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What really gives chocolate its unique flavor? The cocoa bean fermentation process plays a very large role in determining the final taste of chocolate. By altering it, researchers discovered, it will soon be possible to offer a range of exclusive flavors.

What do beer, wine and chocolate have in common — besides the fact that they are all enjoyed by a great many people?

Fermentation, of course! 

You may never have thought of chocolate as a fermented product before, but during cocoa bean harvests, the beans that will later be turned into chocolate are placed on large plastic boxes, piled on top of banana leaves, or even gathered up straight on the soil. While waiting to be processed further, the beans begin fermenting. While beer and wine are fermented in a controlled environment, with the relevant yeast types being introduced by those who make these beverages, cocoa beans simply attract yeast and bacteria naturally present within the surrounding ecosystem. The pulp around the beans ferments, a step that takes place before cocoa beans are ultimately roasted. It's nature itself that decides the chocolate's final flavor, then.

A research team that set out to see if they could create different chocolate flavors by altering the yeasts introduced to piles of cocoa beans wrote: "Despite the advantages of such controlled fermentations, the fermentation involved in the production of chocolate still is a spontaneous process that relies on the natural microbiota at the cocoa farms."

While the current cocoa bean fermentation process is quite extraordinary precisely because it happens so naturally without any controlled effort, the researchers, from Leuven University and the biotechnology company VIB, wondered what chocolate manufacturers could learn from beer and wine producers.

Could introducing different types of yeast to heaps of cocoa beans alter the chocolate's flavor? 

Together with cocoa bean producer Barry Callebaut, the researchers created hardy strains of yeast that could be introduced to newly harvested cocoa beans, with two criteria in mind — the new yeast species had to be able to compete with those naturally occurring in the environment, but very importantly, they also had to taste good.

Amazingly the team, which published its discoveries in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, found that the new yeast species were able to produce a wide range of previously unknown chocolate flavors! Though they introduces new kinds of yeast to the fermentation process, the team didn't alter the normal methods or conditions of fermentation in any way. 

Researcher Dr Jan Steensels explained:

"The set of new yeast variants that we generated makes it possible to create a whole range of boutique chocolates to match everyone's favorite flavor, similar to wines, tea and coffee."

You have probably heard of limited-edition chocolate flavors such as gingerbread, wasabi crunch, and even beetroot jelly, but here we have a who different kind of unique and exclusive chocolate — we're not talking about flavors that are later added artificially, but about changing chocolate's flavor right at the outset, right during the fermentation process. As with beer and wine, we may soon be able to get chocolate in all kinds of "boutique" varieties. This is exciting news for chocolate connoisseurs and "ordinary" consumers alike, but make no mistake: once these boutique chocolate flavors hit the market, they will come at a premium! 

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