This post is the first of an educational series about the hidden side of chocolate. In this installment, you’ll learn where chocolate comes from and how it is made.
Last fall, I hosted a chocolate education workshop at a local elementary school. When I asked the 100 (!) kids to guess what was inside the cacao pod I brought, one of them said “chocolate.” I smiled but also wondered: how many adults actually know how chocolate is made? Until two years ago, I had no idea. Because chocolate relies on a crop from faraway countries and on expensive equipment you cannot pick at a kitchen supply store, it remains a mysterious food for most. However, knowing where your food is coming from from is important, as it will provide a deeper appreciation of it. So in this post, you’ll learn how chocolate is born and how it’s made. Spoiler: it takes a lot of work to make your favorite food.
How Chocolate is Born
Cacao beans are the fruit of the cacao tree or Theobroma cacao. The tree grows in areas 20 degrees North and South of the Equator known as the “Cacao Belt.” Cacao beans come in pods, which are picked and cracked open by the cacao producer.
While most fruits are consumed soon after being picked, cacao beans are actually fermented and dried for 5-7 days after being harvested. According to many craft chocolate-makers, this labor-intensive step is the most crucial when it comes to flavor development. When I interviewed Carol Morse from Acalli Chocolate last year, she explained how a life-changing trip to a plantation shaped her perception of cacao as a specialty food, not a commodity.
“I want to pay a price that treats cacao as a value-added specialty product, not a commodity. Because there is a huge amount of work that goes into cacao production: cultivation, harvesting, fermenting, drying… I want to acknowledge all the work that has been done by the farmers before I even receive the beans.”
Once the beans are dried, they are packaged in large burlap bags and shipped to chocolate-makers across the world.
How Cocoa Beans Become Chocolate
Next, the chocolate-maker will sort the beans by hand, looking for flaws and foreign objects: because the beans are sold by weight, some producers will add non-cacao items to get more money for their beans. Then comes another key step in flavor development: roasting. Roasting the beans help release the beans’s inherent flavor and reduce the astringency of the resulting chocolate. Some makers like Raaka do make chocolate from unroasted (please don’t say raw!) beans but the shelf life of these bars will be shorter.
Once the beans are cooled, they will be cracked and winnowed to separate the shell of the bean from the nib. The nibs will be crushed, then ground and refined in a machine called a conche for a total of two-three days*. I used to think that making bread was time-consuming, but not anymore. Can you imagine waiting for several days before realizing your chocolate batch does not taste as expected? Me neither.
*At this stage, we refer to the bean as “cocoa bean” vs. “cacao bean. (source: The Chocolate Tasting Kit by Eagranie Yuh)
Anatomy of a Fine Chocolate Bar
As the beans are ground, they are mixed with additional ingredients like sugar and cocoa butter (for a smoother texture) to give the chocolate the desired taste and texture.
After the chocolate mixture leaves the conche, it is ready to be tempered and molded. When the bars have completely cooled, they are unmolded and wrapped.
By now, you have probably gained an appreciation for the labor-intensive process that is chocolate-making. Of course, not all craft chocolate-makers are equally skilled at coaxing flavor of the beans, but Bar & Cocoa works hard (translation: Chris and Pashmina taste a lot of bars) so you can just come home to a brown box and enjoy your chocolate.