Cacao beans come from the cacao tree, an evergreen that grows in tropical countries and can grow up to 30 ft tall. It takes about five years from being planted before a cacao tree yields its fruit. The pods are the fruit of the tree and are about the size and shape of a football. There are about 30 to 50 cream-coloured cocoa beans in a pod and these are what are used to make chocolate.
Once the pod is ripe, they are cut down carefully so the stalks can produce more pods the following year. They can be harvested all year round but they are usually just harvested twice a year. When the pods are cut down, they are cracked open (usually with a couple swift blows of a machete) and the beans are removed. It takes about 400 cocoa beans to make one pound of chocolate.
The cacao beans are then fermented to keep the beans from germinating and to begin developing their flavour. Depending on the farm, the beans are fermented in wooden boxes in a central area or just wrapped in banana leaves and left on the ground. Fermentation can take up to six days.
The beans are then dried to bring down their humidity from 60% to 7%. They are usually dried in the sun on tarps or patios and are continually raked to make sure they are dried evenly. Drying the beans can take up to a week but the growers have to be careful: if they leave them drying too long, the beans will be brittle and if they don’t dry them enough, they could become mouldy. Once dried, the beans can be stored for up to five years.
After they are completely dried, the beans are sent to a different facility to be roasted. First they are cleaned to take out any debris and then the beans are roasted to bring out the flavour. After they are roasted, they are winnowed which means the shell from the bean is removed, just leaving the roasted cocoa nib. If the manufacturers are making raw chocolate, the beans are winnowed without the roasting step.
The nibs are then ground into a paste that is called chocolate liquor. There is no actual liquor in this paste but it is extremely bitter at this point. Producers can either use the chocolate liquor directly in production or process it again to separate the fat (cocoa butter) from the cocoa solid (cocoa presscake). Cocoa butter can be used in chocolate bars or beauty products and the presscake can be made into cocoa powder to be used for baking cocoa or hot chocolate.
Now we can begin manufacturing the finished chocolate bars! The chocolate liquor or cocoa butter is blended with other ingredients (such as milk, sugar or vanilla) and conched. Conching means it is mixed and aerated at high temperatures for a day or so. This lowers the acidity and develops the flavours of the finished bar.
To cool down the chocolate after conching, it is tempered through a slow process. It is cooled, then warmed slightly, then cooled it further, then warmed until it reaches the ideat temperature. The tempering is what creates the chocolate’s smooth texture. After tempering, additional ingredients like cranberries or almonds can be added to the chocolate and then the mixture is poured into moulds. Once the chocolate cools down completely, it is solid and becomes the final chocolate bar – ready to be eaten!