make chocolate. We chose on purpose to settle Gaston in Vanuatu for it is a country that grows cacao and an origin which has yet to make a name for. Work with the trees is the key and we would not conceive to run Gaston in another way. I worked from bags of beans without contact with the farmers in the past and you are bound to make something with the beans no matter what comes out of the bag, and believe me it is not always great. Though I took it as a challenge back in the days, there was a lot of frustration into the process too.

VC: What has been the biggest challenges in educating growers/cacao collectors on how to ferment cacao? (Or did they teach you about fermentation?)

OF: Vanuatu had a commodity type of cacao market before we began our work and fermentation was the least of the concerns with little attention paid to it and a focus on volumes. Prices dropping through the years didn’t trigger any will to invest or maintain plantations, the local market being controlled by a handful of intermediaries shipping overseas for a nice mark-up. It was only after we ran a few workshops on how to ferment cacao and access fine flavour cacao niche market that farmers realized there was an alternative that would drive higher incomes but requiring more work. It didn’t click in every location we tried to develop our program and we were confronted to lack of will and doubts regarding the changes we were introducing in a process that had been ran for decades in a mechanical repetition of harvest, dump beans in boxes until it’s full (even if it meant to fill the box over three or four days of work), turn the beans three times over 7 days and dry them on hot air type of dryers. Indeed, the process is quick and completed in 10 days when our technique requires at least 18 days between harvest, fermentation and drying. We also faced the terrible outcomes of programs destined to help the farmers and led them to believe that sun drying was the key and only requirement to qualify for fine flavour cacao. Organisations would mislead the farmers on prices, pay them a premium over commodity market price that did not capture the additional time and work it take for sun-drying and leading to another drop in efficiency and revenues for the farmers. These were our main challenges and it took three years and a few success stories to materialize to convince more farmers of the good of this work. To restore a scale of pricing, we studied every part of the process, timed and priced it and came up with a transparent system. We pay two to three times above the commodity cacao market and our price is net into the worker’s pocket which means we pay for transport, bags and insurances required to move the beans to our processing facility. 

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

OF: The farmers are connected to their cacao in a way we didn’t witness before. They now see it as a valuable crop and source of income. We have seen a constantly growing number of farmers wanting to join our program and started with 3 to reach about 120 last harvest. You might find it small and it is the measurable extent of what we can do at our scale. Let’s be honest, we did the work to enhance the quality which serves us as well and we are not here to save the world. Our packaging doesn’t talk about fair trade or socially responsible behaviours, we simply do it. We believe that for as long as we use it as a marketing tool it will not become the norm. Everyone in the bean to bar movement is aware and has good practice. I personally believe it is a signature of this branch of the chocolate industry. At the end of the day what matters is that farmers have a better management of their resources, plant new trees for the future generations and work together to achieve quality that pays. Customers are no fools and they don’t need labels to make the difference.

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

OF: The way flavours develop based on timing and braising is the key, acknowledging that you have made the necessary work to build functional fermentation boxes in a good environment. You can literally have two to three flavour profiles depending on genetics based on alteration of these two variables.

VC: How does weather affect the fermentation process?

OF: The variations of temperatures between winter and summer harvests are affecting the fermentation, at night the fermentation would slow down in winter forcing us to develop different fermentation profiles to get more even results across batches. The number of braising and days of fermentation has such an influence over the final result that we firmly believe it is the main trigger for variations of flavours from one farm to the next in a same region. The bacteria in the air are pretty consistent across the same region and so are the soils and water precipitations. It is virtually impossible to recreate the same fermenting conditions batch after batch unless it is done in a controlled environment like a lab. This is why we focussed on the process more and developed simple practice that would get consistency. Still we see variations over the seasons and batches.

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? What are your thoughts on double fermentation? Any flavor changes with that style?

OF: On a small scale we experimented inclusion of passion fruit in the process which proves unsuccessful after roasting. Though we had flavoured beans after drying with residual parts of passion fruits, these same flavourful vegetal parts burned in the roasting process which was fairly disappointing and didn’t have the effect we were expecting. There was a remaining of acidity but you would not have been able to distinct from which fruit is was. Now, there are so many variables that we can play with already that inclusions are more of a trial for fun at this point in time. On a similar experience, one of our bags travelled on a ship next to a hand of ripe bananas and loaded in flavours which you could detect later in the process. At the time we are more focused on ageing of nibs to see what can be achieved. If you don’t see it in our range of chocolate, it means our attempt failed or was not convincing enough. 

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

OF: We would love to see chocolate makers more involved in the fermentation process itself. There is a hype about travelling the world to scout new beans paid at farmer’s gate but little is shared about fermentation profiles. I like the work of plantations like Ingemann who are offering two to three fermentation profiles per genetics, this is future, this is how we’ll keep on bringing new flavours and this is worth for cocoa butter too and the market of milk and white chocolates.

Thank you so much for this interview on cacao fermentation Olivier!

*All photos in this interview were provided by Gaston Chocolat.

For more on Olivier Fernandez check out my interview with him on this blog from last year:

For additional information on cacao fermentation check out my interview with Luisa Abram on the topic:

Olivier Fernandez/Gaston Chocolat:

Victoria Cooksey:

Interview with Olivier Fernandez of Gaston Chocolat

It’s time to sit back and be whisked away to Vanuatu, an archipelago of around 80 islands located in the South Pacific Ocean, with Olivier Fernandez of Gaston Chocolat located in Port-Vila the capital of Vanuatu, located on the island of Efate.

I’ve had the chance to try seven bars by Gaston Chocolat thus far, and have enjoyed them all! Their Coconut, Caramelized Nangae Nut and Rum Drummed Raisins bars are tied for my top favs!

If you haven’t tried Vanuatu cacao yet, guess what? Gaston Chocolat is planning to be at the NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle, WA this year in November! As you dream about trying their chocolate (or if you have and you need some more) enjoy this interview with Olivier!

Olivier Fernandez of Gaston Chocolat Continue reading “Interview with Olivier Fernandez of Gaston Chocolat”