Have you ever wondered how chocolate is made?
You may be familiar with Willy Wonka’s factory and its chocolate waterfalls, candied grass, and the hard-working Oompa-Loompas. As you could have guessed, it does not quite work like that.
I feel like I didn’t respect chocolate until I understood how it went from being an astringent bean to a smooth candy that melts into a delightful bouquet of flavors. The process that the raw material undergoes to develop its flavor profile and the right texture requires some science and precision. To correctly estimate the value of your favorite treat, you must understand the various steps of cocoa from bean to bar. It is time to honor the work of the chocolate making supply chain.
By learning about the different steps of the chocolate making process, you empower yourself and the chocolate makers. Hopefully it will inspire you to favor high-quality chocolates and encourage you to demand corporate social responsibility.
Theobroma Cacao in the farm
Cultivation & Harvesting
Today, about 45 countries around the globe produce cacao. Cacao trees need heat and humidity to grow, so you will find them in areas between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, around the Equator.
It is a difficult crop to cultivate. It takes the tree between 3 to 5 years to flower, yet only 1 to 5% of the flowers will give a fruit. The cacao tree does not produce enough sap to feed all of its fruits, so odds are some of them will dry on the tree well before they ripen.
From pollination, the fruits require about 6 months to develop and ripen. Each tree will produce 30 to 40 pods on average per year; the equivalent of 4 lbs of dried beans.
The pods are cauliflorous, which means that they grow directly off the trunk. The cacao pods need to be harvested manually. It requires the precise handling of machetes or short hooked blades mounted on long poles to gently cut the pod off the trunk without hurting the tree. It is a labor intensive task.
Once collected, the pods are split open and the beans are removed. The flawed beans are separated from the fresh ones. Fresh beans are surrounded by a white pulp called baba. About 3,000 years ago, the baba was used to make a fermented cacao wine.
The left-over pods and pulp is a potential source of livestock feed or soil fertilization material.
At this stage, the cacao beans do not have either the smell or taste of chocolate. The selected beans will be placed in piles and prepared for the next step.
The beans are cleaned by hand and prepared for fermentation. It is the first step that will have an impact on the beans’ taste. It takes between 4 to 9 days. The technique used can vary according to the area where it is conducted:
- Heap method: the beans make a heap on a bed of banana leaves in a flat and dry spot. The heap is covered by banana leaves and left to ferment.
- Cascading boxes: the boxes have holes at the bottom to let the juice run off. The beans start in box #1 on the top and lower down as the process evolves. They are covered by banana leaves.
- If the climate is right, the beans could be just heated by the sun.
The beans are stirred up from time to time to ensure they are equally fermented. The fermentation will kill the seeds’ germs, the pulp will decompose and release the seed, and the chocolate flavor precursors are developed. During this process, the bean will turn into a darker, usually brown or purple-ish/red color.
After fermentation, the beans are humid. The drying process aims at lowering the moisture content of the beans to keep them from rotting. It will also complete the oxidation processes started during the fermentation. The fermented beans will be left in the sun, spread on trays, tables or cement. The beans are constantly raked to ensure they dry evenly. The process takes between one to two weeks.
It is possible to use an oven that blows warm air. It reduces the drying time, but it is a more costly technique. Care must be taken not to burn the beans. This technique is mostly used in areas where the climate is humid.
Usually, experts will prefer the cacao that slowly has been dried under the sun.
The dried beans are about half their original weight. They pass a quality check, they are graded, packed into bags, and ready for shipping. The bags are either traded on the international market, or exported directly to the chocolate maker.
This part of the supply chain is the one that lacks transparency. When sold to big corporations, cacao beans from different origins may be mixed together to ensure consistency in the quality of chocolate.
Traceability determines the location and the history of the beans. It is an incentive to use ethical practices and sustainably produce cacao. It empowers communities. It allows us to effectively identify risk factors, take actions to ensure quality, and improve the lives of the cacao small-holders. Finally, it builds trust and accountability along the supply chain, from the farmer to the consumer.
The Beans in the Chocolate Factory
Once they’ve arrived at the chocolate factory, the beans are cleaned, roasted, crushed into cacao nibs, stripped of the shell that protects them, and refined until they are ready to move onto the creative process.
Roasting refers to the process of putting the beans in rotating cylinders at high temperature (between 212-284°F / 100-140°C) ranging from 20 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the variety and desired result.
A chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars give the browned beans its distinctive flavor and aroma. It is called the Maillard reaction. Proper roasting is a key step to a flavorful chocolate. The precursors formed during fermentation react to the heat and form various compounds.
During the roasting process, the shells of the beans have become brittle and are removed.
Until now the beans may be referred to as “cacao beans”. After the fermentation, drying, and roasting process, it may be referred to as “cocoa beans”.
The cocoa beans go through a winnowing machine which cracks them into “cocoa nibs”. The nibs then pass through a series of sieves to sort them according to their size, while fans blow away what’s left of the shells.
The nibs may be blended with other origins (up to 10 varieties) to maintain a constant quality and control the subtle mixtures and flavors; or they may be kept separate and described as single-origin chocolate.
Grinding is the process by which the cocoa nibs are ground, the heat releases its fat which then melts, creating an oily mixture called “cocoa liquor” or “cocoa mass”. This cocoa mass is solid at room temperature.
When put under high pressure, the cocoa mass results in cocoa butter and cocoa powder.
Cocoa mass is the main ingredient of chocolate. Other ingredients such as cocoa butter, sugar, milk powder, soy lecithin, and others are added according to the manufacturer’s formula.
Dark chocolate contains cocoa mass, cocoa butter, and sugar. To create milk chocolate, add milk powder to the dark chocolate. White chocolate on the other hand is made primarily from cocoa butter, sugar, and milk powder.
In 1879, the conche machine was invented by Lindt chocolate company. It slowly manipulates the chocolate at elevated temperatures, until all solid particles are coated with fat to achieve the desired viscosity. It has other effects such as removing excess moisture, evaporating volatile acids, and developing chocolate’s final color. It is the last step that affects the flavor and tactile sensation of chocolate.
The chocolate is then refined, which means that we shrink the size of particles to get a smooth texture.
The tempering process aims at achieving the most stable connections in the cocoa butter’s molecules. It is a controlled crystallization, which is conducted thermally. It aims at getting consistently-sized crystals (the ideal is called form V).
When chocolate is not fully tempered, the cocoa butter molecules are being pushed to the surface, because they are not neatly packed together. A well-tempered chocolate will have a shiny surface, a smooth texture and a sharp snap.
The chocolate is now ready to be delivered to a chocolatier.
Artisan’s Final touch
The artisan, baker, chef, is now free to let creativity prevail. Time to make art.
You don’t have to be a pro to enjoy cooking with chocolate. Follow our recipe for dark chocolate vegan truffles and try your hand at making delicious treats for your loved ones.
The effort put into the making of chocolate is just as valuable as the crop. High quality chocolate is the result of intensive and precise work. By learning about the chocolate industry, we hope that you will change how you perceive its value; which could ultimately contribute to a sustainable future for the cocoa supply chain.
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