Rodney Snyder can identify the origin of cocoa beans by their flavor and aroma. That’s not a statement of ability one comes across very often. But Snyder works for MARS Chocolate North America as their “Chocolate History Platform Manager,” and cocoa beans are his business. He travels around the world finding the best ingredients and methods for chocolate-making. Snyder will be lending his expertise to NMAI’s Power of Chocolate Festival for Saturday's 10:30 and 1:00 cacao bean grinding activities and discussing the history of chocolate (Valentine’s Day weekend, people!). I caught up with him via email to find out just what it’s like to eat chocolate for a living…
When and how did you discover that you had such a discerning palate for cocoa beans?
Tasting cocoa and chocolate samples is an ability that develops by repetition over many years. One of the most critical aspects of developing a palate is learning a common vocabulary for flavors with other tasters. While everyone can taste, describing what you are tasting and the memory of previous tastings is what separates a food taster from everyone else. The nice part is that if you are willing and able to taste thousands of chocolates, you are well on your way to being a trained chocolate taster.
Would you say chocolate is a passion for you, or is it more of a business?
I think that chocolate first started out as a business for me and quickly grew into a passion. I was living on a cocoa research farm six weeks after I joined Mars Chocolate, and seeing cocoa pods growing on cocoa trees was an unforgettable sight. As I learned more about cocoa and chocolate and how it has been cultivated and processed into chocolate for thousands of years, my passion for history and chocolate intersected. I now have a collection of over 500 chocolate books and pamphlets with the oldest dating back to 1693. It still amazes me how much chocolate has changed over the years while still remaining the same. Talking about chocolate is a sure way to elicit a smile from just about anyone.
Do you ever get tired of the flavor and take a chocolate vacation?
Tasting chocolate and the search for great chocolate can be a lifelong pursuit, where the journey takes on a life of its own. Real, authentic great chocolate is the holy grail, but there are many pretenders who rely on packaging and marketing instead of the chocolate. Because of the wide selection of chocolates in the marketplace, a true chocoholic must become discriminating in the chocolates that they eat. Many of the chocolates that I taste end up in the waste can, regardless of their price. Finding a great chocolate makes it all worthwhile.
How much difference is there in the chocolate production and cocoa bean handling in different locales, and how does that affect the final taste?
Since there are more than six million cocoa farmers worldwide, the flavor of cocoa varies from region to country to continent. A trained taster can determine how the beans were fermented and dried and where the beans were grown by examining the color, flavor and aroma of the beans. The actual chocolate production is fairly standardized and well-known, but flavor variations in the cocoa beans can result in variable chocolate flavors. Great chocolates can only be created with great cocoa beans.
Do you think you have a deep-seated loathing of vanilla?
A lot of people think that chocolate and vanilla are opposites because of their color, but vanilla is a common ingredient in many foods, including chocolate. Although the flavor of the vanilla may not be apparent in chocolate, it enhances and melds together the other flavors in the chocolate. I actually have a lot of respect for the way that vanilla is willing to sacrifice its own flavor for the benefit of the chocolate flavor.
Give me a quick history of chocolate?
The story of how chocolate is interwoven throughout the fabric of North American history is incredibly fascinating. There are countless stories of famous Americans and their love of chocolate (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, etc.), but one of my favorite sayings is “Chocolate is more American than apple pie.” Cocoa beans are indigenous to the Americas, and chocolate has been enjoyed in the Americas for thousands of years. The only apple trees native to America are crabapple trees, which are great as ornamental plants but not so good in pies. With the publication of Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage, the role of chocolate throughout North American history is only now being more well-known.
During your travels have you found that much is being done to improve the eco-friendliness of the product?
All chocolate products rely on over six million cocoa farmers to produce cacao. These farmers, working on mostly small, family-run farms, depend on cocoa for their livelihoods. However, cocoa crops have always been plagued by serious global losses from pests and diseases due to little investment in scientific research to improve the cacao tree. Some of the most recent activities to address these concerns are:
- Mars, Incorporated (in conjunction with USDA and IBM) announced that they had mapped the cacao genome. By making the results publicly available, scientists now have access to key learnings to advance plant science, while plant breeders and cacao farmers can develop cacao trees that are more sustainable and better fend off the environmental assaults that inflict $700 to $800 million in damages to farmers’ crops each year.
- Mars, Incorporated raised the bar on its long-standing commitment to cocoa sustainability by announcing its commitment to certify its entire cocoa supply as being produced in a sustainable manner by 2020. Mars was the first global chocolate company to commit to such a certification.
And of course, I have to ask, what’s your favorite candy bar?
I personally spent a lot of time and energy identifying the best cocoa beans and the chocolate process required to retain the healthy cocoa flavanols for Dove® Milk and Dove® Dark chocolate. Many years and 11 patents later, I still believe that the silky smooth flavor of Dove® chocolates are worth every calorie. And my always understanding wife wholeheartedly agrees with me.