A cocoa pod is a strange-looking fruit about the size and shape of a rugby ball. 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.
It’s a long journey to transform this cocoa pod into a packaged chocolate bar, and one that involves many steps along the way. Each of these steps has a significant impact on the flavour, texture, taste, and mouthfeel of the finished bar, and craft chocolate makers delight in experimenting with these steps to explore the full wonders of the cocoa bean.
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:
Table of contents
On the Farm
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.
Whatever the variety, the next thing that affects flavour is location. The location of a tree; its soil, climate, and topography (collectively known as “terroir”, as it is in the wine world) has an important impact on the flavour of the bean.
Once the cocoa tree is producing fruit, it’s time to harvest. 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 (or, it might get converted to other uses).
Mass Production vs Craft: Clones
One thing to watch out for is the worrying emergence of clone varieties. These strains have been genetically modified for high yield and disease resistance, but they’re causing havoc in cocoa growing regions.
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 around 5-7 days (it can be as short as 3 days or as long as 15). During this process, the wet cocoa is ‘turned’ to add oxygen and ensure a more uniform ferment.
These variations create different flavour profiles in chocolate bars, which you can experience by comparing similar chocolates with different fermentations.
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 Jamaica, where he’s teamed up with Roger Turner to create this “Fermentation Project” bar.
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.
It can also have a surprising impact on the final flavour of the beans. Beans dried too quickly will taste bitter; too slowly and they start to rot instead of drying out.
You can try bars made with beans which have been dried differently, and taste for yourself.
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 quality or depth of flavour. 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.
Roasting is often the first step done by the chocolate makers themselves. Makers receive small batches of beans and prepare them for roasting, often hand-sorting 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 or coffee roasters; others have specially designed machines that rotate the beans to give an even and accurate roast. 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!
Mass Production vs Craft: Whole Bean Roasting
One thing that sets apart craft chocolate from mass-produced chocolate is the process of whole-bean roasting. This is slightly less efficient than roasting the nibs, but delivers a much fuller flavour.
An emerging trend in recent years is the concept of raw chocolate. Really, there is no such thing, as beans reach temperatures well above the popular “raw food” threshold during fermentation.
But what makers tend to mean by “raw” is actually “unroasted”. Some makers, such as Raaka in Brooklyn, choose not to roast the beans, which gives a different, and slightly more savoury, flavour profile on the finished product. Other makers, such as Conexion in Ecuador, flash roast the beans to achieve a similar result.
As for the health benefits of raw chocolate, we’re yet to be convinced. These claims join the numerous, dubious, health claims made for chocolate.
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, or at larger scales with specialised machines, which removes the lighter shells and leaves only the nibs ready for grinding.
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. Most craft chocolate makers add extra cocoa butter to give their chocolate a smoother, glossier texture, while most mass-manufacturers replace the cocoa butter with cheap vegetable fats. It’s yet another 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 spice or 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.
Mass Production vs Craft: Couverture and Liquor
The main difference between craft chocolate and mass-produced chocolate, at least at the making stage, is the use of chocolate couverture or liquor.
Believe it or not, large corporations start their manufacturing process at this stage. They purchase either couverture (pre-made chocolate buttons ready to be melted) or liquor (pre-prepared melted chocolate). It’s the difference between cooking yourself a roast chicken and putting some chicken nuggets into the microwave (we explain this analogy a bit more in our virtual tastings).
That’s why craft chocolate makers make such a big deal about being bean-to-bar. There are so many steps before this stage that affect the flavour and quality of chocolate. They’re expensive steps, they take time, but makers don’t want to cut corners. They want to make the best possible chocolate, and that means starting on the farm.
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 crystal structure (the wrong kind of crystal structure 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.
Most of us, at some point in our lives, have encountered chocolate bloom. It’s the white stuff that appears on a chocolate bar that’s been sitting too long in the sun or a warm cupboard, or been put in the fridge and come into contact with moisture.
Chocolate bloom is harmless, and is just the result of the crystal structures in the chocolate reforming. It’s sometimes sugar and sometimes cocoa butter, but either way there are always things you can do to put it to good use.
Watch out for bloom on cheap chocolate, though; this is a mixture of vegetable fats and palm oil, so it won’t make such a good moisturiser!
The final step to turn bean into 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.
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!).
Many makers have transitioned to compostable packaging, with some even using food waste or cocoa bean waste to make up their cardboard.
And one final difference between craft chocolate and mass-produced chocolate is the concept of savouring. Mass-produced chocolate is made to be scoffed; recipes are designed to trick our brains into eating more than we want, and the wrappers are not designed for resealing.
On the other hand, craft chocolate is made to be savoured, one piece at a time, over the course of a few days or weeks. That’s why many makers use resealable packaging (the pinnacle of which being Pump Street’s award-winning airtight resealable pouches).