The Process: From Bean to Bar
Since the Cacao tree produces fruit year-round, harvest is an ongoing event. Farmers carefully sever the ripe pods from the stems, mindful not to damage any blossoms or fruit growing around them. Then, using machetes, they split the pods and remove the seeds from the thick white pulp. It takes about 400 beans, roughly 8 pods, to make 1 pound of chocolate.
After being sorted to remove debris, the sticky mass is covered with plantain leaves and begins to ferment in the ambient heat. Natural yeasts devour the sugars in the residual pulp, pushing up the internal temperature and reducing the PH levels. Enzymes start their work, mellowing bitter flavors. The length of fermentation depends on the bean varietal, with Criollo running around 2 days and Forastero almost a week. Separating different genetic strains during fermentation helps avoid over or under-fermented beans with off flavors.
Once fermentation is complete, the beans are spread out and left to dry in the sun or, if rainy, moved indoors and fanned with warm air. The beans need to be raked and turned and covered from nighttime moisture to fully dry. After about 5 or 6 days the beans become hard and lose more than half their weight.
The type of bean dictates the temperature and duration of roasting. Delicate Criollo is roasted at low heat for as little as a half hour, while the more robust Forastero requires a much longer time. Once cacao has reached this stage of processing terminology changes and it is now referred to as cocoa.
The beans are crushed just enough to release the meat, or nibs, from the hulls. Then the nibs are ground into cocoa“liquor”, a combination of cocoa butter and solids. Cocoa butter is unique among fats in that it melts right at body temperature, giving chocolate that luscious feel on the tongue.
Once the cocoa butter and solids are combined with other ingredients like sugar and vanilla, additional cocoa butter is usually added to reduce viscosity before it is conched. Named for the shell shape of the early machines, conching kneads the cocoa until another chemical transformation occurs. How long it takes to reach the perfect flavor profile is up to each chocolatier and ranges from as little as four hours to three days or more.
The conched chocolate is then tempered, a process of heating, cooling, and reheating that realigns the cocoa butter crystals for that shiny gloss and satisfying snap. Once fully tempered, chocolate is ready to be molded into confections or bars.