Monday, December 21, 2015

Development of boutique chocolates-Will emergence of such premium products sustain the industry?

Why do people like chocolate products? For their flavor, texture or taste? Probably this is a complicated question and answering it may be as complex as the products themselves! While most kids eat chocolates because of the sweetness and the overall texture and mouth feel, there may be many adults who can be connoisseurs of chocolates looking for some perceived traits which are not easy to be contoured or defined. Think about other beverage crops like coffee, tea or spirits and the consumer expectations can be as varied as the chemical complexity of the products themselves! Coffee tasters, tea tasters and wine tasters are a class by them selves and even to day, despite the tremendous advances made by analytical chemistry, no instrument has been universally accepted as a true tool to take a decision regarding the beverage quality. Probably the reason is that most flavors are made up of hundreds of chemicals with complex molecular structure and even to day 100% identification has not been achieved. Also making the issue more complicated is the relative effect of each component whether minor or major on the flavor bouquet characteristic of each product. This is true with cocoa flavor also. Manufacture of chocolate products has been standardized long ago and there is very little variation in its technology because the technology is highly machine oriented with very little leeway to manipulate. However this seems to be changing with some incisive research being carried out by a few major players in this sector and the result is emergence of specialty premium chocolates with varied bouquet value. Here is a take on this important breakthrough that can boost the bottom line of chocolate industry through marketing value added chocolates with significant flavor differentiation.

If one looks back at the history of beverage industry coffee and tea were the dominating ones with world's consumers vertically divided between the two. According to available data, world produces about 9 million tons (mt) of coffee and 5 mt of tea and this gives one an impression that latter is a poor cousin of the former!  But a relook at this issue will reveal that such a conclusion is too simplistic to accept because the quantity required to make a cup of coffee is three times that of tea and there fore in terms of volume of the beverage consumed tea beats coffee globally. Is it not interesting that per capita annual consumption of coffee is highest in Americas and Europe while Asia and the former Soviet Union countries are predominantly tea drinkers. Where does cocoa fit into this picture? it is well known that coco beans production largely goes for making chocolate products like cocoa mass, compounded sweetened chocolates, chocolate liquor and cocoa powder. It is the cocoa powder which finds its way to beverages like hot chocolates, drinking chocolates and as a flavoring material for candies, confectioneries biscuits , cookies and pastries. Therefore cocoa is never a competitor as a beverage material for coffee and tea. 

Chocolate industry is supposed to have manufactured and marketed about 7.5 mt last year using cocoa beans grown in countries like Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Ghana, Nigeria and a few other countries. The chocolate quality is mostly determined by the variety of beans from which it is made and major chocolate players use the much preferred Forastero variety which predominates the production though Criollo is considered a much superior variety being used exclusively for making premium chocolate products. The third variety Trinitario accounts for a fraction of the cocoa trade. The quality differentiation of chocolate products is mostly based on the variety used, fair trade practice adopted by growers including child labor, environment degradation, safety credentials,eating characteristics and handling modes. The health attributes attached to cocoa flavonoids raised the standing of this crop overnight into a frenetic consumer obsession which was tapped by the industry to churn out the so called bitter chocolates with lesser and lesser sugar and more cocoa solids. However bitter chocolates are appreciated only by a few health conscious consumers and therefore manufacturers have been looking for other USPs for increasing demand for chocolate products. The new line of research is leading the industry to design more niche products with higher price tag. Success seems to have come their way recently when researchers started studying the strains of yeast which are responsible to ferment the pulp in cocoa pods during post harvest processing operations, producing many flavoring materials that impart characteristic flavors to chocolate products.      .    

Thanks to the innovative efforts of Belgian researchers working in close collaboration with the chocolate industry, robust yeast strains have been isolated from the fermenting pulp and using these pure cultures different types of bouquet have been created giving individual personality to them. In the traditional fermentation process mostly carried out near the growing areas, the broken cocoa pods are allowed to get fermented by natural microbes, mostly wild yeasts, to depectinize and generate many artifacts that later impart a complex web of flavors to the final product. By isolating a number of strains and studying their metabolic history the scientists were able to create a pool of strains of yeast which can produce a range of flavors singly or in combination.. This makes it possible to create a new range of boutique chocolates that can match particular flavors in the same way that craft beer, coffee, tea, and wine can. What the team first hoped to do was to find robust strains of yeast that would quickly dominate the others and shorten the fermentation time, allowing cocoa producers better control over the chocolate's taste. It turned out that the different robust strains produced markedly different flavors and aromas. This was despite the fact that the recipe and fermentation process for each one was identical. The team then began to breed the yeast strains and created new hybrids that formed strong flavors that were retained in the final product, instead of getting lost due to their volatility, being trapped in the fat. This means that for the first time, chocolate makers have a broad portfolio of different yeast strains that are all producing different flavors. 

Whoever is not familiar with the range of lactic fermented products from milk? Yoghurt is one of the most accepted milk products consumed widely across the world. Look at the efforts of the dairy industry in converting a simple traditional yoghurt into a multibillion dollar roaring industry through differentiation of the fermentation process using combination of lactic acid bacteria like Lactobacillus delbrueckii, Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidus, Casei etc which can make yoghurts with different features. Same way chocolates also will now be available with varying flavor profiles using different strains of yeast for the primary fermentation process followed by standard processing. Whether  many consumers will be able to appreciate these value added products and willing to pay premium prices for them, however,remains to be seen.  


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