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Texture, Emulsifiers, Binding and Lecithins

gif of vinegar and oil separating

Even if you think that you’d like to “glaze over” (pun intended) emulsifiers, they are worth understanding and checking out. The use of LOTS of emulsifiers should raise a lot of red flags; they are extensively used in ultra processed foods, mass produced confectionery, etc. And nutritionists are increasingly worried about some of their health side effects, especially to your gut. But at the same time, there are some cases where emulsifiers can play a role in cooking and even in some craft chocolates.  And there is even some evidence that sunflower lecithin can lower cholesterol.

Texture, Cocoa Butter, Fats and Emulsifiers

One of chocolate’s many wonders is TEXTURE. Its mouthfeel is (literally) unique. It’s the only product that can be solid at room temperature and then, as you place it on your tongue, it slowly melts, conjuring all sorts of unctuous delights and releasing incredible aromas and flavours. (And as a quick side-note: We as humans are also unique in being able to appreciate these flavours as we are the only animal that can detect flavour in our mouths. READ MORE).

In craft chocolate this ‘melting’ is thanks to cocoa butter’s crystal structure. After the cocoa beans have been roasted, they are winnowed and then ground and conched into a fine liquid (think Willy Wonka’s rivers of chocolate). This liquid chocolate is then tempered (i.e. heated, cooled, and reheated) to a specific formula before ‘moulded’ into craft chocolate bars that have the (unromantic) crystal structure “V” or 5. Mass produced chocolate tries to replicate the delights of craft chocolate’s “melt” with a bunch of technologies, fats, and emulsifiers. Some of the technology here is spectacularly creative; for example, it’s no mean feat to create a glossy chocolate that covers a frozen ice cream. But in the case of mass produced chocolate confectionery, the focus on cost is a lot less spectacular. To save costs and improve efficiencies, cocoa butter is replaced and supplemented by other fats, preservatives and emulsifiers. And adding vegetable fats, palm oils, and the frighteningly named PGPR are no substitute for cocoa butter’s amazing melt and texture. So if you are wondering why mass produced bars are often so ‘waxy’, just check the ingredients (READ MORE).

And while you are checking your chocolate bar’s label, remember to look out for emulsifiers (inc. lecithins). Emulsifiers are another mysterious additive in mass produced confectionery, ultra processed foods and even some craft chocolates.

Emulsifiers (including lecithins) are a complex and controversial topic. Below we’ve tried to provide a quick definition, history and overview of emulsifiers. And MIllie has produced a series of quick and introductory videos on the topics.

And we’ve also assembled a bunch of craft chocolate bars that are unapologetically FREE of emulsifiers and then a few that unapologetically CONTAIN emulsifiers.

What is an Emulsifier? Definitions and Examples

As anyone who has ever tried to make a salad dressing with “just” oil and vinegar knows, they don’t easily mix. Sure; you can whisk them together. But soon the oil and vinegar will repulse one another and separate. However if you add a little mustard (or egg yolk), you can ‘bind’ them together so they don’t separate. This ‘binding’ of substances that don’t want to combine is called ’emulsification’. Technically, an emulsifier has one end compatible with oil and the other compatible with water, so it can link with both; so they become ‘bound’ and stick together.

And if you’ve ever made mayonnaise at home adding an egg provides the emulsifier by which the vegetable oil, the lemon juice and other ingredients are bound.

The same is also true of making ice cream; but here the egg’s emulsification properties go beyond binding the ice cream, they also impact the texture, making it far more consistent, and less sticky and gloopy.

Historical Development and Application of Emulsifiers

Cooks, and later food scientists, realised that emulsifiers could not only bind but also preserve foods, as well as improving texture and reducing costs.

The classic example here is margarine which was effectively made possible by the development of various emulsifiers. But food scientists rapidly realised that emulsifiers (or specifically lecithins) would also reduce cost, enhance texture, improve mouthfeel, and could preserve shelf life of anything from biscuits and cakes, to sauces and spreads.

All these developments were made possible thanks to the extraction of lecithins’ from eggs by TN Gobley in 1846 (if you think you’ve seen this name before, you are right: Gobley also figured out how to create vanillin: READ MORE). And then in the 20th Century, scientists worked out how to extract lecithin from soya beans and later sunflower seeds. In parallel, scientists worked out how to extract and synthetically create other emulsifiers from everything from seaweed to plants, crustaceans to animals. And these newer ‘extracted’ emulsifiers often do much more than bind together liquids and solids which otherwise would not mix.

For example; one commonly used hydrocolloid emulsifier is carrageenan, extracted from seaweed. Carrageenan is regularly used in dairy and dairy-alternative products, particularly flavoured milk and soy mylk. It’s also added to processed meats to soften their texture and help them retain 20-40% water, providing a highly dubious cost cutting measure. On the other hand, without hydrocolloids commercial yogurts would be a lot “soupier” and watery as it ‘gels’ the low fat yogurt together.

Today, the US FDA has approved over 100 different emulsifiers for use in food, drinks and food-like substances. Emulsifiers’ ability to improve mouthfeel and reduce cost were critical in the development of ultra-processed foods (and that’s why Michael Pollan’s advice to check the label, and beware any additive that your grandmother wouldn’t recognise, is so useful).

Trying to contextualize and date all these applications and technologies isn’t easy; but here is a vastly simplified attempt.

ApplicationExampleTechnology
BindingOil and vinegar in salad dressingWhisking, mustard seed
Stabilisers/preservativesMargarine, mayonnaiseEggs, tomato paste, then extracted lecithins (19th Century)
Texture (and binding)Ice cream, chocolate, yoghurt, alternative m!lks, etc.As above: Eggs and extracted lecithins. Sunflower lecithin (later 20th Century), hydrocolloids (mid-late 20th Century).
Cost cutting/ commoditisationBreads, confectionery, processed meats, cosmetics, etc.Alternatives to vegetable, natural fats; lecithins, gums, hydrocolloids, PGPR (mid-late 20th Century)

Emulsifiers in Chocolate

Unsurprisingly, mass produced chocolate rapidly realised the advantages of adding emulsifiers to “chocolate”. In the UK as early as 1929, patents were being made for their use in the making and processing of chocolate by Hermann Bollmann and Bruno Rewald. Firstly, emulsifiers help reduce the cost of ingredients (the likes of soy lecithin and PGPR are far cheaper than even palm oil, and way cheaper than cocoa butter). Secondly, manufacturing costs could be reduced by using emulsifiers: Liquid chocolate all too easily “gums up” machines and emulsifiers, by improving viscosity, means that mass confectionery’s machines can run faster, need less cleaning, etc. Thirdly, they could improve shelf life stability (aka stop other fats going grey etc.). Fourthly, emulsifiers enable food scientists to create all sorts of wacky textures; critical for avoiding ‘sensory specific satiety’ that comes from the short and bland flavours of mass produced confectionery, with its reliance on sugar, salt and fat.

So, as with any other ultra processed foods, if you see a bunch of E-numbers and emulsifiers on the label of your chocolate bar, think twice; it’s a likely sign that your chocolate is mass produced, probably from couverture, nib roasted, and is designed for scoffing not savouring.

Perhaps surprisingly, craft chocolate makers do sometimes make limited use of lecithins; for example:

  1. COOKING AND BAKING: Many chefs want some lecithin in their chocolate for making bon-bons, cakes etc. as it makes enrobing, cooking etc. easier. So some craft chocolate will contain lecithin (e.g., Menakao).
  2. BRIDGE BARS: Craft chocolate can sometimes be a little overwhelming with labels detailing beans from a place they’ve not heard of, and listing a percentage that seems dauntingly high. So to “bridge” this challenge, craft chocolate makers create bars that appeal to the familiar, using local ingredients, familiar flavours and tourist-tempting ideas. These bars act as bridges between the familiar and the new. But crafting them is hard; and to bind together theses various “bridging” ingredients, a little sunflower lecithin can be very useful (see below for some examples from Omnom, including their famed Black N Burnt and Liquorice bars).
  3. MOUTHFEEL: This gets a bit geeky, but depending on the beans, the dark chocolate percentage, how finely you grind and conche, and finally what machines you conche with, sunflower lecithin can help smooth out some of the variations in the coarseness of the chocolate granules. Many chocolate makers use cocoa butter to smoothen the mouthfeel, but this can also create some richness that isn’t always appropriate. But if, for example, you are trying to grind super fine (i.e. below 15 microns) and use a ball mill (as opposed to longitudinal) conche, you can get some noticeable variations in the microns of the chocolate granules which a little lecithin can help smooth over. For an example, please see Firetree’s Mindanao Island dark bar and then compare this with e.g., Friis-Holm or Pump Street, who use cocoa butter.

To date, craft chocolate makers have used sunflower (as opposed to soya) lecithin, and ensured that this is not genetically modified.

This use of emulsifiers is very different to mass produced confectionery’s approach. If you look at the ingredients of a mass produced bar of chocolate confectionery, it will have a plethora of different emulsifiers; for example, a bar of Dairy Milk contains emulsifiers and fats including the emulsifiers E442, E476, PGPR, and both palm and shea oils.

By contrast, a craft chocolate bar in most cases won’t contain any emulsifiers or lecithins. And if they are used, it’ll just be ONE lecithin (and no palm oil or vegetable fats, etc.).

Emulsifiers and Your Gut

One final comment:

There is increasing research suggesting that various synthetic emulsifiers, in particular carboxymethylcellulose, polysorbate and carrageenan, may cause issues with the gut and allergic reactions. At the moment, no one is suggesting that these emulsifiers are another nitrite like problem (nitrites are the carcinogen in many processed meats). But it’s worth keeping an eye out for more research here, and keep up to date with our blog.

On the other hand there is also some research that sunflower lecithin’s supplements can help lower HDL cholesterol (the bad stuff), reduce ulcerative colitis and improve memory loss. Plus sunflower lecithin is good as a moisturizer on your skin (however there really isn’t enough of it in any craft chocolate bar for you to consider using them as an unguent or massage oil… although the cocoa butter in a craft chocolate bar does open up other delights).

As ever; it’s complicated!

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Breaking the (Chocolate) Mould

At Cocoa Runners, we champion makers who value quality and provenance, are committed to their craft and, above all, love what they do. We can’t over-emphasise how intricate and time-consuming the chocolate making process is: “bean to bar” simplifies years of hard work! It comes as no surprise, then, that our markers pay serious attention to one of the final stages in creating a bar: choosing its mould.

How Moulds Enhance the Chocolate Tasting Experience

The choice of mould defines how the finished chocolate bar is going to be experienced. Chocolate moulds have a similar status to wine glasses, where the shape of the bowl and the thickness of the rim affect how the wine is enjoyed (see companies like Riedel who design glasses to enhance specific grape varieties). Thinner bars (for example Franceschi’s Venezuela 70% shareable pieces) melt quicker, so their flavour profile presents itself immediately. Chunkier bars (like Pump Street’s signature thick rectangles) melt more slowly, revealing their flavour notes more gradually.

Sensory science can also be considered when selecting a mould. Different shapes and patterns can evoke particular olfactory or gustatory responses, and craft chocolate makers can manipulate this when moulding their bars. A bar with intense citrus notes or a bright, vibrant profile might be echoed through a sharp, perpendicular design. On the other hand, a bar with a more rounded flavour profile (think whole milk or potato), could be circular with fluid edges.

The look of a chocolate bar creates expectations for its taste; knowing this, makers can twist the rules and design a mould that ‘contradicts’ the bar’s tasting notes. Moulds are a space in which makers’ creativity and sense of fun can really shine.

Moulds: Making and Eating

If moulds can change the way we taste chocolate, they can also implicitly influence eaters to share their chocolate or (understandably) to be a little more selfish. Bare Bones’ chocolates, with their neat, dividable squares, invite customers to savour the bars’ wonderfully clean snap, breaking them up into pieces to share with friends and family. Zotter’s butter caramel bar, on the other hand, a uniform slab of almond praline and luscious caramel wrapped in milk chocolate, feels slightly harder to share.

Because of the impact that moulds can have on the effect of a finished chocolate bar, makers take great care in this difficult final step. It takes meticulous precision to even pour the chocolate into the mould. Smudges or water (melted chocolate’s sworn enemy) on the mould can spoil the chocolate at the last hurdle. Many of the makers we work with at Cocoa Runners pour the chocolate into their moulds by hand, so they have to take account of the mould’s material, and how difficult or easy the shape is to fill.

How Moulds Tell a Story

Craft chocolate makers have fascinating stories to tell. It is impossible to communicate a brand’s story completely in one go, from the initial idea to the bean selection to the chocolate making process. Still, the bar itself can be a great tool to begin this conversation.

Nods to a makers’ origin story can be engraved onto the finished product through mould designs. These designs make for beautiful, unique chocolate bars which are also especially meaningful. Moulds can invite us into a maker’s origin story.

For example, Dick Taylor’s exquisite bar design contains curlicues which replicate the look of intricately carved wood. This mould references the fact these makers are, in their own words, ‘deeply rooted in a background of woodworking and boat building’. Meanwhile Friis Holm’s precise rectangular bars, with their perfectly uniform squares, feel to us like a sly salute to Danish minimalism.

There is also something satisfying about a mould that proudly references the maker’s name. Many of our makers adopt this approach, including Bonnat, Åkesson’s, Ritual, and Duffy’s to name a few). Stamping the brand’s name into the bar marks the chocolate with a symbol of its identity and origins. It’s the ultimate personal touch.

How Two Makers Chose Their Chocolate Moulds

We had the pleasure of speaking to two of our craft chocolate makers about the designs for their moulds. The two makers are very different. Hogarth are New Zealand makers inspired by South America. Their seaside factory creates bars which reference the flavours of New Zealand, including prized Manuka honey, and locally-grown sweet potato. Katya and Armin of Karuna, meanwhile, hail from Austria, but draw inspiration from their time in India. While Hogarth takes its name from its founder, Karl Hogarth, Karuna’s name comes from the Sanskrit word for compassion. Karuna’s bars often take flavours from the wild, with inclusions like sea buckthorn and blackcurrants. What unites these two makers is the tastiness of their chocolate, their commitment to the process of craft chocolate making — and their beautiful moulds.

Hogarth’s Wave Design

We had the pleasure of speaking to Karl Hogarth about his wonderful mould design. Karl wanted his design to ‘show commitment’, ‘make a statement’, and be ‘instantly recognisable’; an aim he has undoubtedly achieved! He told us that he had to make a choice between an easily divisible bar or something more unconventional. In his own words, he decided ‘to take the risk and do something special and unique’.

At first, Hogarth planned on inscribing the initial design (see below) onto the bar, to give a shallower engraved effect. However, one of their designers, Danny, envisioned it as a 3D model, with the waves overlapping each other. After creating a CAD (computer aided design) file and sending this to the Chocolate World in Belgium, the mould came to life.

The original design for Hogarth’s wave mould

These 3D waves are not only beautiful: they’re personal to Karl, representing his background as a fisherman, sailor, and surfer. They also nod to cacao’s maritime journey to reach Hogarth’s factory in New Zealand (which is only 60 metres away from the sea). Others have commented that the design resembles artwork associated with the Tangata Whenua (Tarn-a-ta Fen-u-a) or Maori people, another link to Hogarth’s proud heritage.

This design perfectly exemplifies how meaning can be quite literally poured into each bar of delicious craft chocolate. We particularly love the bar’s thick border: a fitting frame for such a work of art!

Karuna’s Botanical Swirl

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of eating one of Karuna’s award-winning chocolates (see below), you’ll have been struck by their intricate bar design. We spoke to co-founder Armin about the decisions behind this mould, designed by his younger brother Lorenz. Armin wished to acknowledge cacao’s origin as well as Karuna’s Indian connection.

karuna chocolate bars with beautiful mould design

The result is a bar with stylised fruits and leaves which recreate a traditional Indian paisley motif with a twist. By including natural shapes, Karuna pay homage to the trees from which cocoa pods grow. This emphasises the importance to craft chocolate of cocoa growing and the preservation of natural ecosystems. (It also feels apt, given Karuna’s bars often include delicious fruity flavours.) Armin commented: ‘we really loved that it linked to our origin. In the sense where it all began. In India.’ Karuna’s mould design references the business’s very first inspiration, condensing years of hard work into the material form of the chocolate bar.

Incorporating the cocoa pod’s origin also reflects farmers’ hard work over centuries of growing this extraordinary fruit. The design concentrates the long history of cocoa cultivation into a single pattern. Chocolarder adopt a similar approach, engraving a larger cocoa pod on each of their bars. Chocolarder’s design honours the raw material and reflect their commitment to the use of single origin cocoa.

Final Thoughts

Chocolate is the perfect material to mould. Its melting point is just below body temperature, so it’s easy to manipulate and can take on almost any shape. See here for some extreme examples! Moulding gives makers more artistic freedom than enrobing, where the chocolate is simply draped over a product. We hope you can now appreciate how our craft chocolate makers have taken advantage of this opportunity. Not only do these artisans craft delicious tasting bars, they turn them into works of art.

We have also put together a list highlighting some wonderful bars that use moulds to enhance the tasting experience. These moulds create intricate visual effects and beautiful textures. This list is incomplete and inexhaustive: we’ve missed out many fantastic chocolate bars. For more gorgeous moulds, check out our list of 10 wonderful chocolate moulds. After moulding and the decoration of the bar, the next step is packaging. To find out more about the possibilities of chocolate wrappers and the like, read our follow-on post here.

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The Art of Roasting Cocoa Beans

roasted cocoa beans

Contrary to common belief, the building blocks of chocolate’s final flavour profile are established well before the cocoa beans meet any other ingredients. The chemical reactions that do, or do not, take place within the bean can make a world of difference to the chocolate we eat.

Some of these reactions take place during the fermenting and drying stages, but it is roasting which truly transforms fermented beans into recognisable yet unique cocoa.

Often overshadowed by the contemporary health-food craze of deceptively named ‘raw’ cacao (we’ve written about this previously), roasting is a varied and vital step in chocolate production that deserves justice.

To Roast or Not To Roast

Roasting is not just a matter of flavour, but safety and practicality.

Due to the hot and humid conditions of fermentation, the beans can be exposed to a vast range of mould, fungi and bacteria, including E-coli and salmonella. Insects and bugs have also been known to invade cocoa batches during drying. The high temperatures of roasting kills off all these nasties, leaving us with sterile and safe cocoa.

Furthermore, roasting reduced the chances of running to trouble further down the chocolate production line. For example, as the heat dries out and embrittles the beans’ husks, the process of cracking and winnowing becomes considerably smoother.

The overall texture of chocolate also benefits from roasting. Even after drying, cocoa beans are still composed of around 7% water. If this water is not extracted, the cocoa cannot reach the desired consistency during grinding and conching. The dry cocoa masses and wet cocoa butter will be unable to emulsify and form a grainy mess rather than chocolate’s desired silky consistency.

Cocoa Roasting: A Sensuous Science

When chocolate craft is at its best, the chemistry taking place within the roasted cocoa bean can be detected with all five of our senses.

The unroasted bean starts off with an, often unpleasant, astringent tang and bitter nuttiness from the volatile acids created during fermentation.

But all this changes once the beans are fired up!

The Millard Reaction takes place as the amino acids and natural sugars react and transform into a range of new, flavorus compounds, visibly deepening and evening out the already rich shade of brown the beans took on during fermentation. Meanwhile the acrid smell of boiling vinegar is replaced with the first joyous wafts of that familiar aroma of warming chocolate.

Things heat up further, and; snap! The excess moisture evaporates, erupting from the surface of the cocoa bean with a series of satisfying crackles, indicating they are almost ready to be taken out.

When the chocolate maker is satisfied with their work, they must rapidly snuff out the reaction by cooling down the beans to room temperature. Cooling racks, fans and air conditioning are often commandeered for the best results.

Once cool enough to handle, the whole beans should be brittle enough to break apart. The exterior ‘husks’ should give way easily, revealing the coveted nibs within.

Then, the ultimate test; taste. Some chocolate makers take the opportunity to check out their creation for themselves by sampling a nib or two; the perks of the job!

Finding the Perfect Roast

There is no one way to roast a cocoa bean!

Whereas a mass-market chocolate producers take a one-size-fits-all approach, craft chocolatiers know better: No two batches of beans are the same, therefore nor should the roast be.

A craft chocolate maker will vary their approach depending on the batch of beans, taking into account their type and origin, estimating their moisture level, weeding out damaged beans and sorting them into their sizes for an even roast and optimum flavour enhancement.

They must also choose whether to extract the cocoa nib from its husk before or after roasting. Whereas mainstream companies such as Nestlé and Lindt opt to roast only the nibs, in craft chocolate it’s more common to find the beans roasted whole, allowing the nib to absorb more flavour from its surrounding husk.

A ‘perfect’ roast can be achieved using a number of heat sources, including ovens, drum roasters, a pan over a stove, hot air guns and even coffee roasters. Some methods, like the drum roaster, may create a more consistent roast, but in the right hands there is no best equipment!

Though the roasting temperature of cocoa beans usually ranges between 120-160oC for anywhere from 5 to 35 minutes, each slight tweak to the roasting formula will cause different chemical reactions to take place, creating an entirely different flavour.

Finding new flavours through roasting is often a matter of trial and error, with established roasting formulas often kept under lock and key by secretive chocolatiers.

Ultimately, as long as the beans are roasted enough to be safe for consumption, but not burnt, the ‘perfect’ roast is as subjective as claiming a perfect shade of red!

Taste the Difference

Fresco Chocolate have come up with some different takes on roasting, and we’ve bundled together some bars which show how different roast profiles can result in different chocolate flavours. Each pair of chocolate bars contains the exact same ingredients, down to the crop, drying and fermentation time of the beans, but with different roasting times. See if you can distinguish your dark roasts from your light!

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Why are emulsifiers used in chocolate?

Have you ever scanned the back of a chocolate bar and wondered why the ingredients list reminds you of the glossary of your old chemistry textbook?

Lurking behind the cocoa butter, cocoa mass, milk and sugars lies perhaps one of the most controversial ingredients in chocolate making. An emulsifier.

It’s time to investigate what these formidable E-numbers are doing in chocolate bars. Why are they almost everywhere if craft chocolate can manage perfectly well without them?

What do emulsifiers do?

As you may remember from past science lessons, an emulsifier is a substance that binds together two repelling liquids. Usually, oil and water, in creating one united solution, also known as an emulsion.

As chocolate does not, or at least should not, contain water you may wonder why this is applicable. In fact, if you want to sound really clever, chocolate is not actually an emulsion at all, but rather a suspension. The dry solid ingredients (cocoa masses and sugars) are suspended in cocoa butter. However, if there is not enough cocoa butter to compensate for the volume of dry solids, the mixture can split into an unpleasantly thick and grainy consistency.

Enter the emulsifier.

Emulsifiers essentially work to ‘glue’ the dry solids and fat back together. This results in one pool of thin, shiny, spotless and, frankly, heavenly liquid we call melted chocolate.

Smoother, less viscous chocolate is far easier to work with. It allows the molten chocolate to flow freely through factory machinery and simplifies the processes of moulding, coating and tempering. By definition, the emulsificiation process ensures that the ingredients bond together differently, each one is less likely to separate from the other. This also reduces the chance of fat or sugar blooming if the bar is stored incorrectly.

For large-scale chocolate companies, emulsifiers are a commercial lifeline. It allows them to skimp on real, indulgent cocoa butter while creating that same luxurious melt-in-mouth sensation for the consumer. But at what cost?

Lecithins and E-numbers

The emulsifiers most commonly found on chocolate labels are soya or sunflower lecithin (E-322), Monoglycerides and diglycerides of fatty acids (E-471), and ammonium phosphatides (E-442).

Yes, they are just as appealing as they sound!

Lecithin is commonly the by-product of soybeans and sunflowers from the oil extraction process. This makes them relatively inexpensive ingredients and reduces farm waste. Whilst lecithin does not have a distinct flavour, it contributes to the waxy texture that you find in cheaper, big brand chocolate. It also mutes the cocoa flavours that the additional cocoa butter it typically replaces would embolden.

Although lecithin is natural, it is highly processed. It’s often extracted from plant proteins using harsh solvents such as hexane and acetone.

In addition, soybean crops are often genetically modified. Although you can find some organic or GMO-free chocolate products, these are becoming increasingly rare in the mainstream chocolate market.

E-442 and E-471 are a bit more fiendish.

Found in almost every Cadbury product, these emulsifiers are synthetically manufactured from fatty acids, extracted from a mix of vegetable or animal fats, such as rapeseed oil and glycerol.

Unfortunately, large-scale manufacturing of synthetic emulsifiers inhibits the ability to trace the raw materials they originate from. This can allow animal products to slip unannounced into your favourite chocolate bars. Vegans and vegetarians be wary; your chocolate may not be as cruelty-free as the brand it claims to be.

These additives are all approved by the UK Food Standards Agency and are perfectly safe to consume in moderation. Nevertheless, they compromise the integrity and flavour of the chocolate.

Are emulsifiers necessary?

Essentially, no. The practice of chocolate making goes back further than our means of extracting chemical emulsifiers. If we werent using it in the past, then why are we using it now?

An emulsifier’s role is replaceable. Either longer conching, grinding down the dry solid particles to a smoother texture, or the addition of extra cocoa butter for that silky finish. This delicate balance naturally binds solid to liquid without conceding its purity. So most craft chocolate makers eschew the use of emulsifiers with two exceptions. Firstly makers “at origin” (ie where the bean is grown, like Madagascar) can struggle with moisture and their machines “gumming up”, so they may resort to using emulsifiers if their air conditioners break etc. Secondly, makers who are making “couverture” to sell to e.g., cooks and chefs will include emulsifiers to help in baking, cooking, etc. But these are the exceptions.

By contrast, most large chocolate brands make excessive use of emulsifiers as a cost-cutting production measure. You need considerably more cocoa butter to create the same velvety quality achieved by a few drops of emulsifier. And cocoa butter is significantly pricier. This is not to mention the increased precision of temperature, measurements and grinding needed for emulsifier-free chocolate; time, energy and labour resulting in a bill mass chocolate producers simply can’t stomach.

Ultimately, when you find an E-number in your chocolate, you not only have to ask what synthetic chemicals are going into your food, but what key ingredient it is replacing. Leaving you to wonder; how genuine is this chocolate?

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How to Temper Chocolate

By now, you’ve probably heard us talk about “temper”. You might have watched Great British Bake Off contestants struggling in vain to temper their chocolate creations. You might have wondered why your chocolate has turned white, and instead been taken down a rabbit hole of crystal structures.

But fear not, this quick guide will tell you all you need to know about tempering – even how to try it at home yourself!

What is tempering?

Put simply, tempering chocolate is the process of raising and lowering chocolate’s temperature in order to manipulate its crystal structure.

The crystal structure of chocolate actually refers to the crystal structure of cocoa butter (the natural fat of the cocoa bean). It is this structure that can be manipulated.

Cocoa butter can take 6 possible crystal structures. Structure 5 is the most desired for chocolate as it gives the bar a good snap, shine, and melt (and therefore more flavours). Structure 4 is the most stable and therefore the one to which chocolate will return, but this crystal structure gives the chocolate a matte and soft finish with a poor melt.

How does it work?

Tempering begins by melting the chocolate to completely remove the cocoa butter’s crystal structure. It’s kind of like a hard reset, which allows it to be reformed the way you wish based on the temperature at which you cool it.

After the initial melting, the chocolate is rapidly cooled with agitation (mixing it around) to rebuild the chocolate’s crystal structure.

The chocolate is then gently reheated to ensure that no crystals of structure 4 are formed (as these form at a slightly lower temperature than crystals of structure 5).

The temperatures to which you have to heat, cool, and then reheat the chocolate vary depending on the type of chocolate used. Dark chocolate has a lower cocoa butter content than white or milk chocolate, so the temperatures it requires are slightly higher than milk or white.

See below for the specific temperatures (in degrees Celsius), or see this article from readcacao.com for a helpful graph and more details.

  • Dark chocolate: first melt = 46-47, cooling = 28, reheat = 30
  • Milk chocolate: first melt = 43-47, cooling = 27, reheat = 29
  • White chocolate: first melt = 41-43, cooling = 26, reheat = 28

How do I know if my chocolate is tempered?

Chocolate is tempered to give it a strong and satisfying snappy texture as well as a nicely shiny finish. Therefore, the biggest indication that chocolate has not been properly tempered is a bar that has a matte and cloudy finish, and which does not snap cleanly when broken or bitten.

When chocolate loses its crystal structure after being left in the sun or placed in the fridge, it can ‘bloom’. This is when white streaks or bubbles appear on the bar’s surface.

Bloomed chocolate is still perfectly edible; it just won’t have the snap, shine, or melt of tempered chocolate. At this point, it can either be re-tempered or it can be used as baking chocolate.

Read more: What is chocolate bloom?

How to temper chocolate at home

Large commercial chocolate makers have the luxury of machines that can accurately and easily control temperature. At home, however, or for some of our smaller makers, the process is slightly trickier.

(An accurate thermometer will be required!)

1 – The tabling method

This method is preferred among pastry chefs and chocolatiers and is by far the most artistic. As such, it is slightly trickier to master than the seeding method but is an impressive (and photogenic!) skill.

The tabling method of tempering chocolate.

The chocolate is melted using a bain-marie to the temperature necessary for the type of chocolate (see graph above).

To cool the chocolate, two thirds of it is poured onto a marble slab and is repeatedly spread over and regathered on the cold surface using a chocolate scraper and palette knife. Once the chocolate has cooled and thickened slightly, it is regathered into the bowl with the remaining third of warmer chocolate.

If the chocolate is still too warm at this point, it is stirred until it cools. If the chocolate is too cool, however, it is re-warmed gently over the bain-marie. Ideally, the chocolate should sit at the final temperature required for tempering for a few minutes to allow the crystal structure to set.

2 – The seeding method

For the clumsy of hand or those without a marble slab just lying around, the seeding method might be the easier way to temper chocolate.

One third of the chocolate is finely chopped and left to one side. The remaining two thirds is melted to reach the initial temperature indicated by the graph.

Once the chocolate has reached this temperature, the remaining third of chopped, solid chocolate is added and stirred continuously until incorporated.

If the chocolate is still too warm at this point, it is stirred until it cools. If the chocolate is too cold, however, it is re-warmed gently over the bain-marie. Here, again, the chocolate is left at its ideal temperature for a few minutes to allow the crystal structure to set.

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How to Mould Chocolate

Once you have mastered the art of tempering chocolate (using our guide to perfect tempering), the shiny and crisp results are perfect for making little chocolate truffles and shapes.

There’s a surprising amount to consider to get moulding right – from the size of the mould to the material you use. This handy guide will explain all the basics, and you’ll even be able to have a go at it yourself at home.

Does mould design affect flavour?

In short, yes! It’s perhaps one of the least impactful stages of chocolate making, but it definitely makes a difference.

Once tempered, the melted chocolate is 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.

Size and Shape

The main choice open to chocolate makers is one of thickness: how thick do they want their bars? Thin bars melt quickly, so the bar’s flavours emerge faster. Thicker bars, on the other hand, melt slowly, which allows more flavour nuance to come through (but might lead to a less enjoyable mouthfeel experience).

You can try this for yourself – have a go at comparing Oialla’s wafer-thin bars to Pump Street’s chunky classics.

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. You can read more about this cross-modal perception of flavour here.

And that’s not to mention the WOW factor of amazing chocolate moulds – for some makers it’s a work of art! Have a look at some of our more impressive moulds below.

How to mould chocolate at home

When moulding chocolate at home, there are two types of chocolates to aim for. You can go for the simpler solid bars, which are hugely rewarding and allow great scope for inclusions. Or you can aim high with the challenging hollow or filled chocolates – sure to wow your friends (if you get it right!).

Solid Chocolate

Solid chocolate treats are the easiest to create at home as no fancy rotations or emptying of the mould is required.

  1. Before the tempered chocolate can be poured into the mould, it is very important that the mould is sparklingly clean: any chocolate reside, dust or even a fingerprint on the mould will appear on the finished chocolate, especially if it has been well tempered.
  2. Place the tempered chocolate into the mould, either by pouring it straight from the bowl or using a large spoon to transfer it.  
  3. Gently shake the mould and then bang it lightly against the surface of the table to remove any air bubbles.
  4. Using the edge of a palette knife (or a chocolate scraper, for the prepared and enthusiastic amongst you), scrape off any excess chocolate from the surface of the mould to ensure a sharp and level base.
  5. Leave to cool in a cool, dark place (room temperature is normally okay). Do not place in a refrigerator, or the chocolate will cool too quickly and the surface of the chocolate will turn matte.
  6. When the chocolate has set completely (professional chocolatiers leave them for several days to ensure a set crystal structure!), invert the mould and, if using a solid mould, tap gently against a solid surface to release the chocolate.
  7. If using a silicone mould, invert it and gently peel the edges of the mould away from the chocolate whilst pushing down very lightly on the top of the mould to allow the chocolate to release.
Moulding Dandelion Bars
Dandelion using a dispenser to fill their moulds.

Be careful not to touch the finished chocolate with warm or greasy hands, as fingerprints will taint your hard work!

Hollow or Filled Chocolates

Making hollow chocolate shapes is perfect for creations such as Easter eggs and bunnies, or for making chocolate truffles that can be stuffed with all sorts of wonderful fillings.  

  1. Clean and prepare the mould exactly as before.
  2. Fill the chocolate moulds to two-thirds full with tempered chocolate. Then tip and rotate the mould by hand to ensure the chocolate reaches every single bit of the mould.  
  3. Tip the mould upside down over the bowl of chocolate to allow the chocolate at the centre to pour out and create the hollow shell.
  4. Scrape the surface of the mould to remove any excess chocolate and leave the mould to cool at room temperature.
  5. If the walls of the chocolate shapes look too thin (they should be at least 1mm wide), repeat this process to add an additional layer of chocolate.
  6. If making hollow chocolate treats such as Easter eggs, remove each half from their moulds and use some melted chocolate to stick the halves together.
  7. If making filled chocolate, fill the cavity to three quarters with your filling of choice.
  8. Once all shells are stuffed, fill the final quarter with more tempered chocolate by pouring it over the shapes and spreading it evenly to ensure the moulds are completely filled.
  9. Tap the mould against the surface of a table to remove any air bubbles in the truffles before scraping the surface of the mould to remove excess chocolate and create a sharp and level base for your truffles. 
  10. Leave to solidify completely before removing from the moulds (in the same way as mentioned previously)

Silicone vs Non-Silicone Moulds

When shopping for moulds, it is difficult to know which will provide the best results, especially when similar moulds can be found in different materials.

As a rule, professional chocolatiers and craft chocolate makers use solid plastic (polycarbonate) moulds as they keep their shape when handled, rotated, turned upside down and scraped, thereby protecting the chocolate as it sets and making them easier to use in the process.

The advantage of silicone moulds comes when trying to remove the chocolate from the moulds. Solid moulds can only be tapped to encourage the chocolate to release, whereas the silicone can be pulled and reshaped to allow the chocolate to release more easily. This is beneficial for those who have little experience making moulded chocolate (and is why we choose to use silicone moulds in our Make Your Own Chocolate Bar kits). 

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Grinding & Conching

Once the cocoa beans have been harvested, fermented, dried, roasted, and cracked, they arrive at the grinding and conching stages in the form of cocoa nibs.

What is grinding?

Grinding is the process of converting the cocoa nibs into a fine powder and then into smooth chocolate.

In order for the coarse cocoa nibs to become smooth craft chocolate bars, they need to be ground at extreme speed and power for several days. This is achieved by placing the nibs in a rapidly spinning vessel with rotating granite stones fitted in the base.

When ground for long enough, the nibs release the cocoa butter within them, and the dry powder changes into liquid chocolate. At this stage, the cocoa butter can either be removed and sold as pure cocoa butter or kept in the chocolate to be turned into bars.

The significance of Indian spice grinders

One of the surprising heroes of the craft chocolate revolution is the simple Indian spice grinder.

Why? Well, before the early 2000s, anyone who wanted to make their own chocolate could get most of their equipment on the cheap. You can roast in a regular oven, crack and winnow with rolling pins and hair dryers, and do most of the rest by hand. But you had to invest in an incredibly expensive machine to grind and conche your beans.

That was until someone realised the similarity between Indian spice grinders and the expensive machinery in the chocolate world. These spice grinders can be found all over India in domestic kitchens; they’re readily available and not terribly expensive.

This discovery has opened the door for craft chocolate entrepreneurs ever since. Now, anyone with a little bit of capital can get the machines necessary to start turning cocoa beans into chocolate. And so many of our makers tell that exact story: “We started making as a hobby,” “It was just for family and friends,” “We just wanted to try it out,” etc.

Well, thank goodness for us they did!

What is conching and why is it done?

Conching is a form of advanced grinding that affects the flavour as well as the texture of the chocolate.

At this stage in production, other ingredients such as sugar, additional cocoa butter (for additionally silky bars), and flavourings can be added to the chocolate to give each bar its unique flavour and textural fingerprint.

Texture

As with grinding, conching makes the cocoa particles within the chocolate smaller, which makes the finished bar far smoother.

The rapid mixing and grinding of the conche machine also distributes the cocoa butter evenly throughout the newly liquified chocolate, ensuring consistency of silky texture in the solid bar.

However, if you conche for too long, the cocoa particles become too small and the cocoa butter takes over, giving a cloying mouthfeel.

OBOLO pouring out its chocolate after grinding and conching.

If the fabled story is to be believed, the conche was invented in 1879 by Rodolphe Lindt when he accidentally left his grinder on overnight. He discovered that the chocolate he had produced was less granular and more aromatic than previous batches, and it became a staple of chocolate production.

Unconched chocolate provides an interesting texture and can still be purchased through brands such as Taza. The grain is thicker and does not melt in your mouth as easily, but it is a unique bar that we definitely recommend. It is especially interesting to sample in comparison to Pralus which are famed for their sinfully smooth bars.

Flavour

Unlike grinding, conching affects the flavour as well as the texture of chocolate due to the addition of heat and air (it’s a little bit like kneading dough to make bread).

Cocoa beans naturally contain acetic acid which gives them a sharp, acidic flavour. When the chocolate is spinning in the conche, it is heated and exposed to the air which burns away and oxidises the acid, giving the chocolate its dreamily rich rather than sour flavour.

In addition to removing chocolate’s natural astringency, the heating process adds to the chocolate’s flavour profile by caramelising the sugar within the chocolate.

The temperature applied to chocolate during the conching process varies depending on the type of chocolate being produced. Generally speaking, milk chocolate is conched at around 49 degrees Celsius, and dark chocolate at about 82 degrees Celsius (the higher sugar content of milk chocolate allows it to caramelise at a lower temperature).

Types of Conche

There are a surprising number of conches for chocolate makers to choose from, with different speeds and temperatures in each. But as with making bread, so long as you understand the process, you can modify the variables to achieve similar results.

If you conche with less air and agitation, then you need to conche for longer (as with the four-day longitudinal conche). Increase the aeration and agitation and you can decrease the time (most of our makers use these smaller, 2-3 day melangeurs).

Or, if you’re in a rush, there are high-speed conches which can adjust the air, work, and temperature to achieve a similar quality on the finish.

Sources

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conching

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/food-science/conching

https://www.lukerchocolate.com/en/chocolate-and-portfolio/conching-process/

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How to Dry a Cocoa Bean

You’d be forgiven for thinking that there can’t be much to say about the drying of cocoa beans. But you’d be wrong! It’s a crucial balancing act: dry too slowly and your beans go mouldy; dry too fast and the beans taste bitter.

The choices made during the drying stage have a big impact on the flavour of the beans. Do it right, and you open up a world of flavours. Do it wrong, and you could lose your whole yield. 

What’s the process?

It’s a simple process if you strip it barebones. You take the fermented mixture of beans and pulp, remove the pulp (most of it’s already evaporated during fermentation anyway), and dry the beans out. 

Often this is done on the farms, where the farmers lay the beans out on a raised bed or on a covering on the ground and leave them to dry under the sun. There, the beans must be left to dry – the length of time depends on factors like the beans’ arrangement, the varietal, and the weather. 

The farmers check regularly on the beans. To make sure that the beans are drying uniformly, they use a rake to turn the beans over and mix them together. 

When they are fully dried, the beans are gathered and put into jute bags, ready for domestic or international exportation. Beans which are stuck together, are the wrong shape, or have not dried properly are thrown out.

One way to check if they are properly fermented and dried is the cacao cut test. You put the dried cocoa beans into a box with dimples, then push down a guillotine to cut them open.

The inside of the beans should be fragrant and have a reddish-purple colour, with cracks or fissures throughout the interior. 

What can go wrong?

When you’re drying the beans out in the open air, there’s one obvious factor to consider: the weather.

Of course, rain will hinder the drying process. But alongside that, there’s also humidity and temperature. The length of time for drying cocoa beans depends so much on the farm’s location and climate. 

A farmer rakes her cocoa beans as they dry on a raised bed in the sun.

In humid and tropical Vietnam, it can take up to 10 days to dry the beans fully. Meanwhile, in places like Peru, it takes between five and seven days.

There are also different methods of drying the beans out. The cheapest method is solar drying, as described above. In particularly wet areas, equipment like solar heaters, plastic sheets, and windows for continuous airflow can help massively. 

You can also artificially dry the cocoa beans in specially designed ovens or on trays heated from below, which is especially useful in humid and rainy locations. But artificial drying can make the beans too dry, which changes the flavour of the beans. 

If you dry the beans too slowly, you can ruin the whole batch by causing the beans to rot and grow mouldy rather than drying out. But drying the beans too quickly will make the beans taste acidic or bitter. 

It’s a balancing act – just like fermentation – that depends as much on the geography of the farm as much as the techniques you use. But at the end of the day, it’s all about getting the best possible flavours out of the beans for the bars.

Does drying affect flavour?

Yes! As we mentioned earlier, beans dried too quickly will taste bitter. This is because there are still polyphenols on the beans’ surface, which contribute to astringency and bitterness. 

But through drying, these polyphenols are oxidised and broken down. The moisture levels inside the beans drop from 45% to 7% – though the fermentation reactions will carry on while the beans are still wet, which further contributes to the development of flavour. 

However, higher moisture levels in the cocoa beans mean higher levels of free fatty acids, which can lead to rancid notes in the flavours of the chocolate. 

But volatile acetic acid also evaporates during the drying process, which means the beans – and the chocolate – will taste less acidic and more pleasant overall.

As you can see, drying is a balancing act! The length you choose to dry for will have a marked impact on the flavour of the bar, and sets the stage for the next step of roasting.

Try for yourself:

Karuna have created the perfect demonstration of the effect of drying, with these two (almost) identical bars. The only difference is the amount of time the beans spent drying!

The slow-dried bar is a lot less acidic, with notes of tobacco and an almost paper-like quality. On the other hand, the regular-dried bar enjoys and bright burst of orange, followed by some roasted nuts and a pleasant astringency.

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The Proof is in the Packaging

Cocoa Runners Stack of Chocolate Bars on a Table

Pick up a chocolate bar and what do you see first? Not the shiny brown bar or the beautiful moulded design. No. It’s the wrapper on the outside. It’s the first thing customers see and an incredibly important thing to get right.

But the secrets to a good wrapper are much more complex than you might think.

The Practical

Why do we package things? Of course, making them look good is one thing, but most important of all is to protect what’s inside. The foil and outer paper must keep the bar and its ingredients – especially cocoa butter – from escaping.

It should also be airtight, to keep the aromas from escaping and to prevent the bar picking up other smells from nearby goods in transit. It should be sealed tight enough to last during delivery, but not so tight as to be impossible to open.

As you can see, packaging is complicated – but this is only the start.

The Aesthetic

Most craft chocolate bars are wrapped by hand, by the makers themselves or sometimes friends and family who have been roped in to help out. The hand-touched feel shows that you’re holding a product that’s been made with love.

This is taken an extra step by the likes of Bryan Graham at Fruition, who hand signs every bar as you would a work of art.

But what about the overall look of the wrapper? A rich, vibrant colour with intense and intricate patterns like Omnom’s Tanzania Dark Milk looks tantalisingly moreish. 

Or the clean professionalism of Bare Bones reflects the precision of craft chocolate.

The beans’ origin is also something to play with here: Marou hand-wrap their outstanding bars in gorgeous, gilded geometric patterns printed on a vibrant, solid colour, recalling chocolate’s Indochina and French colonial roots in Vietnam.

The Message

But most importantly, the overall message of the chocolate bar can be summed up in the packaging.

Sustainability

Sustainability can be at the heart of the bar. TBros’ Dak Lak 76% dark is wrapped in dried and compressed nipa palm. Eco-friendly, handmade, and gorgeous to look at with its subtle printed outline decoration of farmers in the field.

Or you can try paper packaging made from recycled food waste, with Bare Bones leading the way in their partnership with a fellow Scottish packaging company.

Finally, we have the likes of Original Beans, whose inner foil wrapper doesn’t look much at first glance – but it’s actually biodegradable! Just pop it on your compost heap at home (once you’re done with the chocolate, of course).

Askinosie puts its farmers front and centre of the packaging.

Championing Farmers

Another key tenet of craft chocolate is putting cocoa farmers first and foremost. And some makers take this literally, putting their farmers on the front of their bars.

Menakao adorns each bar with a picture of a native Madagascan tribesperson, reflecting the importance the Madagascan people have within the company and its work.

And Shawn from Askinosie takes this one step further, designing each bar with a photograph of the lead farmer for that origin.

Can you reseal it?

Craft chocolate is meant to be savoured. And this is reflected in the packaging of many of our bars.

Have you ever tried to reseal a bar of mass-produced supermarket chocolate? It’s impossible, and for good reason. They don’t want you to reseal it! Even a big 100g bar is meant to be eaten in one sitting (that’s how the recipes are designed).

A bar of craft chocolate, on the other hand, should last a few days or weeks as you savour it one or two bars at a time. That’s why lots of our makers wrap their bars in resealable packaging.

Top of the game here are Pump Street’s award-winning resealable and airtight pouches.

Don’t be fooled!

So, what is the key in debunking the confectionery from the craft? It’s not in the overall look, but – as usual – in the small print.

Read the label: if there is anything on the ingredients list that your grandmother wouldn’t know about, avoid the bar. Think palm oil, E numbers, etc. 

Then see if the packaging mentions the bean origin – down to the specific region or cooperative – and where the bar is produced. Commercial chocolate usually won’t mention these last two details.

Summary

As we’ve explained, packaging is hard to master. But it will mean so much in the first impressions of a Craft Chocolate bar. 

The packaging should make the message known immediately: it’s craft chocolate. Make the chocolate proud to be craft on the front, and both the maker and the customer will reap the rewards. 

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Fermentation: The Forgotten Hero of Craft Chocolate

Many of the world’s greatest foods and drinks involve fermentation: wine, beer, coffee, bread, cheese. Exactly the same is true of chocolate. Life would be a lot less fun without the miracles that yeasts and bacteria perform in transforming grapes into wine, hops into beer, and cocoa seeds into chocolate.

Here we explain the importance of fermentation in 1) crafting great chocolate, 2) increasing cocoa farmer incomes, and 3) catalysing the craft chocolate revolution (which involves a wide range of characters, including the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime).

The History of Fermentation

How humans discovered cocoa bean fermentation is lost to history. But we can surmise that around 5,000-4,000 BCE, in the area that is now Peru and Ecuador, someone realised that these incredibly bitter and astringent cocoa seeds will start to develop interesting nutty, fruity and (almost) chocolatey flavours, if left in a pile (or even in the open pod) for a few days.

Then they started to cook, crack, winnow, and grind these beans into a paste, which made a filling and nutritious drink. And that was how we started to drink chocolate.

We’ve come a long way since then. In the late 19th and early 20th century we started to eat chocolate, and we also realised that chocolate is a great vehicle for other flavours and as a commodity ingredient (think candy bars, chocolate brownies, ice cream, etc.).

Chocolate production came to be about consistency and high volumes – and the onus on good fermentation was lost.

But why is fermentation important?

Craft chocolate is all about coaxing amazing flavours, textures, and sensations out of a cocoa bean. To do this, you need great cocoa beans. And great cocoa beans are about great genetics and careful fermentation. Even a high-quality bean will taste awful (read: rotten meat) if it’s not well fermented.

Yeasts and bacteria transform the chemistry of cocoa beans from their raw state into something capable of making delicious chocolate, just as they turn raw grapes into fine wine.

So the amazing variety of flavours you can get within craft chocolate is all thanks to proper fermentation.

How does fermentation work?

Cocoa pods contain three to four dozen seeds held in a juicy white pulp. Once the pods have been cut down, they are cracked open using machete-like blades, and the pulp and cocoa beans are scooped out.

The pulp and seeds inside a cacao fruit (cocoa pod).

As soon as the pod is opened, the white pulp immediately reacts with different yeasts and bacteria in the environment and starts to ferment.

To create high quality beans, this fermentation needs to be carefully controlled.

The Anaerobic Stage

In cocoa processing, there are two main phases of fermentation: anaerobic (without oxygen) and aerobic (with oxygen).

So after cracking open the cacao pods, the seeds and pulp – collectively known as ‘wet cocoa’ – are put into big wooden boxes and covered up with leaves and jute bags so oxygen can’t get in.

The pulp is the perfect environment for the anaerobic fermentation stage. Full of sugars, water, and acids, it provides excellent fuel for microorganisms like yeasts and bacteria to get to work breaking down the pulp.

The yeasts eat the sugars and produce carbon dioxide and ethanol; the bacteria create lactic, citric, and acetic acids. These acids set up the next phase: the aerobic.

The Aerobic Stage

After a couple of days (usually), when the anaerobic phase is complete, the beans are “turned” (mixed up) and oxygen is welcomed back into the system. The beans are often poured into another box on a lower tier. 

In this stage, oxygen helps the microbes to break down the acetic acid and ethanol. This increases the temperature, often up to around 50°C (which, incidentally, is why there’s no such thing as raw chocolate).

Tiers of fermentation boxes at Kokoa Kamili, Tanzania.

This heat breaks down the cell walls of the cocoa seeds, meaning ethanol and acids can enter the seed and kill the germ within – this point is when the “seed” technically becomes a “bean”. 

Inside the beans, enzymes digest proteins and sugars, which creates the various flavour compounds ready to come out during drying and roasting. 

It’s a balancing act, however. Over-fermentation will lead to a rise in bacilli bacteria and fungi-like moulds that cause off-flavours like rotten meat. 

There are many factors involved in the complicated process of fermentation. It requires experimentation, but it is crucial in producing the high-quality beans that Craft Chocolate is founded upon.

Once fermented, these beans are taken to be dried for up to ten days, ready to be made into craft chocolate.

What difference does it make?

If you want great craft chocolate, you need to celebrate different bean types and different fermentations. As you’ve seen, proper fermentation is a delicate and complex art that can have a massive effect on chocolate’s flavours.

Changing any one variable (length of fermentation, type of bacteria, number of turns, size of box, etc.) dramatically impacts the flavour.

For example, Mikkel Friis-Holm’s “Double” and “Triple” turned bars are made from the same beans, from the same harvest, with the same roast and conche, but one bar is made from beans that have been turned twice, the other made from beans turned three times. It’s amazing the difference this makes: you can compare the floral peach notes of the Double to the punchier citrus notes of the Triple:

Similarly, Pump Street’s Chris Brennan has been experimenting with placing sourdough starters within the fermentation mix: you can taste the first results of those experiments with his limited edition “Fermentation Project” bar.

How fermentation helps farmers

Fermentation is a time-intensive, laborious process. And when we started treating chocolate as a commodity, all emphasis on proper fermentation was lost. Beans were (and are) left to ferment by the sides of roads as mass-producing corporations stopped caring about the quality of the beans they bought.

As a result, farmers lost the skills and the incentive to ferment beans well.

But because of craft chocolate makers’ close relationships with growers, this is one of the areas feeling the most benefit from the craft chocolate boom.

A key component of the craft chocolate revolution is teaching farmers about fermentation and helping them connect in cooperatives to achieve the quantity of beans needed for good fermentation. Most of the world’s cocoa farmers are smallholders with 2-5 hectares.  That means that individually they rarely have the critical mass of beans or equipment to perform proper fermentation.

But when given the opportunity and investment, their beans can reach a wider (and higher-paying) market.

For example, the proliferation of craft chocolate bars from Tanzania is thanks to the pioneering work of Brian and Simran of Kokoa Kamili, a centralised fermentery in the Kilombero Valley. Efi and Max (of Qantu) regularly travel down to Efi’s home county of Peru to help teach farmers more about fermentation.

This creates a win-win situation.  We can now enjoy great craft chocolate bars from these beans, and local cocoa farmers can enjoy a higher income as their fine-flavour beans command far higher prices.

Governments have also seen the benefits of encouraging farmers to grow and ferment premium cocoa. For example, in Colombia the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has been working for a decade to encourage farmers to replace cocaine with cocoa, and to teach farmers about proper fermentation.

Similarly, USAID has promoted cocoa farming as a replacement for cocaine crops in San Martin, Peru (which is partly how Efi of Qantu learnt about fermentation in the first place).

What about the waste products?

A lot of waste gets created during the fermentation process. For every one tonne of dried beans, for example, there are ten tonnes of fresh shell husks!

Thang at TBros is experimenting with making kombucha out of these husks, but mostly they’re ground up and used as compost on the farms.

And although most of the cocoa pulp evaporates during fermentation, there is always some left over. Often it’s thrown away, but sometimes farmers take the excess pulp (while it’s still fresh) and turn it into a wine or juice. We’re lucky enough to be able to try some of this cocoa pulp juice, from our friends over at Pacha de Cacao.

Summary

In craft chocolate, fermentation is critical to create great tasting bars. It also helps to raise farmers’ incomes, while sometimes replacing other less desirable crops.