The Cacao tree originated in the hot, rainy climate of the Amazon and Orinoco River basins of Equador and Brazil, and is now also cultivated in Africa, Hawaii and Indonesia. All Cacao is grown within 20° of the equator, and needs 60” of rainfall, fertile soil, the shade of the rain forest canopy, and temperatures above 50° F to thrive. The three main varieties of Cacao trees are the scarce Criollo, which yields the highest-quality bean; the Trinitario, prized for its good flavor; and the Forastero, which grows a more astringent bean and compromises about 90% of the Cacao crop. The best beans are grown in the Brazilian state of Bahia and in the West African country of Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast).
Cacao trees can grow to 40 feet high, but are kept trimmed to about 15 feet for ease of harvesting. The Cacao beans grow in large, melon-like pods that sprout from the trunks and large lower branches of the Cacao tree. Each Cacao pod is about 8 inches long and contains about 30 to 60 white or purplish seeds in a white to light green, sweet melon-flavored pulp. The Cacao tree is always in bloom and has fruit ripening all year round, although it has 2 peak harvests called the “main” and “mid” seasons.
Cacao pods are cut from the trees with heavy, pole-mounted, hooked knives. The pods are then collected in the field, split open with machetes, and the pulp and seeds scraped out into baskets to be carried to the village. Once there, the pulp and seeds are heaped onto layers of banana leaves, covered with more leaves, and left for several days to ferment. The fermentation develops the bean’s flavor and color. The fermentation process raises the temperature of the beans to about 122°, consuming the pulp, and the exposure to air darkens the once milky-white seeds.
After fermentation, the cacao beans are still moist, but free of most of their pulp. The beans are laid on the ground to dry in the sun. They are raked or “walked” with bare feet to turn them and rub off any remaining pulp. Once dried, the beans are ready to be stitched into burlap bags for shipping.
When beans arrive at chocolate factories, they are inspected for proper fermentation and cleaned to remove dirt, rocks, and other debris that may have collected during the fermentation and drying processes. The process of making chocolate requires beans are then roasted in large cylindrical ovens for several hours at temperatures from 300° to 400° F. Roasting imparts the characteristic chocolate color to the bean and develops its “chocolatey” aroma. Once roasted, beans are cracked and winnowed to expose the cocoa nib, or core. Cracking breaks the nib free of the shell and reduces the nib to small pieces, allowing the winnowing to blow away the shells, or hulls, with powerful fans.
The roasted and cleaned cocoa nibs, now ready to be made into chocolate, are first blended with other cocoa varieties to produce the unique and complex chocolate recipe that comprises each chocolate manufacturer’s particular flavor.
Containing about 45% cocoa solids and 55% fat, or cocoa butter, the nibs are ground by large stone mills into a thick, rich-looking syrup called “chocolate liquor,” or unsweetened chocolate. The heat and pressure of the grinding process releases the cocoa fat from the nib, allowing the chocolate to flow. Don’t let the name fool you, though: “chocolate liquor” simply refers to the “essence” of the chocolate; it contains no alcohol.
This is chocolate made in its most natural form. If, at this point, it is hardened into bars, it becomes the “baking” or “unsweetened” chocolate found on the grocery shelves. However, if this “chocolate liquor” continues on in the chocolate-making process, it can be made into many different products. Sugar may be added to the chocolate liquor to create an entire range of semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate. By adding milk, additional cocoa butter, lecithin, vanilla or other flavorings, milk chocolate and other specialty chocolates are made.
However, before the chocolate liquor can be made into “eating” chocolate it must be refined by passing it through giant steel roller mills. Unrefined chocolate can have a somewhat gritty feel on the tongue, and the refining process reduces the particle size of the cocoa solids in the chocolate to give it a very fine mouth-feel. Once the liquid chocolate has been refined, however, it becomes somewhat dry and powdery. This is because the now finely ground cocoa particles have a much greater surface area to be covered by the same amount of cocoa butter, so the once liquid chocolate liquor becomes a much dryer paste. Additional cocoa butter is needed to liquify the chocolate once again, and this is added during the next stage of production, called conching.
Conching got its name from the similarity of the early machines to the shape of the seashell. During this stage of chocolate manufacture, additional cocoa butter is added, along with the other ingredients and flavorings that will make the final chocolate product. More important than just blending ingredients, the conching process – which can take up to 72 hours for a high-quality chocolate – aerates the chocolate through constant stirring which releases any volatile and off-flavors. Gradually, the bitter taste disappears and the flavor of the chocolate becomes fully developed. Tempering, molding, and hardening remain the final steps before packaging.
Cocoa powder is made by removing much of the fat from chocolate liquor. First, chocolate liquor is pumped into special hydraulic presses that extract cocoa butter—the natural fat from the cacao bean—and drain it off. The remaining compacted cocoa solids are released from the press in the form of a hard cake, which is then broken up and ground to become cocoa powder. Cocoa powder still retains some cocoa butter after pressing. Low-fat cocoa, the most commonly used variety, has a 10% to 12% fat content, medium-fat cocoa retains 14% to 16% of the fat, and high-fat cocoa—sometimes called “breakfast cocoa”—has a fat content of 22% to 24%. For many applications, cocoa powder is “Dutch processed” to reduce its natural acidity and enhance its color and flavor.
The decadent and delicious chocolate and cocoa products available today have come a long way from their origins in the simple cacao bean. Special processes and careful formulations improve and smooth the rough, bitter taste of raw cacao, providing sumptuous pleasures for chocolate lovers!