On a recent visit to the Ferry Building in San Francisco, California I dropped by Dandelion Chocolate to try something rare and fascinating: a raw, fresh cacao bean.
Cacao beans are the main ingredient used to make chocolate. They grow on giant, colorful pods on cacao trees, usually in tropical parts of places like Ecuador, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast.
The vast majority of cacao beans are removed from their pods, dried, fermented, and roasted near where they’re harvested, before being shipped to chocolate makers in the United States and elsewhere.
That means almost nobody gets to try the beans fresh. But for a special event celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Ferry Building, Dandelion brought out some fresh beans straight from the pod and let visitors give them a try.
The Surprising Taste
I love cacao nibs, the crunchy fragments of fermented, dried, and roasted cacao beans. They taste a bit like espresso beans, except with less caffeine and less of coffee’s bitterness.
When I grabbed a little paper cup with a fresh cacao bean from Dandelion’s tasting table and popped it into my mouth, I expected it to taste very similar to a cacao nib.
In reality, it tasted totally different.
Before they’re dried, fermented, and roasted, cacao beans are surrounded by a gelatinous, watery pulp. They look a bit like a cross between a giant, colorless pomegranate aril and a garden slug.
Their taste, though, is fascinating. It’s light, fruity, and subtle, with zero chocolate flavor. The bean I tried reminded me a bit of Tutti Frutti bubble gum if said bubble gum had the texture of a super ripe mango.
Dandelion says they taste like lychee fruit, which seems about right, and perhaps more poetic than Tutti Fruitti.
One Plant, Miles Apart
The difference between eating finished cocoa and a fresh cacao bean, then, is a bit like the difference between munching on table grapes and sipping a glass of aged Cabernet Sauvignon.
Yes, both technically come from the same plant. But in terms of taste and eating experience, they’re miles apart.
If you want to try fresh cacao beans yourself, check out Dandelion’s roster of classes, which occasionally feature opportunities to taste the beans or stop by their Mission District store for one of their daily tours.
For me, trying a fresh cacao bean was a reminder that while cacao does grow on trees, chocolate doesn’t. It’s a complex, human creation honed over millennia of experimentation by people all over the world.
That knowledge makes biting into a piece of Dandelion’s finished chocolate—or even a humble Hershey’s bar—that much more rewarding.