Ever wonder where chocolate comes from? If you’re aware that chocolate bars don’t grow on trees, you are making progress! It all starts with a simple and obvious ingredient: cacao beans. But getting these beans from the tree into your chocolate bar is a multistep process.
It all starts with the cacao tree, an evergreen found in over 50 tropical countries, and estimated to be grown by about 2 million producers, 90% of them small farmers on 12 acres or less. These trees can grow up to 30 feet but are often pruned to make harvesting easier. It can take up to five years after planting before a tree produces cacao pods but once they reach maturity produce year round for 25-30 years.
The Cacao Pod
Every year, cacao trees grow thousands of flowers on their trunks and branches. Only a small percentage (as low as 1%) of these flowers will produce cacao pods. Similar to the size and shape of a football, pods range in color from dark brown to orange, red, yellow, and green. Pods ripen within 5-6 months.
The Cacao Bean
Once the pods ripen and are harvested, they are graded for quality and placed into piles. They are then cracked open with a machete or wooden club and the beans, still surrounded by sweet pulp, are removed and often spread out on top of large banana leaves. Each cacao pod contains 30-50 seeds (called beans when dried) shaped like flat almonds.
These beans are what ultimately get transformed into cocoa powder or chocolate.
Once the cacao beans have been removed from the pods, they are fermented to prevent germination and develop flavoring. Many farmers traditionally ferment the beans in a large pile on the ground in between banana leaves, sacks or in wooden boxes for up to six days.
After fermentation, the beans are often dried on tarps, mats, or patios under the sun. They are continually raked so that they will dry more evenly. This drying process lasts about a week and timing is important. If the beans dry too long, they become brittle and if they aren’t dried long enough, they become moldy. In case of unfavorable weather, many producers also use automatic driers. Once dried, cacao beans can be stored for 4-5 years.
Roasting & Winnowing
When the dried cacao beans arrive at the processing plant, they are first cleaned and then roasted to darken the color and draw out the beans’ flavor. Roasting occurs at different temperatures and durations depending on ever changing variables like humidity, bean size, and desired flavor. After roasting comes the winnowing. Shells surrounding the beans are removed exposing the roasted cocoa nibs. Now we’re finally getting to the essence of what we are accustomed to biting into! But more still needs to be done.
Grinding & Pressing
These resulting cocoa nibs are ground into a paste called chocolate liquor (a.k.a cocoa mass). Despite the name, this chocolate liquor doesn’t have any alcoholic content. The chocolate liquor can either be used as an ingredient in chocolate or further processed to separate the cocoa butter from the solid. Cocoa butter is used in chocolate bars and the resulting press cake is milled into cocoa powder and used in baking cocoa and hot cocoa.
Conching & Tempering
Now you have 2 key ingredients needed to make those chocolate bars: chocolate liquor and cocoa butter. They are blended with sugar, vanilla, and milk (for milk chocolate). These ingredients are then “conched,” or mixed and aerated at high temperatures. This process thoroughly blends the ingredients, removing some of the cacao bean’s acidity and further develops the flavors you’ll taste in the final bar. Traditional conching takes days but now it’s common for many companies to speed up the process using soy lecithin which emulsifies (blends) the ingredients. The older method is widely known to produce superior tasting chocolate.
Next, the chocolate is “tempered” by gradually cooling and warming it at intervals until it reaches the correct temperature for molding.
Molding and Packaging
Here’s the fun part: After the chocolate is poured into molds, hardens, and individually wrapped for sale, you come along and pick one up for sampling! You are a more discerning buyer now that you know the process. Your palate will thank you!