Have you ever wondered how your favourite chocolate bar came into existence? The journey from a humble cocoa bean to the delicious treat you savour is fascinating. It all begins in tropical regions where cocoa trees grow, producing colourful pods filled with cocoa seeds. Follow along as we explain how chocolate is made, from bean to bar and from farmer to consumer.
Growing and Harvesting the Beans
The story of chocolate begins with Theobroma Cacao trees, primarily found 20 degrees north and south of the equator in hot and humid regions mostly in West Africa, Latin America, and South East Asia. The cocoa pods, which house the all-important cocoa seeds (later to become beans), grow from these trees.
Cocoa trees grow best under the protective shadow of other trees like banana, plantain, and palm trees. Cocoa trees are fussy plants that are intolerant of too little rain too much wind or too much sun and are susceptible to pests and blights. The trees can live up to 100 years but are most productive for about 25-30 years.
Cocoa pods containing cocoa seeds are about 8 to 14 inches long and are grown from the trunk and branches of the cocoa tree, which generally flowers and produces pods twice a year. Generally, the trees produce around 20 to 30 pods annually, and each pod contains about 20 to 50 cream-coloured, almond-sized cocoa seeds.
It takes about 400 to 600 cocoa beans to make 1 kilogram (about 2.2 lbs) of chocolate!
Farmers carefully harvest the pods by hand using machetes or knives, as the tree is quite delicate and the pods require careful removal. After harvesting the pods, Farmers split them open and scoop out the slippery white seeds encased in a slimy white pulp. Then, they ferment and dry the cocoa seeds on their farms or in a designated location in their villages.
Raw cocoa beans are edible but they don’t taste that great. You can eat the white pulp but it won’t taste like chocolate! Cocoa beans are in the fruit family, and the pulp has an off-sweet and tangy flavour, like a melon. Farmers must leave the pulp on the cocoa seed to start the fermentation process.
Fermenting the Beans
Cocoa farmers ferment the beans to develop the rich chocolate flavour we love. They heap the pulp-covered seeds into piles, boxes, or baskets covered with banana or plantain leaves. These leaves have enzymes that interact with the seed pulp to create heat and assist in fermentation. During the fermentation process, beans can reach temperatures of 45°C to 50°C.
Fermentation takes two to seven days and affects the chocolate’s final flavour. As the beans ferment, the pulp’s natural sugars convert into alcohol and lactic acid, breaking down the bean’s cell walls. This step also eliminates bitterness and develops aromatic compounds. Fermentation kills the viable cocoa seeds and changes them into cocoa beans which farmers can then dry and further process.
Drying the Beans
After fermentation, farmers spread the cocoa beans out on mats, trays, or concrete floors to undergo a natural drying phase for about five to seven days. They turn or rake them until they reach the desired moisture content. Some farms harness the power of natural sunlight, while others employ specialized drying rooms and other methods to regulate temperatures! Drying stops fermentation and further enhances flavour. Drying also extends the beans’ shelf life, which is important for marketing and exporting the beans.
Marketing the Beans
After drying the beans, the farmers clean and sort, weigh and pack them into jute sacks. Then, the farmers transport the bags to an exporting company, where they sell the cocoa beans to representatives of chocolate-making companies or their intermediaries. They inspect and grade the cocoa and send it to a warehouse near a port to get it ready for shipping and exporting to manufacturing facilities in other parts of the world.
Roasting the Beans
The chocolate maker will roast the beans to reduce water content and to develop richer aromas and flavours. The process involves heating the beans in large roasters at around 250°C, which releases the aromatic compounds and removes any remaining moisture. Roasting also is a kill-step to get rid of nasty bacteria like Salmonella.
Roasting can take around 30 minutes or less when using a machine, but in some cases, this process can be as fast as 10 minutes! The time and temperature are key determinants of cocoa flavour.
Keep in mind that chocolate makers are different than chocolatiers. As the title suggests, chocolate makers make chocolate while chocolatiers use chocolate to craft the tasty confections many of us love eating.
Winnowing the Beans
After roasting, the cocoa beans go through a machine that cracks them open and removes their shell. Sometimes chocolate makers sell the removed shells as agricultural mulch or fertilizer. After roasting the beans, chocolate makers might have them undergo other processes like alkalization which makes cocoa products less acidic.
What Are Cocoa Nibs?
Cocoa nibs are essentially the shelled cocoa bean, carefully stripped of its outer shell and broken into little pieces called nibs. The crunchy nibs smell like chocolate and are safe to eat, but they are bitter. Some companies set aside cocoa nibs to sell; you can add them to smoothies, yogurt, or baking recipes.
Grinding and Conching the Cocoa Nibs
After winnowing, chocolate makers place the cocoa nibs into a large grinding machine that crushes the nibs and grinds them into a paste called cocoa liquor, cocoa mass, or cocoa solids. This process releases cocoa butter which gives the chocolate its melt-in-your-mouth texture.
The resulting cocoa mass then goes through more conching, where machines continually grind and stir it for hours or even days to achieve the perfect consistency. This step helps develop the chocolate’s flavour and removes any lingering acidity or bitterness.
Separating Cocoa Butter and Cocoa Mass
The cocoa bean is more than 50% fat, and chocolate makers can separate it into two products: cocoa butter and cocoa powder. Once they grind the nibs into cocoa liquor (cocoa mass) the chocolate maker can choose which manufacturing process to do next. The makers must put the cocoa bean into a hydraulic cocoa press to separate the two ingredients if they intend to turn the cocoa liquor into cocoa powder and cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is a commodity chocolate makers use in confectionery, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical industries, while they use cocoa powder in the food manufacturing industries after pulverizing and grinding it.
Creating Different Types of Chocolate
Chocolate makers add different ingredients to chocolate mass to create different flavours of chocolate.
Making White Chocolate
Manufacturers combine the cocoa butter from the previous steps with milk, sugar, and vanilla to make white chocolate. White chocolate presents many creative possibilities due to its creamy texture and mild flavour. The reason white chocolate is not brown is because it does not contain brown cocoa solids, only beige cocoa butter.
Making Milk Chocolate
Milk chocolate, on the other hand, includes cocoa mass and cocoa butter alongside milk and sugar. The result is an indulgent treat with a smooth, creamy texture that appeals to many palates.
Making Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate contains even more cocoa solids than its counterparts, giving it a rich and robust flavour profile. With minimal added ingredients, like a bit of sugar and vanilla, dark chocolate offers an intense and satisfying cocoa experience.
Tempering the Chocolate
Tempering is a meticulous process that involves carefully heating, cooling, and stirring melted chocolate to align the fat crystals in the chocolate. Tempering is an essential step when using couverture chocolate for making a smooth, glossy, and evenly coloured coating with a good snap for dipping or decorating baked items or bonbons.
The process of tempering, in both steel and chocolate, is the same. Chocolatiers use tempered chocolate to make the delectable confections we’re familiar with. Some craft a range of creamy fudges, while others make tasty chocolate bars. There’s no limit to what you can produce with amazing ingredients like chocolate!
Shopping for Chocolate
As you shop for your favourite chocolate bars, strive to buy from companies that practice fair trade and are Rainforest Alliance Certified™. Both signify that the company treats farmers well and cares about the community the cocoa came from.
Most chocolate connoisseurs will recommend you buy couverture chocolate when you buy this treat because it is the highest quality chocolate one can buy. Couverture chocolate has a higher concentration of cocoa butter, allowing it to melt easily in the oven or, better yet, in your mouth—it’s creamy and delicious!
At Cococo, we’re firm believers that chocolate bonds us, and we strive towards eco-friendly and fair practices. We’re proud to be Rainforest Alliance Certified™, ensuring our delicious treats satisfy your cravings and work towards a better and more sustainable world. Indulge in the finest chocolate that Calgary, Alberta, Canada has to offer!