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Sweet science: Institute for Chocolate Studies

Instead of going to class, Gregory Owen ’15 dedicated his last month of high school to chocolate. While his classmates worked on independent projects like designing iPhone apps or directing musicals, Greg spent time in his home kitchen reading about the chemistry and history of chocolate and applying this knowledge to creating his own delicious treats. This semester, Owen channeled his strong interest in chocolate into forming a new club on campus, the Institute for Chocolate Studies.

This weekend, I joined Owen in the Dodge-Osborn Kitchen to observe the chocolate-making process. Krysta Dummit ’15 and Erica Portnoy ’15 were the first two members in the room. I watched as they opened a bag of cocoa beans imported from Bolivia. “It feels like I’m playing Mancala,” Portnoy commented, as she sorted the beans into muffin tin cups.

Dummit and Portnoy paid careful attention to the process, making sure there was only one layer of beans in each cup so they would roast evenly in the oven. It was obvious that the members highly enjoyed their work, as they talked actively about how excited they were for the chocolate to be ready.

Shortly after the beans were put in the oven, a rich, brownie-like aroma filled the kitchen. “The best part of the roasting process is the smell,” Owen said. After around 20 minutes, Dummit and Portnoy pulled the beans out of the oven and cracked them open to taste the inside. I tried one of the beans, surprised at how bitter it tasted.

“It’s an acquired taste,” Owen explained, “but we’re looking to make sure they taste like chocolate. Sometimes when beans are under-roasted, they are astringent and taste bitter from the volatile chemicals being baked off.” The members break open a few more of the beans, testing to make sure they are crunchy enough. “We want to be able to snap it, not just pull it apart,” Owen continued.

A few minutes later, Brendan Wright ’15 walked into the room and helped Owen set up a giant machine in the middle of the kitchen. They call it the “Winnower,” an automated contraption that eight ICS members made during a hackathon. “Before we made the Winnower, we used a hairdryer and collander to winnow the beans. It was time-consuming, took a lot of manual labor and always involved a lot of people working. Now, the Winnower mechanizes the process and makes it a lot more efficient,” Owen said.

Ming-Ming Tran ’15, another member of the ICS, began to drop beans into The Winnower, inside of which a spinning blade cracked the beans open. The thin, papery shells of the beans were taken off and sorted into a garbage can, while the delicious nibs inside the bean were gathered separately. The end result was a container of small brown nibs, which the members weighed to calculate their yield. “We aim for a 75 percent yield, which means that the winnowing process has perfect separation,” said Owen.

When the winnowing process was finished, the members moved onto grinding. They poured the nibs into a Champion Juicer, which ground the beans into a thick chocolate paste called cocoa liquor. I tasted some of the cocoa liquor, which felt like a sticky, grainy version of peanut butter.

Owen explained that the grainy texture was a result of the fact that the chocolate had not gone through “melanging” yet. Unsurprisingly, he had a machine for this stage of the process as well. The Melanger was a machine of two granite rollers and a slab used to churn the cocoa liquor. As it was churning, the ICS members poured sugar into the thick paste. Then, they left it to be mixed for 12 hours, so the chocolate would end up fine and smooth.

The final step in the chocolate-making process was tempering, which I didn’t have a chance to witness. However, Owen described the process in scientific detail. “Chocolate as a liquid doesn’t naturally solidify in the right way. The fat of the chocolate can form different crystalline structures, some of which are more stable than the others. When we temper, we want to bring the chocolate directly into the most stable form by helping it harden and shape properly,” Owen explained.

To do this, the members of the ICS cool the chocolate down to the specific temperature of 86-92 degrees Fahrenheit, so that it will crystallize in the correct form. The biggest fear of the members is fat bloom, which is a white crystallization found on the surface of mistempered chocolate. “It doesn’t make the chocolate unhealthy or change the flavor of it, but it’s extremely ugly. We try to avoid this by making the chocolate very stable in temperature,” Owen explained.

Although the members of the ICS could simply just buy their own chocolate, the true reward is found in the process of creating it. “I love making chocolate because we have full control over how it tastes,” Owen said. In contrast to commercial chocolatiers, the members of ICS don’t add extra ingredients into their treats. The only ingredients they use are cocoa beans and sugar. “Most companies add extra cocoa butter, which weakens the flavor of the chocolate but allows them to add things like milk and sugar. However, we only use the cocoa butter naturally found in the bean,” Owen explained.

The ICS makes 75 percent dark chocolate, which is as low as possible without adding extra ingredients. “Personally, I think the chocolate we make tastes better than store-bought chocolate,” Owen said. “It’s really about pure, dark chocolate. I look at trying to get the most of the flavor from the bean to the bar. Chocolate should have a depth of taste and most importantly, should be delicious,” Owen said.

However, the club isn’t only about making chocolate. “We’re called the Institute for Chocolate Studies because there is a scientific bent to the organization. We analyze the science of the chocolate-making process, weigh the beans at each step to measure our yield and conduct experiments to improve our processes,” Owen explained.

In the future, the ICS hopes to expand. In the first week of reading period, the ICS plans to host a factory tour in Frist, where they will showcase their machinery, chocolate beans and samples. Recently, Owen also met with Stu Orefice, Head of Dining Services, to discuss a possible partnership. Owen hopes to eventually sell their products in the C-Store.

In the meantime, the members of the club are hard at work perfecting their product. But the time ICS members spend bent over machines in Dodge-Osborn kitchen is more than just work — it provides its members with an interesting and unusual break from their studies. Plus, it’s a great icebreaker — as Portnoy puts it, “It’s always a cool thing to drop into conversation, that I have to go roast chocolate.”

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