Updated: Jan 3
A particularly volatile flavour particle is nudged out of place by the sudden burst of heat. It leaves the plant fibre through its semipermeable cell’s membrane and into the hot water. I take a sip.
Osmosis happens all around us and inside us, but it is particularly gratifying this time of year, when we brew tea.
What is cacao tea?
Cacao pods are full of cacao beans, coated in pulp. The beans are full of nibs (which once ground, are chocolate), the nibs are encapsulated by a thin layer of fibre: the husk, or “skin” or the beans.
This husk, once fermented, dried, and roasted, is aromatic and full of water-soluble flavour. It’s also high in tannins, and smells toasty like hot-chocolate.
This husk is usually considered a waste product, but at our Chocolate Lab we don’t throw anything edible away.
Most chocolate makers (outside the bean-to-bar world) dispose of their husk, which makes up around 15-20% of the weight of the beans once fermented and dried, of what is being shipped from the cacao farm to the chocolate maker.
This means the 1) Nutrients and effort to grow the husk 2) resources and labour to ship the husk and 3) resources and labour used to separate it from nibs are all wasted. 1/5 of the total weight of dry, fermented cacao.
When cacao is processed poorly, the husk is covered in mould and then roasted-to-burnt, which is why there is no good use for commodity cacao’s husk. But responsibly handled, cacao husk is versatile and delicious.
Growingly, people are learning about the incredible uses and features of this part of the plant. Cacao husk makes an incredible, toasty, chocolat-ey tea on its own. But it has so many more uses. To me it is no surprise that an overlooked part of the cacao plant is just as amazing as the rest of it.
What kind of flavour can I expect?
Cacao husk is richer in aroma than flavour. Aroma is a huge part of the flavour experience, especially with hot food & beverage.
The flavour is creamy-woody, and the smell is very much chocolate. For the tannins husk also brings a gentle “puckery” mouthfeel similar to that of drinking black tea or wine, or eating grapes. Used correctly, this mouthfeel can be incredibly satisfying, even addictive.
Depending on the cacao’s roast profile you will sometimes get additional late-notes of vanilla, caramel, or red wine.
What can you do with it?
Cacao husk has a huge range of uses, and we are constantly discovering more.
At its simplest, steeped in hot water it makes a caramel-colored tea that smells like chocolate-heaven and gives your mouth a satisfying contraction sensation similar to black tea.
Other uses for husk?
””Blended tea. We recommend the following blends for Dak Lak’s husk:
Tie guan yin
Winter spices (cinnamon, orange peel, cardamom, clove, nutmeg…)
Spirit infusions like whiskey, rum, or mezcal to be sipped.
Spirit/liqueur infusions for cocktail making, including the above but open to much more creativity. (More on this below!)
For inspiration, consider COA’s Cacao Rosita, or Yardbird’s Cacao Negroni, or Ozone’s husk-rumble negroni. You may notice they are choosing dry cocktails that benefit from the tannins’ mouthfeel.
Cacao soda: Make a strong cacao husk tea with cinnamon, strain and mix with soda water. The flavour would come out stronger with a pinch of sugar in the first step.
Kombucha: Cacao husk is very rich in tannins, making a very happy SCOBY, and a very active kombucha fermentation - usually more active than a black tea fermentation.
Addition to another vegetable fermentation: Tannins’ puckering experience is a physical reaction which makes cells contract. In our body this is healthy as it helps cells get rid of toxins. In lactic-fermented vegetables this effect helps keep our veggies crisp.
Aromatic addition to cold-brew coffee: Give your cold brew coffee a chocolatey backnote and aroma!
Addition to a marinade, stock, or sauce: use like other fibrous spices, short infusion around 90ºC will add character, mouthfeel, and color.
Aroma-tizing another beverage/food: Many beer makers, even one sake maker, use Conspiracy's husk for a late-stage short infusion as a way to add the aroma of chocolate to the beverage. Same can be done with food.
Balance out a fatty dish/flavour’s mouthfeel by “cutting” the mouthfeel of the fat with the crisp dry of the tannin.
Take your bubbly to the next level: Upgrading a champagne cocktail and additional crisp will make it fresh, balance out sweetness, and give it a woody-chocolatey aftertaste.
How to get the best flavour from husk?
Cacao husk is mostly made of fibre, most of its flavour is water soluble. Like other tea, it is best added to your food/beverage via infusion into water, or osmosis. Its flavour is also enhanced with a pinch of sugar in that water.
You can of course also use animal/plant milk, juice, or even ice cream,
Cacao husk behaves like a highly fibrous spice, but as a thin material it should spend less time in your infusion that cinnamon or cloves do.
The only way to go wrong with husk infusion is infusing it too far and reaching the bitter compounds “deep” inside the fibre. Same as overbrewing most teas/herbs/spices.
We recommend to combine it with hot water around 90-95ºC (no need to be so precise) and remove from the water once the colour is dark-caramel, around 3-5 minutes.
The same approach can be taken to the finishing of a sauce/glaze or broth/soup: turn off the heat, add a bit of husk inside a soup bag/cheese cloth/etc and remove once the smell/flavour feels right, between 2-4 minutes.
Advice from a Hong Kong F&B industry expert
"Simplest method is to steep the cacao husk into a spirit forward cocktail directly.
Take a Negroni for an example. Make a batch and then add the husk directly inside the drink. Like submerging tea leaves into hot water. the alcohol in the Negroni acts as a solvent (just like water but better) and extracts flavors from the cacao husk.
Start with around 25-30g. of the husk to about a liter cocktail. Use this as a guideline to start with. You could also use a spirit like tequila or rum for this process.
The infusion time depends on the strength of the cocktail or spirit. It’s best to test the drink every now and then to make sure you’re not overdoing it. As it could lead to a bitter infusion.
Rest the infusion in room temperature away from direct sunlight.
Once the infusion is done strain out the cacao husk from the liquid."
Jay also says that when a pure spirit infusion is not looked after, it can over-extract flavour and reach bitterness. His tip for increasing the margin of error on the level of infusion is, as he describes above, make the full cocktail first, which has overall lower in ABV than pure spirit and infuse the husk into it. This slower chemical reaction is safer for us to manage as it will require more time to reach an unpleasant over-extracted stage, giving us enough time to taste and strain before it gets there.
Do you have other uses for cacao husk? Please get in touch and share them with us!