Engineering unique tastes at West Point
December 6, 2011
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Dec. 6, 2011) -- Inside a small lab on the top floor of Bartlett Hall, the most amazing chocolate is being made by, no, not chefs, bakers or anyone remotely connected with the culinary field.
They are West Point's chemical engineering cadets and members of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Club. Chemical engineering is paramount to food manufacturing, and the work they do inside the lab, dubbed the West Point Chocolate Factory, explores the science behind making chocolate.
Class of 2012 Cadet Rebecca Kratz was put in charge of the production this academic year and said it has been a work in progress.
"You're always trying to build upon what the last group of firsties did, and also we want to try new things too," Kratz said.
She has experimented with light and dark chocolates and only recently began exploring different flavors using mint and almond extracts.
"Eventually, I want to try making white chocolate," Kratz said. "It's not actually chocolate (it's a derivative of chocolate) because it doesn't contain cocoa. I'm actually thinking about doing more food products using chocolate, like chocolate-covered strawberries. But for now I'll stay with the flavoring and see how that works out."
She also learned the hard way what happens when you burn chocolate.
"It became really solid and kind of crunchy," Kratz said. "I liked it and thought it tasted good even with that weird texture."
Class of 2012 Cadet Shaun Kelsey said flavor-wise, burning chocolate is like over roasting coffee. It just added a "boldness" to it. The most common mistake made with chocolate comes during the crystallization process when discoloration can appear on the surface. He said this can be displeasing for chocolate lovers who favor texture over taste.
"It's called blooming. There's nothing wrong with it, but there's actually too much crystallization and that creates this discoloration on the top," Kelsey said.
Club members traveled to Hershey, Pa., in late September to tour the Hershey Research and Development Center and the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Facility. Members of the West Point Chocolate Factory brought along samples of their own product and learned about the manufacturing of chocolate.
"Their factories are just these giant pipelines of chocolate and all the raw ingredients to make their products on a large scale. I mean, they have vats of raw ingredients that measure thousands and thousands of gallons," Kelsey said. "It was impressive because that's chemical engineering in action -- getting everything at the right temperature in the right mixture and measurements to make the final product exactly as it needs to be."
The Bartlett Hall lab is also home of the West Point Kicking Mule Brewing Company. Since 2009, chemical engineering cadets have produced West Point's official brand of beer, which is sold exclusively at the Firstie Club. Early in September, Class of 2012 Cadets Cody Koffman and Stanley Benarick, the cadet brewmasters, delivered the first batch (a keg of Belgian White) and celebrated the installment of the Kicking Mule tap handle.
The AIChE Club is basically divided by these two products. While they may attend the same conferences and club outings, display their research together at Projects Day and give samples at tailgates, but the cadets have never mixed products. Kelsey said last year an instructor suggested making a chocolate beer, but the cadets were steadfast in their disapproval.
Chances are slim, he said, West Point will ever see chocolate-flavored beer or beer-flavored chocolate.
Membership in the AIChE Club is automatic for all chemical engineering students during their sophomore year, which is not to say it's a very big club at all. Of the approximately 4,400 cadets at West Point, there are only 44 cadets currently studying chemical engineering.