What makes chocolate bitter?

Chocolate Envelopes
Chocolate blind tasting

At a recent chocolate lecture, I asked the crowd what each type of chocolate evoked to them. White chocolate? Not real chocolate (ahem.) Milk chocolate? Sweet. When I said “dark chocolate”, the answer was unanimous: bitter. I wasn’t really surprised. The first time I tried a 99% bar, I almost spit it up. Thankfully, the 37 Chocolates challenge made me realize that a good dark chocolate didn’t have to taste bitter. In fact, some beans make an excellent 100% dark chocolate bar, without a trace of bitterness. So, why are some dark chocolate bars bitter? To answer that question, we need to look at the ingredients in chocolate.

To make chocolate, you need cacao or cocoa beans (it’s really the same thing.) Genetics, fermentation, and roasting will all impact chocolate flavor. Cacao is an agricultural product and not all beans are created equal. Just like a Granny Smith apple is more acidic than a Gala, some cacao beans are more bitter than others. Fermentation is a complicated topic, but it’s easy to imagine the results of bad fermentation (mold.)

Now, let’s take a look at roasting. I had long heard rumors of big companies over-roasting their beans, but I’d never seen evidence of that. All of this changed last summer when I got my hands on a roasted cacao bean husk* from a very large chocolate company. I won’t tell you which one, but I bet you can guess.

Overroasted Cacao

On my left, a roasted cacao bean husk from that large chocolate company. On my right, a cocoa bean from Sierra Nevada in Colombia roasted by much smaller, award-winning chocolate company. The bean on the left was over-roasted, to the point of being burnt. What does burnt food taste like?

Bitter.

However, dark chocolate doesn’t have to taste bitter. The combination of quality cacao beans, careful fermentation, and gentle roasting can create beautiful, intense, but not bitter dark chocolate. Granted, those bars won’t cost the same as industrial chocolate, but which color cacao bean would you rather put in your body? So head to your local coffee shop or specialty food store and start browsing the chocolate section. Your taste buds will thank you.

* The husk is the outside part of a cacao bean, one that is removed and discarded during the chocolate-making process (the fancy name is “winnowed.”) Inside the husk is the cacao nib, which will ground into chocolate. 

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