KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 17 — Soft creaminess. Woody and earthy. Fruity and wine-like. Spicy. Nutty.
If you love specialty coffee as much as I do, these descriptions sound like typical of single origin coffee flavour profiles. However, did you know that these are also flavours you can taste when you try... single origin chocolate?
While over 90 per cent of the world’s chocolates are mass produced from inferior, bulk-roasted cacao beans, with plenty of additives to ensure maximum shelf life, there is an increasing market for carefully crafted single origin chocolate. Call this artisanal chocolate, if you will.
No surprise then that coffee artisans Michael Wilson and Amirah Mohammad (founders of Artisan Roastery and Three Little Birds Coffee) are the perfect pair to tackle locally produced bean-to-bar chocolate.
“Bean-to-bar means that we take raw cacao, ferment it, dry it, roast it, crack it, winnow it, grind it, conch it, temper it and make it into high quality chocolate,” says Wilson. “Amirah and I wanted to make single origin chocolate for the same reason we started Artisan Roast all those years ago — because of the flavours. Back then there was no specialty coffee in Malaysia, so it was scratching our own itch.”
He grins and adds, “We are now scratching our chocolate itch.”
According to Wilson, after harvesting cacao beans (essentially the seeds of fruit from theobroma cacao, or cacao trees), the first step in transforming these beans to bars of chocolate is fermentation. During fermentation, yeast first converts sugars in the pulp into alcohol. The alcohol is then converted by bacteria into free amino acids that account for much of the chocolate’s eventual flavour profile.
“Fermentation creates the chocolate flavours we recognise,” says Wilson. “Usually environmental yeasts are used but we are investigating using particular strains of yeast to bring out the most interesting flavours from the beans.”
The next stage is roasting the fermented cacao beans that have been dried. Here, Wilson’s background of coffee roasting is a great help as he is able to transfer some knowledge though, he admits, cacao is quite different from coffee.
He shares, “One thing we learned from coffee is the importance of producing an even roast. The techniques to achieve this are different, however. For coffee, we use lots of heat to create ‘overpressure’ so the core of the beans pop out at over 200°C For cacao, we go slower and let the temperature of beans rise steadily with that of the air, at less than 150°C.”
Susan Wong, formerly head roaster of now-defunct RAW Coffee whom Wilson had personally trained, now runs the roasting operations of Seniman Kakao under his watchful eyes. Her mentor’s passion for single origin chocolate seems to be rubbing off on her as she raves about her coffee-to-chocolate journey.
“I love chocolate more now after discovering new flavours I never knew existed!” she says. “These different flavours come naturally from the beans themselves and not from added flavourings. It’s been a great learning experience. From learning to roast coffee from Michael and Amirah, now I get to learn about cacao — not just roasting the cacao beans but the other stages such as winnowing.”
Winnowing is basically husking the roasted beans, where the beans are broken into nibs and the shells are removed. The cocoa nibs — cacao is called cocoa after roasting, Wilson explains — are then ground in a machine called a melangeur used for small batch artisan chocolate making.
The grinding process takes about three days. Wong says, “We put the cocoa nibs into the melangeur in the first day, add sugar on the second day, and then on the third day we pour out the resultant liquid chocolate, called cocoa liquor.”
Conching then takes place, where the cocoa liquor is stirred at higher temperatures (usually between 50°C and 80°C), changing the chocolate’s flavours and creating a smoother and creamier texture. Lastly the chocolate is tempered (so the cocoa butter solidifies properly) and poured into moulds to produce the finished bars.
It’s a long process and to arrive at this point, Wilson estimates that he has probably eaten over 150 different bars from producers around the world! From this delicious “research”, he has sourced single origin cacao beans from different countries.
“We’ve made chocolates from Camino Verde from Ecuador and Montserrat Farmers’ Cooperative in Trinidad. Currently we’re using Ben Tre and Lam Dong, both from Vietnam. Papua New Guinea is next while Malaysian beans are in the future.”
On that last note, Wilson is working with local farmers to adapt their methods of processing cacao. He says, “Malaysia used to be huge in cocoa production but in recent years the farmers are opting for crops that are easier to harvest such as palm oil. I’m trying to convince the farmers that it’s about quality of the harvested beans, not quantity, as good quality beans can fetch a higher price so they don’t have to compete on volume. It will take several years to change their mindset about processing but with every harvest, we can expect better cacao.”
For the look of the actual chocolate bars, Wilson has asked Malaysian artists such as Nawwar Shukria Ali and Caryn Koh to come up with unique designs. He explains, “The plan is to have several different bar shapes inside our wrappers. You won’t know which until you open them. The wrappers are made from a trilaminate of kraft paper, VMPET and LLDPE to ensure total barrier against moisture, air and pests.”
Besides bars, Seniman Kakao also makes drinking chocolate. Wilson says, “Drinking chocolate is made by melting real chocolate and mixing it in with milk, whereas hot chocolate is usually made from cocoa, sugar and sometimes with chocolate shavings. Therefore, drinking chocolate is a much more expensive ingredient.”
Seniman Kakao bars and drinking chocolate are available at Artisan Roast TTDI and will be sold to other cafés soon. “We will also be selling the drinking chocolate in single serve portions to make at home. Amirah has discovered a new way of tempering to produce drinking chocolate that dissolves more easily.”
Not one to rest on his laurels, Wilson is also about to launch yet another project, Stone Cold Brewing Co., that will produce nitrogenated coffee. Available on tap at Artisan Roast TTDI, the nitrogenated coffee will also be available from a coffee truck that Wilson had purchased from Royal Post and refitted for serving these cold brews at events.
“I’ve been wanting this for the longest time but it was only possible when my partner Joey Mah took over the day-to-day operations of Artisan Roastery and Three Little Birds Coffee. Amirah and I could then focus on R&D and setting up the production for both the chocolate and nitrogenated coffee businesses.”
Despite his many years in the specialty coffee industry — Wilson is considered a pioneer for the scene in Malaysia — he still feels like a little kid playing with new toys. What excites him is the opportunity to delve deeper into the science of coffee and chocolate, while experimenting and discovering new things through trial and error.
At the end of the day, it’s a business but not one that is about jumping on the latest bandwagon. Instead Wilson’s ventures are always a real labour from the heart. In case you’re wondering, the name Seniman Kakao means “Artisan Cacao” in Malay. And so the Artisan philosophy continues...