The Chocolate Centre of Excellence brings innovation and inspiration to the Nestlé chocolate world

Posted: 12 May 2010 | Dr. Ian Roberts, Director of the Chocolate Centre of Excellence, Nestlé | No comments yet

Cocoa has always held a special status in society. It has evolved from being used to make a beverage featuring at sacrificial ceremonies, travelled via the conquest of the indigenous cultures of Meso-America to the Spanish Royal Court and through high society in France and Italy to find a more peaceful home in the Swiss Alps. It now provides pleasure to millions of consumers across the world on a daily basis.

Cocoa has always held a special status in society. It has evolved from being used to make a beverage featuring at sacrificial ceremonies, travelled via the conquest of the indigenous cultures of Meso-America to the Spanish Royal Court and through high society in France and Italy to find a more peaceful home in the Swiss Alps. It now provides pleasure to millions of consumers across the world on a daily basis.

Cocoa has always held a special status in society. It has evolved from being used to make a beverage featuring at sacrificial ceremonies, travelled via the conquest of the indigenous cultures of Meso-America to the Spanish Royal Court and through high society in France and Italy to find a more peaceful home in the Swiss Alps. It now provides pleasure to millions of consumers across the world on a daily basis.

The secret of the cacao (pronounced kah-KOW) tree was discovered 2,000 years ago in the tropical rainforests of the Americas. The discovery of consuming cocoa is attributed to the Classic Period Maya (250-900 AD). Cocoa was a central component of the culture of Meso-America featuring in Aztec and Mayan ceremonies and royal gatherings. Priests presented cacao seeds as offerings to the gods and served chocolate drinks during sacred ceremonies.

The cocoa was harvested from the trees in the depths of the rainforests (a far cry from the more organised cocoa farms of today), fermented, ground into paste, mixed with chillies and cornmeal and consumed as a bitter, highly spiced, frothy beverage. Today, in Mexico, this chocolate beverage culture continues to thrive, with less use of chillies, but a wide use of cinnamon and some sugar to mask the bitterness in products such as ‘ABUELITA’. The ceremony remains central to the preparation of the product and creates a focal point for the family, with the mother using a specially made wooden ‘molinillo’ (a type of whisk) to make the foam before serving her family.

By 1400, the Aztec empire spanned from Northern Brazil to central Mexico, covering a sizeable segment of Meso-America. The Aztecs traded with Mayans and other peoples for cacao and often required that citizens pay their tributes in cacao seeds, making cacoa the principle form of currency.

It was not until the 16th century when the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez presented cocoa beans from the New World to the Spanish King Carlos V that the first form of chocolate arrived in Europe. Cortez realised that blending this bitter beverage with sugar would create a delicacy. The Spanish mixed the beans with sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, cloves, allspice and cinnamon. The results were tantalising and remained a secret that Spain managed to keep from the rest of the world for almost 100 years!

The first chocolate factories opened in Spain, where the dried fermented beans, brought back from the New World by the Spanish treasure fleets, were roasted and ground. By the early 17th century, chocolate powder, from which the European version of the drink was made, was being exported to other parts of Europe. The first solid affordable eating chocolate is credited to Joseph Fry of Fry & Sons, founded in 1728 in Bristol, England.

With the invention of milk chocolate by Daniel Peter in 1875, using dark chocolate from Francois-Louis Cailler and milk from Henri Nestlé, Switzerland became the centre of chocolate production. The abundant supply of high quality fresh milk, craftsmanship and technology innovation, combined with its central location in the European land mass allows Switzerland to maintain a privileged status in the chocolate world.

Today’s innovation challenge

From this rich history, the consumer relationship with chocolate has grown. Each consumer has an emotional relationship with chocolate, be it the chocolate their grandfather always gave them as a child, the chocolate they always have whilst skiing or that they give to their children at Easter. It has ceased to be just a product and has become a more holistic and emotion-linked consumer experience.

The challenge today in chocolate is not to reinvent the production technology, but it is to understand and redesign the consumer experience and thereafter use artisanal skills, technology and science, design and creativity to deliver that experience.

Meeting the challenge

At the Nestlé Chocolate Centre of Excellence, building on the heritage of more than a century of chocolate expertise at Broc in the Canton de Fribourg, Switzerland, we combine the artisanal skills of the chocolatier with the incomparable scientific and technical expertise of a Nestlé global R&D network that includes nine locations working on confectionery. The holistic approach to innovation encompasses consumer and sensory science, design, chocolate creation, raw material and sourcing expertise, brand and business knowledge and of course, packaging and product expertise. All this is combined within one inspirational setting and with a licence to create unique and delightful consumer experiences.

Understanding consumers

Understanding the role that chocolate plays in our consumers’ lives provides the link between how chocolate is presented and purchased (flavour combinations, packaging, channel), and how the consumers relates to it (guilty pleasure, sanctuary, tenderness). For instance, milk chocolate offers a more regressive experience as it is often linked to childhood memories, while dark chocolate offers a more intimate sensual pleasure.

Uncovering the hidden truths of the consumer’s relationship with chocolate is made possible by the use of psychological, sociological and anthropological studies with which we can help consumers to express their chocolate dreams, hopes and aspirations:

“Chocolate… it is meant to be savoured at home; it is a whole ritual, a selfish moment, for oneself… I only eat very good chocolate.”

“Chocolate should induce my eyes to automatically close, otherwise it’s just not good enough.”

Creating the experience

The role of design becomes more holistic than traditionally employed in food. Indeed, beyond graphic design, mixing design and food is still new for mass consumption. It has generally been applied to limited edition collaborations between famous designers and brands e.g. the Yule Log (known as ‘La Bûche de Noël’ in French-speaking countries), is a very specific and traditional French chocolate cake designed by Philippe Starck for French Master Pastry Chef Gaston Lenôtre.

In the Chocolate Centre of Excellence, the designer acts as a catalyst for innovation by being involved in the whole consumer experience: from product to packaging to point of sale and consumer engagement in the brand. Creating packaging or a sales display is not unusual for a designer, but working on food is novel. Chocolate must be appealingly packaged, visually beautiful, easy to eat, offer an in-mouth experience that can be enhanced by shape and size, fit in the mouth, and, of course, compliment the sensorial creativity of the chocolatiers.

Far from being internally focused, the Nestlé designers co-ordinate inspirational partnerships with leading art & design schools to invite fresh eyes and new ideas to the world of chocolate.

Designers, chocolatiers, and consumer and sensory experts work hand in hand creating new concepts, presenting to consumers, fine-tuning, returning to consumers and then focusing on the best concepts. In this manner, large numbers of ideas are generated and rapidly focused to identify the winning concepts for further development.

A simple and elegant example of the marriage of design, science and the artisanal skills of the chocolatier is the recent launch under CAILLER SUBLIM in Switzerland of a new experience enhancing shape of tablet. This fits better to the mouth, not just due to its size, but also due to the relationship of shape to the curvature of the mouth and it delivers an enhanced melting experience and more pleasurable flavour release. This innovative chocolate shape has been launched in many countries. Among them are: NESTLE GOLD in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, Portugal and Singapore, NESTLE GRAND CHOCOLAT in France, PERUGINA LATTE in Italy, and NESTLE NOIR in Canada.

Delivering the sensory experiences

The sensorial pleasure of chocolate remains central to the consumer experience and falls under the remit of sensory science, “a scientific discipline used to evoke, measure, analyse and interpret reactions to those characteristics of foods and materials as perceived by the five senses1.”

The chocolate sensory experience is a treat for all the senses. From the visual appearance of the packaging and product in the shop window, to the silky touch of milk chocolate, the snap when we break a square of a dark tablet and the intense smell upon opening a box of pralines prepares us for the combined in-mouth sensations of the rich flavour, the smooth silky melting or crispy texture that crown that experience.

Cocoa bean selection is the first step in satisfying sensory pleasure. Selecting and blending the diverse range of flavours and aromas, e.g. Ecuadorean fine cocoa, with delicate floral notes or more acidic and fruity Ghanaian cocoas, relies upon the experience of the chocolatiers and the science of the sensory specialists.

Focusing only on the cocoa materials, we discover a world full of flavours with a wide range of notes such as fresh citrus fruits, jasmine flower, spicy cinnamon, ginger or nutmeg and roasted nut. Cocoa is a natural product and the extraordinary variety of the flavours is influenced by several factors, including the variety of the cocoa tree, the soil, the climate and the fermentation and drying of the cocoa beans. Cocoa crops are especially vulnerable to disease. For example, Brazil saw its crop decimated by witches’ broom fungi during the 1990s and is only now recovering. Mexico has been particularly hit by Monilliasis since 2005, whereas in Western Africa, it is mainly black pod that continues to threaten harvests. Significant support is required to replenish tree stocks and provide agronomic assistance on how to best cultivate the trees, reduce the impact from diseases, respect the environment and increase the productivity of the farms (we address this at

The sustainable sourcing of fine quality cocoa is an imperative for high quality chocolate, but the carefully sought flavour profiles that consumers prefer demand equally sensitive and controlled handling during processing. Cocoa roasting is a critical step in flavour development and the high thermal loads, typically in the range of 130-145°C for 25-30 minutes, must be tailored to enhance the desired floral and spicy volatiles such as linalool and the development of roasted notes e.g. from aldehydes and esters. The beans are then milled to produce the liquor and this is profiled by trained sensory experts. The experts are trained for up to 12 months to be able to recognise, name and grade for intensity the different flavours they perceive.

The sensory properties of cocoa liquor are mapped for each cocoa bean type and a flavour profile is established. This guides the chocolatiers to process the cocoa liquor in the best way to exploit the ‘nobleness’ of cocoa.

Once the liquor is produced from the beans and the raw materials are mixed together, the optimal particle size is achieved typically through a two step refining process. Although a wide range of particle size targets are found in commercial products to yield a very smooth, almost silky texture and optimal melting behaviour and flavour release in the mouth, a target of < 18 microns is desirable2.

The refined ‘dried’ chocolate powder is mixed in a conch, exposing the mix to a controlled time-temperature profile and degree of mechanical energy tailored to each recipe and the final desired sensory properties.

During the conching process, each solid cocoa and sugar particle is coated by cocoa butter, resulting in the optimal rheological properties3 and the right melting behaviour. In parallel, undesirable volatile components, for example, acetic acids from the fermentation process, will be removed and flavour com­ponents transported from the cocoa particles to the hydrophilic surface of the refined sugar crystal4. The chocolate mass is tempered to produce the beta V crystal form of the poly­morphic cocoa butter, giving optimal heat stability (high melting form), snap and quality5.

The key challenge may be to deliver unique and wonderful consumer experiences, but this cannot be achieved without a dedicated programme of technical and scientific knowledge enhancement and application through the extensive Nestlé R&D network and with leading institutes and universities across the world.

Building the future

Blending the creativity of the chocolatier and designers, the mastery of chocolate technology, the knowledge of consumers and the chocolate business, whilst balancing experience with innovative fresh eyes, the Nestlé Chocolate Centre of Excellence provides a unique opportunity to build on our chocolate heritage and expertise and to continue to bring delight to today’s and future consumers.


  1. Lawless, H.T., Heymann, H. (1998), Sensory Evaluation of Food Principles and Practice, Chapman & Hall, New York, NY
  2. Beckett S., Industrial chocolate Manufacture and Use (2009); ISSN: 781405139496
  3. Windhab E. J.; What makes for smooth, creamy chocolate (2006); American Institute of Physics, S-0031-9228-0606-370-8, page 82-83
  4. Ziegleder G. (1997); Aromaentwicklung beim Conchieren; Süßwaren 41, Nr.11, 44-46; ISSN: 0721-0825
  5. Zimmermann K. and Green H. (2008); Nestlé cocoa processing and chocolate manufacturing; New Food; Vol 11; issue 3

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