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Scientists Have Figured Out How to Make Chocolate Taste as Complex as Wine

Scientists at Belgium’s University of Leuven have developed a new hybrid yeast strain that can be used to ferment cocoa beans, giving them as varied a flavour profile as that of wine or coffee.
Phoebe Hurst
London, GB
November 23, 2015, 1:00pm
Photo via Flickr user Michael Canavan

Some things in life are so perfect, so sublime; that they're impossible to improve upon. Y'know, sunsets over gentle oceans, the quiet gurgle of a newborn baby, freshly cut grass on a summer morning …

And chocolate, with its creamy, sugar-infused bite and bad-mood/breakup/day-at-work-from-hell-fighting endorphins, surely makes the cut.

Well, maybe not. Working with chocolate producer Barry Callebaut, scientists at Belgium's University of Leuven and the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology have developed a new hybrid yeast strain that could be used to ferment cocoa beans, giving them as varied a flavour profile as that of wine or coffee.

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It seems that not only can you improve on perfection, you can also turn it into something for "foodies" to pontificate about. Thanks guys.

Published in the Applied and Environmental Microbiology journal, the study explains that usually after harvest, cocoa bean crops are gathered in large plastic boxes or piled in heaps directly on the soil. This causes the beans to become surrounded by a gooey pulp and allows bacteria and wild yeasts to infiltrate the fermentation process, giving producers very little control over the ultimate flavour of the chocolate.

The Belgian scientists set out to create a yeast strain that would overpower these rogue yeasts and create a consistent flavour. Keeping the recipe and fermentation method the same each time, they experimented with different strains, looking for one that would combine robustness with a strong flavour production.

The team were eventually able to breed hybrid yeast strains that formed flavours strong enough to be retained in the cocoa beans, rather than evaporating. They speculate that this could be to do with the flavour-bearing volatile chemicals being trapped in the fat.

Postdoctoral researcher Esther Meersman explained: "We were initially surprised that the volatile flavour compounds are retained in the beans during drying and roasting."

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Meersman and the team hope that their research will lead to the development of new chocolate varieties.

Jan Steensels, another researcher involved in the study explained: "This makes it possible to create a whole range of boutique chocolates to match everyone's favourite flavour, similar to wines, tea, and coffee. This means that for the first time, chocolate makers have a broad portfolio of different yeast strains that are all producing different flavours."

Broaden chocolate's portfolio as much as you like, there can't be many people with the willpower to stop and read tasting notes midway through a family-size bar of Dairy Milk.