Thinking Out Of The Conch: From Bean To Bar With Paul A Young

Posted by in Features on March 20 2014 | Leave A Comment

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Chocolatier Paul A Young is well known for his challenging and exotic creations, but could his first bean-to-bar chocolate, made from whole unwinnowed cocoa beans, change the way we make chocolate?

Paul A Young has become one of the UK’s best known chocolatiers by changing the way we think about flavours. From his famous Marmite Ganache, to his popular Port & Stilton truffle and Cigar Leaf Caramel, there’s nothing run of the mill about his chocolates.

Whether or not one of his more unusual creations works for you has always been a very individual thing. Like the Marmite in his truffles, some of his creations elicit an unashamed “love or hate” reaction. The thing they have in common is that they force you to change your perception of how chocolates should be made.

Now for the first time, Paul has moved beyond simply making truffles and bonbons from couverture and graduated to making chocolate from the bean. But his approach to chocolate making is likely to get people talking more than ever.

It’s a project that has been in development for over a year. But it was during one of his early experiments with his team that he hit on an idea that it seemed would not only save time and labour during the chocolate making process, but would also reduce wastage and potentially enhance the flavour of the chocolate.

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Whole Bean Chocolate

The key was in the winnowing. The time consuming process of removing the paper-like shells from roasted cocoa beans. Most chocolate makers have machines the do this automatically, but doing it by hand in their early bean-to-bar experiments, the team started to wonder why they were doing it at all. After all, they knew the shells had flavour, as they’re often used to make “cocoa tea” infusions. So why not just leave them on?

The team made a batch roasted beans with their shells still on and were surprised and delighted with the results.

The Whole Bean Chocolate Making Process

Making chocolate from whole beans is not just simpler than using shelled beans, but it also reduces waste. Cocoa shells may be light, but when you start making chocolate in bulk, they represent a significant percentage of the bean that simply gets thrown away. By keeping the shells on, more of the bean is used and waste is reduced. “We use around 38kg of a 40kg bag of cocoa beans” he tells me.

With the shells on though, there is always the risk that contaminants could get into the chocolate, so the team are strict about quality control, examining every bean before it goes into the chocolate. This process also helps them remove any smaller, mis-shaped or damaged beans that might react differently to the roasting process.

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The Beans

Paul is initially using beans supplied by Menakao from Madagascar, one of the country’s best known cocoa growers and chocolate makers. The beans are a varietal blend (Criollo, Trinitario, Forastero) and arrive in London fermented, dried and ready to roast.

Roasting is done in a conventional oven, but in order to get the best flavour from the beans and their shells, they undergo a ‘two phase’ roasting process. After an initial roasting at a high temperature for 20 minutes, they are then given another 5 minutes at a lower temperature. This process is designed to get the maximum flavour from the beans and their shells, while keeping the flavour of the chocolate “true” to the bean itself.

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Breaking The Beans

After roasting, the next phase in the chocolate making process is to break the beans in to small pieces. Paul has found that the simplest way to do this is with a standard food processor on the “ice crystals” setting.

It only takes a few pulses to break the beans into small enough pieces to go into the melanger, and release the most amazing smell. As his team breaks the beans, the whole kitchen is filled with a vibrant, fruity, acidic aroma.

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The Cocoatown Melange

If there’s one company that has driven the explosion in bean to bar chocolate in the last five years, it’s Cocoatown. Their melanges – converted spice grinders – do the job of grinding, refining and conching in a single machine, not much bigger than a desktop food mixer. They’ve revolutionised the bean-to-bar chocolate industry by making it affordable for chocolate makers to get off the ground.

Paul has the smallest model Cocoatown offers, and it has proved more than adequate for their initial needs. The inside of the melange has a granite base and two granite rollers that revolve inside, slowly grinding, refining and mixing the chocolate.

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The broken beans are added slowly to the machine and with the help of a little initial heat from a paint stripper, they soon start to form a paste. Sugar is added slowly, and eventually the heat of the friction alone is enough to transform the mixture into cocoa mass – and eventually into chocolate.

Paul has chosen to break with convention when it comes to the sugar he uses too. Rather than the cane sugar that most chocolate makers use, he uses unrefined, organic Demerara sugar. Being a pastry chef by training, Paul sees using the right sugar as just as important as using the right cocoa. Rather than being just a neutral tasting sweetener, the Demerara adds its own unique character to the flavour of the finished chocolate.

The chocolate is ‘conched’ for just 7 hours – a tenth of the time of many bean to bar chocolates. Instinctively, you might think that you would want to conch a “whole bean” chocolate for longer in order to create a perfectly smooth chocolate, but the conching process doesn’t just refine the texture.

As the chocolate is stirred for hour after hour, chemical changes take place that affect the flavour of the finished chocolate. Some of the acidity is broken down over time, resulting in a more rounded flavour, but you also lose many of the characteristic notes present in the bean.

Getting the conch time right is a balance between getting the best texture and flavour from the bean. It’s a very subjective thing, but Paul has chosen to try to remain “true” to the flavours present within the bean combined with a less refined texture.


The final step in the chocolate making process is the tempering – the controlled heating and cooling of the chocolate that’s required in order to produce a glossy looking bar with the perfect “snap” when you break it.

As a traditional chocolatier Paul has always prided himself on being one of the few who tempers chocolate by hand on a marble table. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s chosen to hand-temper his bean-to-bar chocolate too. I’m not aware of any other bean-to-bar chocolate makers tempering in this way, so this may be another first for a commercial bean-to-bar chocolate.

The Finished Product

“Everyone shells just because that’s what they’ve been told”

There are two bars in the range for launch, a 64% and a 73%. Both are dark chocolates made with Menakao cocoa beans.

As you might expect, the chocolate has some texture to it, but it also has a bold, punchy and acidic flavour. It’s difficult to tell how much of the texture is down to the shells and how much is simply because of the short conch time, but Paul tells us that with a longer conch time he is able to produce perfectly smooth chocolate. He just prefers the texture and flavour of the less refined bean.

Which begs the question: Why does anyone winnow cocoa beans in the first place?

“Everyone shells just because that’s what they’ve been told.”, he tells us. It has become the standard practice and nobody questions it. There are undoubtedly reasons why winnowing might be advantageous: the beans could be easier to roast, or the shells may cause issues with some chocolate making equipment. But having tasted the chocolate, I can’t see any reason why winnowing should have become the only option.

The thing I love best about Paul A Young is his experimental nature. He has never been afraid to question the way things are done or to take risks. It might not always work, but more often than not it results in unique and exciting products that both challenge and delight.

His bean-to-bar chocolate is no exception.

Paul A Young’s Whole Bean Madagascan Chocolate bars are available to buy now from his four London shops. To order by phone, see their website.

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Comments On This Post

  1. I can see that the bars would be good, as I often eat roasted cocoa beans without peeling them. My only concern is that you say the texture is granular, and I really prefer my chocolate smooth as opposed to having a granular texture. Maybe Paul Young will make a convert of me! I look forward to tasting the new bars.

  2. Fascinating post, lovely to understand the process.

    Had been so looking forward to attending but have been a little poorly last few days and knew wouldn’t be 100% by yesterday. Am finally feeling more human today. So close!

    I’m really intrigued by your question about why more bean to bar producers don’t do this. I know you are a huge fan of Duffy’s bean to bar chocolate amongst many others, and wonder if you might pose that question to him and others in the industry, and see if they have any input onto why they don’t make any bars that include the outer shell too.

  3. Beautiful post. And yes, this is the beginning of a trend in the bean to bar chocolate market especially in the raw chocolate sector.

  4. Charles Sanderson

    Nice, cutting corners on the process but selling it as “pushing the envelope”. What’s next, the whole egg omelet? Can you legally sell bar that in the UK?

  5. Joe

    “Terrible idea for the following reasons:
    1. Shells are much harder to refine than the nibs. Smooth chocolate made with as much as 20% shell will be VERY over refined.
    2. Shells are incredibly bitter, and honestly don’t contain a lot of flavour.
    3. Shells contain a very significant amount of acetic acid. Making chocolate with the shell means conching a much longer time to oxidize the acetic acid.
    4. Shells are the part of the plant that stores the heavy metals and other nasty elements (cocoa is often grown in volcanic soil full of heavy metals)
    5. For strictly health reasons, it’s a very bad idea

    If you’re making chocolate WITH the shell, unzip the top of your head, insert a brain and think about this for a second: Large chocolate manufacturers make a profit of pennies on the pound for the chocolate they manufacture, and in spite of some making 100’s of millions of lbs of chocolate per year, some STILL go bankrupt. They are always looking for ways to mitigate their costs. Do you actually think that in an effort to shave costs, they would WILLINGLY discard as much as 20% of their key ingredient if they didn’t have to??? Remember, they are paying not only for the product, but also the shipping!”

    Here are some more reasons why this is a terrible idea.

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