AMA: Ask Me Anything (About Cocoa or Chocolate) #4 – What is Quality?


The Question

What is Quality, anyway? 

This question arose out of a discussion on LinkedIn around my post on Why Not W Africa? One reason that was proposed for why specialty/craft chocolate makers don’t use W African cocoa that much was “bad quality.” 

Is it, though? Really? Like many things, a lot depends on what you mean by quality, and in the words of the indefatigable Inigo Montoya, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

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As in many things, there is no absolute definition of quality when it comes to considering cocoa. Instead, quality consists of a complex set of attributes and the answer to what quality is depends on how the buyer weighs these attributes in relation to others.

The way I like to define quality is, “Quality is in the wallet of the buyer. Buyers take a look at all of the different attributes that go into arriving at a definition for quality and assess them relative to what they are willing to pay for.

Let’s say, for example, that I am going to be making cocoa butter for medical pharmaceutical use. I don’t care about organoleptic considerations of the beans at all and I know the cocoa butter is going to be deodorized (treated with solvents and heat to remove aromatic compounds) and filtered. In this case my definition for quality would probably not include quality genetics as they would be expensive. [ One aspect that many chocolate makers might include in a definition of quality (criollo or trinitario genetics) doesn’t matter to me in the least. ] I also probably don't care about organic or fair trade certification in this case. I may not even care if the beans are moldy or mildewed as any impurities will be removed during the deodorization process. However, if I can offset the cost of the butter by using/selling the powder then I do care about the condition of the beans to that extent. But, a primary element in a calculation of quality is price.

If I am going to be using the cocoa butter for cosmetic purposes, considerations including organic and fair trade may enter into my definition of quality because of the position of my brand and what I know about what my customers are looking for in the beauty products they buy. If this is the case, I am going to be willing to pay more for the beans used to make the cocoa butter. 

This same line of thinking applies to making chocolate. Most consumer purchasers of industrial chocolate (bars and confections) don’t ever think about where the cocoa beans used to make the chocolate come from. They think about the price of the brands they like without any consideration of the quality of the cocoa beans, the genetics, or origin. Considerations such as organic and fair trade certification factor into their purchase decision-making, but most people really do not want to pay for certification even when they say it is important to them.

And the truth of the matter is that most highly-regarded industrial chocolate consists mostly if not entirely of beans grown in W Africa. So, for most consumers, W African cocoa is the benchmark for quality chocolate.

Flavor (which is where I think many people focus when it comes to quality in chocolate) is an extremely complex concept and it arises out of a combination of the following factors:

  • Genetics which are influenced by 
  • Terroir which is in turn influenced by
  • Farming practices which are then modified by
  • Harvest and post-harvest practices which are further modified by
  • Manufacturing processes (e.g., roasting) and the genetics, terroir, farming, and harvest/post-harvest practices of the other ingredients used to make the chocolate.

Bad farming practices can render good genetics meaningless. The wrong fermentation protocols can mean the beans do not reach their potential. Bad roasting will ruin even “the best” “fine” beans. And no matter what you do, there are some people who will not like what you do. What is quality to one person is not necessarily quality for another.

In Closing:

It is possible to make great-tasting chocolate from beans grown in W Africa, chocolate that people will spend good money for and buy again and again and again. 

It is also possible to make truly awful chocolate from beans with heirloom genetics (I have tasted way too much of this over my 2+ decades critiquing truly bad chocolate). The issue is not whether the beans are “fine” or not, it’s the skill and vision of the chocolate maker and how they approach the market. Part of being successful in chocolate, in my experience, is a willingness to move towards where the consumers are rather than forcing consumers to come all the way to where you are.

One definition of a quality product I really like is one that a consumer will purchase for a third time.

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What are your thoughts? How do you define quality? Do you agree with me? Disagree? Are there anything you think I am overlooking or minimizing? Please share with the community in the comments below.

Links to Other AMA/Ask Me Anything Posts in This Series:

Note: Edited on April 10 to fix typos and for clarity.