Smoke Taint in Cocoa Beans (and Chocolate)

April 6, 2021

On the subject of smoky cocoa beans, Minifie has this to say:
Smoky Beans   Beans contaminated by smoke have a most objectionable flavor, which is virtually impossible to remove from chocolate. The contamination can arise from the use of crude methods of drying or from defects in dryers that allow smoke to reach the beans […] proper maintenance is required to prevent smoke damage.”
Minifie, B.W. Chocolate, Cocoa, and Confectionery, 1989 p.31
Our cocoa beans come from the islands of Santo and Malekula in Vanuatu.
On the west coast of Santo, the climate allows for sundrying.
On Malekula, the growers are relatively well-educated and well-organised. As a result, they have been able to obtain organic certification, and they have the resources to properly maintain their artificial dryers. Sadly, not all of Vanuatu’s cocoa growers are so lucky. For example, on the island of Malo, we saw many privately owned “cocoa sets” – small huts designed for artificially drying cocoa (see the photos below). The heat pipes in these cocoa sets were made of old 44-gallon drums joined together. Many of the heat pipes we saw were poorly joined, or riddled with holes caused by rust. These cocoa sets are a good example of the “crude methods of drying” referred to by Minifie as the principal cause of smoke taint in cocoa beans.
The only thing stopping these growers from repairing their heat pipes (and preventing smoke taint in their beans) is a lack of resources, caused by low cocoa prices.

This is a “cocoa set” on the island of Malo, Vanuatu.

Cocoa sets operate by using rising heat from a wood fire. The fire is built inside the pipe that runs the length of the hut. The drying cocoa is spread out on a large tray above the pipe.

This view shows the rear of the hut – you can see the exhaust hole in the base
of the drum/pipe protuding from the hut.

Notice that the heat pipe has no chimney. This causes the smoke from the fire to
blacken the rear wall of the hut, and allows the smoke to drift back over
the beans. Cocoa beans are highly susceptible to smoke taint.

Mother Chicken investigates the poor repair of
a heat pipe used to dry cocoa on Malo island.
“No wonder the chocolate ends up tasting smoky!”
Some of the loveliest cocoa beans
in Vanuatu come from the remote
west coast of Santo, where the
climate allows cocoa beans to be
sun dried.

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