Account

The 9 Steps To Chocolate Perfection

By Isabelle Whitaker  ·  29th July 2014  ·  Uncategorized

How is Chocolate Made?

To understand how chocolate is made, we have to start at the beginning: the cocoa pod.

A cocoa pod is a strange-looking fruit about the size and shape of a rugby ball (or American football). One of the rare fruits that grows on the trunk of its tree, it ripens into a myriad of colours, from green to orange and purple to red.

Inside the fully grown pod is a sweet, juicy, white pulp and three or four dozen cocoa seeds. These seeds are very bitter and astringent – and do not taste at all like chocolate.

The journey from this cocoa pod to a bean, then a roasted nib, and finally a Craft Chocolate bar, involves many steps.  And each of these steps has a significant impact on the flavour, texture, taste, and mouthfeel of the finished chocolate bar.

Craft Chocolate makers delight in experimenting with these steps to showcase the amazing diversities of flavour, texture and taste from their cocoa. Their direct relationship with growers enables them to experiment with different methods of harvesting, fermentation, and drying, similar to the way in which winemakers experiment in their vineyards and with their grapes.

This approach is very different from that of mass-market chocolate producers, who are primarily focused on achieving consistency and the lowest possible price.  Craft Chocolate makers and growers, on the other hand, are focused on realising the extraordinary depth of flavour present in their bars and beans.

The makers’ care, skill, and attention to detail are what makes every chocolate bar at Cocoa Runners special. So, bearing in mind the steps may vary slightly maker to maker, here’s an overview of each step of the chocolate-making process:

Terroir, Variety, and Harvest

The first step to growing cocoa is figuring out what variety of cocoa tree to plant and where. Cocoa genetics is a complex and poorly understood area of food science, and the history of cocoa varieties is often obscure. The location of a tree – its soil, climate, and topography (collectively known as “terroir”) – also has an important impact on the flavour of the bean.

There’s a lot to cover in both terroir and varieties, so for now this short note will have to suffice. Keep an eye on our blog for articles on each of these fascinating fields.

Once the cocoa tree is producing fruit, it’s time to harvest. In most parts of the cocoa growing world, the cocoa harvest tends to have two peaks a year, one much bigger than the other, with lower yields between them and a short off-season. In some regions, though, this distinction is negligible, effectively producing a single peak with long shoulders either side.

Harvest times vary region to region, though the process of turning pods into chocolate begins immediately. Pods are cut open with machetes and the white pulp containing the cocoa beans is scooped out to be fermented.

Taste for yourself:

Not all cocoa harvests are created equal. Everything from geography, soil type, and the climatic conditions of the harvest have a huge impact on the beans and the chocolate’s flavour profile.

For each of their bars, Marou sources its beans from a different Vietnamese province. Each region, or terroir, produces a bar with a distinctive taste. Compare the red fruits of their Ba Ria bar to the spicier notes of their Dong Nai bar, made from neighbouring provinces of the same names.

Fermentation

Once the pod has been opened, the white pulp immediately reacts with different yeasts and bacteria and starts to ferment. To create high quality beans, this fermentation needs to be carefully controlled.

To do this, the seeds and pulp, collectively known as “wet cocoa”, are placed into large wooden containers where the mixture ferments for up to seven days. During this process, the wet cocoa is ‘turned’ to add oxygen and ensure a more uniform ferment.

It’s a demanding step, and one that requires a lot of investment and education for farmers. But because of Craft Chocolate makers’ relationships with growers, it’s one of the areas feeling the most benefit from the Craft Chocolate boom.

Some chocolate makers are now experimenting with new yeasts (in a similar way to wine). For example, Chris Brennan, of Pump Street Bakery and Pump Street Chocolate, has sent some of his sourdough yeast to Ecuador, where his friend and grower Von Rutte is using it to ferment the beans from his Hacienda Lemon Estate. We can’t wait to try the fruits of these experiments!

Taste for yourself:

Danish chocolate maker Mikel Friis Holm makes two bars using the same recipe and beans from the same place. The only difference is the amount of turns during fermentation: one set of beans was turned twice, the other three times. Compare the peachy floral notes of the double-churned to the punchier citrus notes of the triple-churned:

Drying

Then, once fermented, beans are removed from the boxes and dried, usually by spreading them out in a single layer under the sun. This is usually the last stage before shipping, so it is important that the beans are thoroughly dried to prevent mould during transit.

Fermenting and drying are incredibly important parts of the chocolate-making process. Fermentation is the first step that draws out the beans’ natural flavour, and improper drying can ruin a sack of beans. But they are also time-intensive tasks that require a critical mass of cocoa, which is why many small-scale farmers do this process together in cooperatives.

Farmers selling to large-scale chocolate manufacturers have no incentive to do these steps well, as large companies care only about price and not about the depth of flavour in well-fermented beans. It is only when farmers are paid a fair price by makers who care about these processes that the full flavours of the cocoa bean is allowed to shine through.

Taste for yourself:

If done naturally, the drying phase has little impact on the flavour of the chocolate. But in some places, such as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, the wet climate makes it impossible to dry beans under the sun. Instead, beans are dried next to an open wood fire, which infuses them with the aroma of wood smoke.

Roasting

Roasting is the first step done by the chocolate makers themselves, often in Europe and North America, where the cooler climate makes the chocolate making process easier (though an increasing number of makers are making chocolate at the source, in the country of origin). Before roasting, beans are often hand-sorted on delivery to make sure no poor beans make it into their bars.

The process and equipment used to roast the beans varies considerably maker to maker. Some use standard ovens, others have specially designed machines that rotate the beans to give as even and accurate a roast as possible. The exact temperature and roast time are part of the chocolate maker’s (often secret) recipe and will have been worked out with careful experimentation and lots of tasting!

Taste for yourself:

Rob Anderson at Fresco has created bars using the same beans and the same recipe except for one important distinction – the roast time. Roasting the beans less for a ‘light’ roast, or roasting them more for a ‘medium’ or ‘dark’ roast, has a significant impact on the flavours of the bar.

A recent trend in the world of chocolate has been bars made from unroasted beans. This is different from “raw” chocolate (which doesn’t really exist), though, confusingly, some people use the terms interchangeably. It’s a contentious issue, and you can read more about it here. Though one of these bars is “Unroasted” and the other “Raw”, both are actually made from unroasted beans. Have a try and see what you think:

Cracking and Winnowing

Roasted cocoa beans have a thin, papery shell that needs to be removed before processing. The beans are cracked open to create a mix of broken shells and small pieces of the inner bean called “nibs”. The mixture is then blown lightly with a fan or a hair dryer, which removes the lighter shells and leaves only the nibs ready for grinding.

Taste for yourself:

While the shells aren’t used in chocolate, they are edible, and they can be brewed in a cafetière to make a delicate chocolatey infusion called cocoa tea. The nibs themselves are intense concentrations of cocoa’s distinctive flavours, and makers sometimes include nibs in bars to give you a sense of this extraordinary depth.

Grinding and Conching

Stone rollers then grind the cocoa nibs into a paste known as cocoa mass or cocoa liquor. This pure, unrefined liquid form of chocolate contains both cocoa solids and cocoa butter (the natural fat present in the bean).

At this stage, cocoa butter can be extracted from the cocoa mass with a hydraulic press, which is useful as most chocolate makers add extra cocoa butter to give their chocolate a smoother, glossier texture. Most mass-manufacturers replace this extra cocoa butter with cheap vegetable fats, which is one thing to look out for when looking to avoid bad chocolate.

Traditionally, the cocoa mass is then transferred to a separate machine called a conche, where it is ground even finer (known as “refining”). Many modern artisans combine the grinding and conching into a single process using a machine called a melanger. This large metal cylinder with two rotating granite wheels is often just an Indian home lentil grinder, which can grind and conche at the same time.

The conching process is similar to kneading dough. It has a big impact on the flavour and texture of the finished chocolate, and can be done for a shorter or longer time (anything from a few hours to a few days) depending on the maker’s preference. It affects the size of the particles within the chocolate, which impacts the texture of the final bar (the smaller the particles, the smoother the chocolate). Deciding exactly how long to conche for is one of the skills of great chocolate makers.

It’s also during this step that sugar, milk powder (for milk chocolate) and other flavourings are added to the chocolate.

Taste for yourself:

Taza’s stone-ground chocolate misses out the conching step entirely, which gives it a coarse biscuit-like texture closer in style to the original chocolate bars of the nineteenth century. At the other end of the spectrum, French chocolate makers such as Pralus are renowned for their superbly silky bars, achieved through long conching times and extra cocoa butter.

Tempering

Great chocolate should have a shiny finish and a satisfyingly clean “snap”, and both qualities are dependent on good tempering. Tempering puts the chocolate through a controlled temperature change while being agitated, which allows the cocoa butter to form the right kind of crystals (the wrong kind of crystals would make the chocolate soft and crumbly).

Tempering can be done by hand, though most makers use tempering machines that can process larger batches of chocolate and control the temperature more accurately. They can also keep the chocolate circulating at a good temperature, ready for moulding as required.

Taste for yourself:

The addition of milk to chocolate changes the temper considerably – notice the difference in snap in these two bars from Madagascan maker Menakao:

Moulding

The final step of turning bean to bar is pouring the liquid chocolate into a mould. The melted chocolate is simply poured into plastic bar-shaped moulds and shaken to remove any air bubbles. Larger chocolate makers have machines and conveyors that deposit exactly the right amount of chocolate into each mould, but many smaller manufacturers still do this part by hand.

Mould design has a surprisingly large impact on flavour. Thin bars melt quickly, so their flavours emerge faster. Thicker bars, on the other hand, melt slowly, which typically allows more nuance to be detected in the slow-changing flavour experience. Additionally, the shape of the bar impacts our perception of flavour – “sharp” flavours, such as spice and citrus, are accentuated by pointy shapes, whereas “round” flavours, such as potato and vanilla, are accentuated by round shapes.

Moulding Dandelion Bars

See for yourself:

Many makers distinguish their bars with customized moulds, allowing their chocolate to be instantly recognizable. Budapest-based maker Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé mould their chocolate bars to look like 19th-century Hungarian fireplace tiles, while Dick Taylor’s intricate mould is inspired by the founders’ backgrounds in woodworking.

Wrapping

Once cooled, the chocolate is wrapped up ready to be sent out. While some of the biggest makers have machines that do this, most makers still wrap their bars completely by hand (often roping in family members and whoever else is around to help).

See for yourself:

Bryan Graham at Fruition hand-signs every single bar, as you would a work of art, and Pump Street Bakery’s clever and distinctive resealable packaging has won them a host of awards.

    WANT 5% OFF?
    Add your email to the Cocoa Runners mailing list to get a personalised discount coupon code.
    Don't miss out!
    SUBSCRIBE
    I agree to the terms and conditions
    No, thanks