In the beginning there is the bean: the cacao bean. This bean is the origin of chocolate, the most beloved sweet of all time.
But to get this bean made into a bar, luxury truffles or into your cocoa cup is a complex process that takes a blend of science and art. A chocolate maker has to learn this craft from start to finish in order to make a quality chocolate product.
So how is chocolate made exactly? In this chocolate making guide, we will be covering everything there is to know on how your favorite chocolate bar goes from seeds to shelves. By the end of this article, you'll know everything there is to know about the world of chocolate production.
Where Does the Cacao Bean Come From?
The Theobroma Cacao tree (which literally translates as “Food of the Gods”) will only grow in tropical climates, ideally shaded under the lovely canopy of a neighboring banana or coconut palm tree. Even more particularly finicky, the cacao tree prefers a select tropical belt—20 degrees north or south of the equator—to lay down its roots. Thus Mexico, Ghana, Ecuador, Brazil, the South Caribbean Isles, Colombia, Indonesia, The Ivory Coast, Venezuela, Jamaica, Tanzania, Nicaragua and Madagascar are just some of the world’s sources of cacao beans. The finest chocolate is harvested from the criollo and trinitario trees which when ripe and nurtured by local farmers who plant trees on good soil with ample rainfall and shade, provide the highest quality beans.
The Shape of the Cacao Pod
Blossoming, like magic almost, from the trunk and branches of the Theobroma cacao tree are the pods which grow larger and change color as they draw nutrients from the rainforest floor. Some pods might sprout to be as large as footballs, permeating the tranquil scenery with little indication as to what lies inside. Tiny specks of flowers, each vibrant in yellow, red and white dot the tree, attracting tiny insects which pollinate each bloom. Here lie the beginnings of new cacao pods— some fated to be bulbous and acorn squash-like, others rigid, bumpy and unassuming. Each cacao pod, regardless of tree variety (criollo, forastero, trinitario), will take on one of four shapes as it grows. Their color can run the gamut of a rainbow from bright orange to deep scarlet. Although they look nothing like the chocolate bar they will one day produce, the sacred and revered seeds within each pod will yield approximately 4 dark chocolate bars.
The cacao pod, akin to a long and narrow gourd with Technicolor skin, is filled with creamy white and purple-ish beans (also called seeds; cacao is a fruit) suspended in a sweet, litchi-tasting webbing, the mucilage (locals call this baba). In the heat of the afternoon, children might pause to suck on this yummy goo, spitting out the bitter beans. Once the pods have fully matured, they will not simply drop to the forest floor like a coconut. The large, brightly colored pods will remain suspended until aided by a monkey, bat or knife-carrying cacao harvester.
Next Comes Fermentation
Fermentation is integral for developing quality chocolate. It is this three to seven day process that separates the great luxury chocolates from the rest. Fermentation happens in “fermentation houses,” located in the country of the bean origin. “Wet cocoa” is placed in large wooden boxes with holes at the bottom and covered with banana leaves to encourage fermentation. Banana leaves contain natural bacterial enzymes that aid in the process. During fermentation, the “baba” sugar is transformed into alcohol, then acetic acid, filling the room with a heavy vinegar aroma. Some fermentation houses save this vinegar for later use.
During fermentation, temperatures soar to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. At the completion of fermentation, the mucilage has liquefied completely and drained off, leaving almond sized cacao beans in its wake. It is important not to rush or over-ferment the beans.
Drying the Beans
The cacao bean is very high in moisture and must be dried in order to ensure it arrives mold-free to wherever it will be processed. In a small farm, drying might be as simple as a farmer spreading his beans across the hot concrete for a few days to bask in the sun; in Africa, fires are burned to dry beans, adding a smoky taste. Producers that care about taste take the time to dry beans slowly and painstakingly, spreading them across concrete areas or cedar planks to dry in the natural sunlight in the early morning and late afternoon. The beans are constantly raked by hand to turn them over for even drying.
In Grenada, women use the soles of their bare feet to “walk the cocoa” to ensure beans dry evenly! Beans are moved under a roof or the safety of a hay-thatched canopy in the evenings to protect them from the rain.
Alternatively, beans can be placed on rows of shelves indoors where they are blasted with artificial hot air to speed up the process of drying. Naturally, the former is preferred; the smoke generated from artificial heat tarnishes the flavor of the beans. During the drying process, the water content of the cacao bean is reduced from 60% to about 8% over the course of approximately 10 days.
Time to Roast and Winnow the Beans
After the cacao beans are dried, they are sorted by size and grade, polished and packed in burlap sacks and typically exported to chocolate manufacturing facilities outside the country of origin. Roasting temperature and time are determined by the bean type. Temperatures are usually kept between 200 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit. A winnowing machine is used to remove the shells from the cacao bean, leaving behind a very precious piece of nature, the cocoa nib. The nib, which is about the size of ½ a sunflower seed, is delicate in flavor and aroma and subtly crunchy, thick with tannin and notes of jasmine and orange blossom.
Milling, Mixing & Pressing, Oh My!
During the milling process, nibs are crushed in high-speed grinders to yield a thick chocolate paste known in the industry as “cocoa mass” or “cocoa liquor” though it contains no alcohol. Cocoa liquor is made up of cocoa butter and cocoa solids.
This is the point in the chocolate manufacturing process where the possibilities begin. Cocoa liquor may be mixed with additional cocoa butter and sugar to produce eating chocolate with a luxurious, creamy mouth-feel. Alternatively, the cocoa liquor may be pressed between large rollers to extract about half the cocoa butter, creating a solid, “cocoa presscake.” This cocoa presscake may be chopped, sifted, and mixed with sugar and/or milk powder to yield cocoa powder. A process known as “dutching” removes the bitter and acidic components in the cocoa and turns powder a rich, red-brown hue.
In the production of chocolate, after the cocoa liquor is mixed with sugar, cocoa butter and other ingredients, the chocolate is “conched.” The machine kneads and agitates the particles to improve texture and eliminate acidity. Conching is what gives chocolate a creamy, smooth sensation on your tongue. Longer conch time is often an indication of finer chocolate—and a higher price tag. In the production of white chocolate, milk chocolate and dark eating chocolate, crucial ingredients such as real vanilla and lecithin (an emulsifier) can be added depending on the type of chocolate being made: milk, white or dark chocolate.
The process of tempering is of the utmost importance to produce smooth, shiny chocolate with a texture akin to rich silk. Tempering may be done “by hand” on the stove with a thermometer or by using a tempering machine. To temper chocolate properly, the melting and crystallization properties of cocoa butter are used - it is a true science that any chocolate maker must master! Chocolate is alternately melted and cooled so that the cocoa butter can form six types of crystals. To encourage the “right type” of cocoa butter crystal formations,, the temperature must be regulated throughout the entire process. Tempering temperatures vary by chocolate type. Whether you temper by hand or with the aid of a machine, the process can be completed in about 30 minutes.
In the End, What Do We Make?
Once the Chocolate is tempered it can be used to make exotic chocolate bars, for baking chocolate, ice cream, to enrobe truffles, and stirred into milk to make cacao elixirs or hot chocolate. At Vosges, we use chocolate as our medium for telling stories and one of the ways we push the boundaries of the result of this intensive process of making it, is by presenting the chocolate in its simplicity.
A pioneering collaboration with Dr. William Li, we bring you Pure Plant. Each of our new Pure Plant bars helps to activate your body’s defenses in powerful ways. They work to address the needs of the body to heal, regenerate and be nourished. They’re a whole new way to consume pure chocolate and experience cacao. By incorporating the whole cacao in this innovative way, Pure Plant takes one of the most nutrient-rich ingredients in nature and charts a new path for how we use it and ultimately, how you taste it.
Each Pure Plant bar allows you to experience cacao as close to how nature intended it to be discovered: simply.
We also love to create chocolates that place limits on the ingredients we use, without sacrificing how luscious and creamy the chocolate can be!
We blended a treasured early-harvest olive oil with our proprietary 72% cacao dark chocolate and luscious pockets of Tennessee blackberry gelée. Having minimal amount of sugars present in the chocolate and the fruit to sweeten them, these truffles are low in sweetness and sumptuously rich without any dairy. Serve at a warm room temperature for ultimate pleasure.
One of the ways that we love to consume chocolate is in a cup!
Vosges Cacao Elixirs
At the heart of our super cacao elixirs is the mighty cacao bean. Designed as an alternative to your daily coffee ritual, these elixirs are a portal to deliver the cacao beans’ health benefits to your mind, body and soul in its purest form. The colorful elixirs leverage the healthy fats from cocoa butter, unrefined coconut nectar and various adaptogens, spices and flowers. They feature naturally occurring theobromine, which boosts energy and mood without the crash of caffeine. Offered in a variety of parfums: Reishi Mushroom and Walnut, Ceremonial Cacao, Ceremonial Matcha or Golden Milk.
Manufacturing chocolate is complex, but eating it shouldn’t be. No matter the form, it is important to honor the chocolate by allowing it to capture all of your senses. As you take in the smell, touch, sight and taste of the chocolate, you can now imagine all that it took to bring it to you and appreciate the hands that cultivated it for you, carrying with it thousands of years of traditions and history.