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Yeast starter cultures for bean fermentation could support new trends in chocolate consumption

15 March 2014

According to reports on the website Confectionery News, scientific researchers at the University of New South Wales have confirmed the importance of “yeast produced during cacao bean fermentation” to the quality of cocoa beans and the final flavour of chocolate products. The researchers add, however, that “bean fermentation is still an uncontrolled traditional process conducted by a consortium of indigenous species of yeasts, lactic acid bacteria and acetic acid bacteria.”

The reports indicate that over the last 5 years, the industrial chocolate manufacturer Barry Callebaut has been running a project that supplies yeast starter cultures to cocoa farmers in Côte d’Ivoire to help improve fermentation and enhance the flavour properties of the beans for certain varieties of chocolate. Traditionally, companies have collected the beans in order to undertake the fermentation process themselves, but Barry Callebaut decided to support on-farm fermentation as a means of boosting farmers’ incomes, as one way of giving farmers “an incentive to stay in cocoa”.

Barry Callebaut is both supplying the starter cultures and providing training to farmers on best-practice fermentation processes. The company then pays the farmers “a premium for the work and the extra quality they produce”. The scheme began with 150 farmers and has now reached 8,000. Echoing the farmer numbers, Barry Callebaut “started by buying 150 tonnes with controlled fermentation, that figure rose to 8,000 tonnes, and the company is aiming to grow by another 2,000 tonnes” in Côte d’Ivoire. “Participating farmers receive a €60 per tonne premium for using the cultures.” In addition, the use of starter cultures has reduced losses arising from spoilage during the fermentation process (which can run as high as 20% of beans fermented). Representatives of Barry Callebaut said that the success of the programme was such that farmers were now actively seeking to become part of the programme.

The volume produced using starter cultures currently represents “only a minuscule amount of the company’s 920,000 tonnes” of cocoa procured annually, and the beans are used in the production of the company’s Terra Cacao range. The group manager of Barry Callebaut’s Cocoa Horizons sustainable sourcing programme commented that even small changes in the process of fermentation can generate “a very different taste profile”, opening up considerable scope for the production of “tailor-made recipes for some customers”.

Barry Callebaut has also hired wine writer Frank Van der Auwera “to develop a boxed collection of chocolates from various cocoa origins”. Mr Van der Auwera and others in the business consider that the sector is evolving like the wine sector, with consumers “taking a more sophisticated view” and becoming “more interested in origins”.

Editorial comment

The supply of starter cultures initiated by Barry Callebaut under its Cocoa Horizons programme is one means of positioning itself as a preferred buyer of cocoa beans in the context of the forecast shortfall of 1 million tonnes of cocoa beans by 2020. This is particularly the case since, as a patented Barry Callebaut technique, the use of this natural fermentation mixture by planters binds them to supplying Barry Callebaut. The focus on financial sustainability of cocoa production implicit in the arrangement will also enhance the position of Barry Callebaut against rivals such as Cargill.

The practice also highlights the growing realisation among cocoa processors that, unless steps are taken to improve the financial returns to farmers, inter-generational renewal of the cocoa farming community could become increasingly difficult.

Mounting concerns at the corporate level over the long-term supply of cocoa in the face of rising demand would appear to create new opportunities for ACP cocoa producers and government-sponsored cocoa agencies to strengthen their position in negotiating better terms and conditions for cocoa sales. Unlike other certification schemes, which are becoming an industry norm, with little or no price premiums, “naturally fermented beans” with an “intensified flavour” seem likely to attract very real price premiums from both premium chocolate manufacturers and the growing market of chocolate connoisseurs.


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