Chocolate is made from the seeds of a fruit, which we call cacao. This cacao fruit is delicious on its own, and tastes sweet yet tart, kind of like lychee. So, how do these seeds transform into chocolate? Here is a step by step guide on how we make chocolate.
Step One: Farming
The cacao tree, which also goes by Theobroma Cacao, is a small evergreen tree. They grow within 20 degrees north and south of the equator and require relatively consistent temperatures, high humidity (Kyle can vouch for this - "Its pretty darn hot hiking up and down hillsides"), lots of rain and nitrogen rich soil.
Similar to grape vines, it takes three to five years to produce a fair yield of fruit. Could you imagine waiting up to five years to make chocolate? We sure can't. During this time, the farmers are responsible for proper care of the trees. They need to ensure they will grow strong and yield a bountiful supply of cacao pods.
Once the trees reach maturity and start producing a fair yield of fruit, it's time to harvest the cacao fruit and collect their seeds.
Step Two: Harvesting
The time has come. The cacao fruit is ripe and ready to be harvested. So the farmer removes the pods from the tree and mounds them all together. Once all of the ripe pods have been collected, each pod is sliced open, exposing the inner fruit and seeds. This fruit is delicious - it is sweet, slightly tart and really fun to snack on.
The seeds and fruit are scooped out of each pod, and are transported away to a fermentation centre, box, or structure where they will indeed be fermented (in our experience, all good things are fermented). This part of the process has to happen rather quick, or else the fruit may spoil, making it unusable in the chocolatemaking process.
Step Three: Fermentation
After the cacao seeds have been removed from the cacao pods, they are transported to where they will be fermented. This process is critical for proper flavour development in the cacao. If fermentation is delayed after removing the seeds from the pods, the seeds will begin to germinate, lending astringency to the finished cacao.
Fermentation typically takes 5-7 days, however this number will vary based on the type of cacao (varietal), temperature, and amount of cacao being fermented to name a few. It is up to the farmers to recognize when the cacao is ready and fermentation needs to come to a halt.
Step Four: Drying
Cacao must begin its drying phase to halt fermentation. Depending on the location and weather, cacao can be dried using various methods. In the photo above (our trip to India in 2019), the cacao is dried on raised beds.
Apart from halting fermentation, drying the cacao will reduce the moisture content to an acceptable level. Ideal moisture is between 5-8%. If it is above 8%, there are chances of mold development, resulting in the whole product being unusable. If the moisture is too low, the beans will break into smaller pieces, increasing product loss when it arrives to our shop.
Step Five: Sorting
After the dried cacao is bagged and shipped to us, we are now responsible for making it into chocolate. The first step is to sort through the cacao to ensure no sticks, rocks, corn, coffee (the list goes on) has been left behind for us. It isn't overly common to receive any of the above however it does happen.
Sorting is a relatively quick process where we pour the cacao onto sorting trays and examine for any defects or unwanted bits. Once approved, the cacao is rearranged on perforated trays at specific weights and is then destined to be roasted.
Step Six: Roasting
Now that our cacao seeds are free from debris and loaded onto perforated trays, its time to roast! Roasting is one of the more crucial steps for flavour development. How much cacao do you roast at once? What temperature(s)? How long do you roast for? Do you cool the seeds immediately afterwards? So many questions!
Thankfully, we love this technical side and have performed numerous roasts for each origin of chocolate we make. We make slight tweaks to the temperature, time, etc. and taste. If it tastes off, we try again and taste some more. This continues until our team is proud of the flavour of the roasted cacao.
Step Seven: Winnowing
The cacao seeds have shells on them and they are rather fibrous. We find it best to remove the shells from the inner 'nib' before it is made into chocolate. To do so, we use what we call a winnower. The winnower is responsible for cracking the roasted cacao seeds and, with the assistance of airflow, it whisks away the lighter particle sizes (shell) from the heavier (cacao nibs).
Although we do not use the shells in the chocolatemaking process, we do reserve them for other projects. They are very aromatic and make a great tea, or can even be used as an infusing in the beer brewing process. They also make a lovely mulch, leaving your backyard smelling like chocolate year round.
Step Eight: Refining
Cacao nibs are relatively coarse, similar in size to a pebble. We need to break those pieces down into something that is silky smooth on the tongue. To do so, we use a piece of equipment known to us as a refiner.
The refiners job is simple: crush the cacao nibs until they are smaller than 20 microns in size. This is near where we cannot discern a gritty texture, as it is important to us for the chocolate to be creamy in texture. The refining process takes us 48 hours for every 50 pound batch. Thankfully, while this process is underway, we are free to work on other parts of the process.
Step Nine: Tempering
Tempering involves heating and cooling the chocolate to stabilize it for use in moulding chocolate bars, casting shells for truffles, and more. It is one of the more challenging parts of the process to master. Thankfully we are patient and learn more every day!
There are many ways to temper chocolate and we use a machine called a continuous tempering machine. This machine is able to heat and cool our chocolate to precise temperatures while depositing it into our moulds.
The above photo shows our depositing plate, which helps distribute the tempered chocolate into the cavities of the moulds. Once they are moulded, they head to a cooling cabinet to allow the chocolate to contract from the mould walls and release with ease.
Step Ten: Wrapping
Depending on the project, our chocolate is moulded and wrapped in many shapes and sizes. Above, we have mini squares that are used as turndown chocolates in hotels, or little treats beside a coffee.
Wrapping is a big part of the process. More so for the resources that are required and where they end up after the chocolate has been enjoyed. We use a compostable pouch developed by our packaging partner here in Ontario. The pouches will break down into workable material with or without the assistance of oxygen (many landfills are so jam packed of stuff, there is no oxygen to break down what can be broken down, sadly). We are happy to have packaging that will have another use in due time.
Step Eleven: Eating Chocolate!
Now that you have learned how we make chocolate, you need to enjoy some! Go find yourself a little nibble or whip up a hot chocolate (or if you're out I hear Soul Chocolate is rather delicious).
Just remember about how many people are responsible for making such a tasty thing. So go out there and support chocolatemakers who recognize this and they themselves are supporting farmers worldwide.