Fermentation Transforms the Beans

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
Cacao fermentation is a fermentation of the pulp, not the beans, but it transforms the beans as well. The acetic acid produced by the vinegar bacteria penetrates into the beans and etches holes in cells as it does so, spilling the contents of the cells together and allowing them to react with each other. The astringent phenolic substances mix with proteins, oxygen, and each other, and form complexes that are much less astringent. Most important, the beans’ own digestive enzymes mix with the storage proteins and sucrose sugar and break them down into their building blocks—amino acids and simple sugars—which are much more reactive than their parent molecules, and will produce more aromatic molecules during the roasting process. Finally, the perforated beans soak up some flavor molecules from the fermenting pulp, including sugars and acids, fruity and flowery and winey notes. So a properly conducted fermentation converts the astringent but bland beans into vessels laden with desirable flavors and flavor precursors.