The journey from cocoa tree to chocolate bar is not complex, but it requires several steps, each of which require careful treatment to get the best from the finished product.

Artisan chocolate makers often deal directly with cocoa farmer cooperatives, giving them a say in how the beans are treated from the moment they’re harvested and ensuring the best possible price for cocoa farmers in some of the world’s poorest regions.

The care, skill and attention to detail of everyone involved in making the chocolate in your Cocoa Runners box is what makes it special. It doesn’t just taste good, it does good.

Chocolate making methods vary from maker to maker, but here’s an overview of how it’s made.

Harvesting

Menakao HarvestingThe process begins with harvesting. Ripe cocoa pods are harvested twice a year. The harvest times vary from region to region, but the process of turning it into chocolate begins immediately.

The pods are cut open with machetes and the white pulp containing the cocoa beans is scooped out.

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

Taste for yourself:

Marou – Ba Ria 76%

Marou Ba Ria

Marou Dong NaiFor each of their bars, Marou sources its beans from a different Vietnamese province. The different regions or ‘terroirs’ produce bars with a distinctive taste. Compare the red fruits of their Ba Ria bar to the spicier notes of their Dong Nai bar, made from the neighbouring provinces of the same names.

Marou – Dong Nai 72%

Fermenting

The pods and pulp are placed into large wooden containers, where the pulp is allowed to ferment for five to seven days. During the process, the beans are turned to help them ferment more evenly. This is the first stage in developing the flavour of the chocolate, and part of the reason why a farmer can have a direct impact on the quality of the finished chocolate.

Taste for yourself:

Friis Holm – Chuno 70% Double Turned

Friis Holm Chuno Double TurnedFriis Holm Chuno Triple TurnedDanish chocolate maker Mikel Friis Holm makes two bars using beans from the same origin, to the same recipe. The only difference is that the beans in one were turned twice during fermentation, and the beans in the other were turned three times in fermentation. Compare the floral peach notes of the double churned to the punchier citrus notes of the triple churned.

Friis Holm – Chuno 70% Triple Turned

Drying

After fermentation, the next step in the process is to dry the beans. This is usually done by spreading them out into a single layer in the sun. Most beans are transferred into sacks and transported around the world after drying, so in order to prevent mold, it’s important that they’re completely dry at this point. Menakao Drying Beans

Taste for yourself:

Omnom – Papua New Guinea 70%

Omnom Papua New Guinea dark chocolate bonnat surabaya dark milkOn the whole, it’s hard to taste the drying phases as either it’s done well (in which case the beans are used for chocolate) or it’s not. In some places, such as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea the wet climate makes it impossible to dry the beans in the sun. Instead beans are place next to open wood fires that help dry the beans and infuse them with the aroma of wood smoke. Omnom’s Papua New Guinea dark and Bonnat’s Surabaya dark milk are examples of the intriguing smokey flavours from beans dried in this way.

Bonnat – Surabaya Dark Milk 65%

Roasting

The next step in the process is roasting. This is done by the chocolate maker rather than the farmer. A few chocolate companies make their chocolate at source where it grows, but the hot climate required to grow cocoa makes the chocolate making process more challenging. Most chocolate is made in cooler climates, like Europe or North America. The process and equipment used to roast the beans vary considerably from chocolate maker to chocolate maker. Some use standard ovens, others have specially made systems designed to rotate the beans and roast as evenly and accurately 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:

Fresco – 219 Papua New Guinea 69%

Fresco 219Fresco 220Rob Anderson at Fresco has created bars using the same beans and to the same recipe except for one important distinction – the roast time. Roasting the beans less, for a ‘light’ roast or roasting them more a ‘medium’ or ‘dark’ roast again has a significant impact on the flavours of the bar. Originally a computer scientist, Rob takes a mathematical approach to bar names, giving each a different number depending on origin, conch and roast time.

Fresco – 220 Papua New Guinea 69%

Cracking & WinnowingCocoa Shells

The roasted cocoa beans have a thin, papery shell around them which needs to be removed, so at this point in the process, the beans are cracked open and the shell is removed in a process called winnowing. The lighter shells are blown away with fans, leaving behind pieces of pure cocoa bean, known as “nibs”.

Traste for yourself:

Duffy’s – Panama Cocoa Tea

Duffy's Panama Chocolate TeaPump Street Bakery Ecuador NibsWhile the shells aren’t used in the chocolate, they can be brewed in a cafetiere to make a delicate chocolatey infusion called cocoa tea. The nibs are intense, but eating one you can taste the cocoa’s distinctive flavours – Pump Street Chocolate’s nibs are full of the earthy woody flavours typical of Ecuadorian cacao.

Pump Street Bakery – Ecuador Nibs

Grinding & Conching

The cocoa nibs are ground with stone rollers until they become a paste known as cocoa mass or cocoa liquor. This pure, unrefined form of chocolate contains both cocoa solids (the chocolatey part!) and cocoa butter (the natural fat present in the bean).Cocoa butter can be extracted from the cocoa mass with a hydraulic press. This is useful because most chocolate makers often use extra cocoa butter to give their chocolate a smoother, glossier texture. Some confectionery manufacturers replace this extra cocoa butter with cheaper vegetable fats, and this is something you should look out for on the ingredients and try to avoid. The only fat in real chocolate is cocoa butter.Dandelion ConcheingTraditionally, the cocoa mass is be transferred to a separate machine called a conch, where it is further refined. Many modern artisans combine the grinding and conching into a single process using a machine called a melanger. This is simply a large metal cylinder with two rotating granite wheels that grind and refine the chocolate into very small particles.

It’s during this process that sugar, milk powder (for milk chocolate) and other flavourings are added to the chocolate. The conching process can take anything from a few hours to a few days and affects the chemical structure of the chocolate, as well as the particle size. This part of the process has a very big impact on the flavour notes in the finished chocolate, and deciding exactly how long to conch for is part of the chocolate maker’s skill.

Taste for yourself:

Taza – Chocolate Mexicano Cinnamon

Taza CinnamonPralus TrinidadTaza’s stone ground chocolate to get a taste of what chocolate used to be like 150 years ago, before modern conching methods were developed. At the other end of the spectrum, French makers such as Pralus are renowned for their superbly silky bars. This incredibly smooth texture is achieved by adding extra cocoa butter.

Pralus – Trinidad 75%

Tempering

Great chocolate should have a shiny finish and a good “snap” – that clean clicking sound when you break a piece off. These are created by tempering, the controlled process of raising, lowering and raising the temperature of the chocolate to form exactly the right kind of crystals. If you were to let the untempered chocolate cool naturally, the chocolate would be soft and crumbly and would not melt evenly on the tongue.Moulding Dandelion Bars Tempering can be done by hand, but the process would be enormously time consuming for the large amounts of chocolate that bar manufacturers have to work with, so most use tempering machines that can heat large quantities of chocolate very accurately. The tempering machine will keep the melted chocolate circulating at exactly the right temperature, making the final step easier.

Moulding

The final step in making a finished chocolate bar is pouring it into a mould. The melted chocolate is simply poured into plastic bar-shaped moulds and agitated to remove any air bubbles. Larger chocolate makers will 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.

Taste for yourself:

Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé – Dark Venezuela with Cardamom 77%

Roszsavolgyi CsokoladeDick Taylor mouldMany makers distinguish their bars with customized moulds, making their chocolate instantly recognizable. As well as making their bars distinctive, it helps to give personality to the maker’s chocolate. Budapest-based maker Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé mould their chocolate bars to look like 19th Century Hungarian fire place tiles. While Dick Taylor’s intricate mould is inspired by their backgrounds in woodworking.

Dick Taylor Maple Coconut 72%

Wrapping

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

Taste for yourself:

Fruition – Dark Milk with Fleur de Sel 56%

Fruition Dark Milk Flor De SelChapon Black Fortunato PeruMakers such as Bryan Graham at Fruition also hand signs every single bar, as you would a work of art. Pump Street Bakery’s clever and distinctive resealable packaging has won a host of awards.

Chapon – Peru Fortunato 70%