ENCYCLOPEDIA BOTANICA / CACAO
Cacao is one of the most heady, delicious and intoxicating botanicals on the planet. A ritual beverage, a currency, the source of our most-loved confectionery: chocolate.
Description & Habitat
The cacao tree is a small, tropical evergreen tree in the mallow (Malvaceae) family that grows from Southeast Mexico through to the Amazon basin. The tree can also be found in other temperate climates, but as it requires both high rainfall and high temperature to flourish, it tends to grow best in the band of countries within 20 degrees north and south of the equator. Much of the cacao used at The Alembics Lab is sourced from small, organic cacao plantations in the Solomon Islands.
In their natural habitat the trees grow in the understory of humid forest ecosystems. The flowers grow directly on the trunk, and while there can be thousands of blossoms, only as many as 50 will ripen into this most remarkable fruit (the literal meaning of Theobroma is ‘food of the gods’). The fruit is a large, ovoid pod and can weigh up to 500g. This pod can contain 20–60 seeds (called beans) that are enclosed by white pulp (called ‘baba de cacao’) that can be juiced and is sometimes fermented. The raw beans range from pale lavender to a dark purplish-brown, hinting at the antioxidant compounds they contain. From the beans, we get raw cacao nibs (also known as cocoa nibs) and of course all other chocolate products.
Parts used: Beans, pulp and leaves.
The beans are harvested, fermented, dried and roasted. From there they can be cracked apart into raw cacao nibs (also known as cocoa nibs) which is what our flavour profile will focus on. The nibs can be further processed—the fat is extruded by pressing the beans—giving us cocoa butter, and the remaining cocoa solids, often sold as cocoa powder.
Cacao seeds (beans) and pulp
Aroma & Flavour Profile
The untreated beans are astringent and bitter, but when fermented they develop fruity wine and sherry-like flavours. The roasting process can give rise to ‘a near infinite combination’ of nutty earthy, woody, flowery and spicy notes and the exact flavour profile of the cocoa depends a lot on the variety used.
The aroma of good quality cacao nibs is exquisite—enticing, rich and deeply satisfying. The flavour is of course like well-made chocolate, but without the cloying, sugary-sweetness. It’s a clearer, deeper, darker scent. The initial mouth feel is buttery, even fatty—and feels nutritious and warming, progressing to a pleasing bitterness. Theobromine and caffeine—the active ingredients in cacao nibs—contribute to that bitterness.
The white pulp that surrounds the seeds is quite different. It’s fruity, sweet, tangy and slightly acidic. It can be juiced or used in smoothies, jellies and even icecreams. It’s also fermented and made into an alcoholic beverage.
*Cacao does not produce an essential oil, so steam distillation for essential oil is not recommended.
• Hydro/steam distillation (for hydrosol) • Steam distillation (spirits) • Tincture • Absolute (solvent extraction) • Fixed oil infusion • Simple infusions • Cooking •
Teas and infusions
Cacao nibs (both whole and ground) make a deliciously intoxicating and nourishing drink. Cacao was highly revered in the ancient Americas, and was used in religious rituals and ceremonies. Today, there are many different ways to enjoy imbibing cacao. Cacao nibs can be simply blended with water off the boil or warm milk to make a rich nourishing uplifting drink. It can be blended in teas—like the Alembics ‘Dark Shot’ that has cacao nibs, cassia bark, liquorice root, bitter orange peel and ginger root. Teas like this can be infused and served either hot, or cold, sweetened or not. Chilled, it’s like a zero ABV chocolate martini. They can also be ground up and steam-expressed by an espresso machine. In some places, the leaves have also been used as teas and extracts for medicinal purposes.
The largest culinary use of cacao is in chocolate-making, as cacao gives us both dark and white chocolate. White chocolate is made with cocoa butter, milk, vanilla and sugar, and has relatively few flavour variations, while the complex processing undergone by most dark chocolate explains the huge variation in flavour. In addition to being a confectionery, many cooks view chocolate as a spice, as it adds richness and depth to savoury dishes—in part, because bitterness is a great flavour booster. Mexican chocolate (dark and coarse, often with cinnamon and vanilla blended in) is an ingredient in red or black moles (‘mole’ simply meaning sauce). It’s magical when paired with chilli (try ancho and mulato as they already have chocolatey notes).
This hydrosol has a delicate aroma true to cacao nibs and a light chocolate flavour. It has applications for zero ABV drinks, cooking and cocktails, as well as in skin-care, where it can be used as the aqueous part of formulations. In our experience, we’ve found the hydrosol was unstable (moulds developed) in a short period of time though. This could be overcome by using standard preservation protocols.
Cacao does not produce an essential oil, so products sold as chocolate or cocoa essential oil are likely to be solvent-extracted.
While cacao does not produce an essential oil, it is available as an absolute (where the cacao is immersed in a solvent to extract the scent). The aroma of the absolute is said to be true to chocolate and is used as a heart note in natural perfumery. When blended skillfully, it can highlight florals or lend a creamy sweetness. While you may recognise chocolate in some ‘gourmand fragrances’ (a perfume with edible notes, described as ‘olfactory desserts’) these utilise synthetic molecules. Theirry Mulger’s Angel is a prime example.
Being high in fats, cacao will readily infuse into a vegetable oil when heated gently. It is said to be an excellent skin food, and is also used by chefs in cooking and baking (some examples are extra virgin olive oil infused with cacao and chilli, or cacao and vanilla).
Cacao nibs can be macerated and steam-infused in aromatic spirits, either on their own for a chocolate vodka, or as a gin ingredient (yes, we have done it, and the results were remarkable). In a blend for a botanical spirit it imparts a chocolate character without the strong taste or colour—something to mystify the senses. A delicious chocolate bitters can be made by infusing the nibs in 60% ABV. The result is indeed quite bitter, but has the rich, dark colour and the unmistakable taste of chocolate. It works well in a blend with bitter orange, peppermint or berries.
Skin care and cosmetics
Cocoa butter—the pale yellow, edible fat extracted from the bean—is used extensively in skin care products as a lubricating and nourishing fat. It’s a key ingredient in many cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and toiletries. The hydrosol can also be used as the aqueous part in formulations, and can be used in conjunction with creams and lotions in products like clay recipes.