Manufacturing chocolate is a complex process. From the terroir of the initial cacao tree to the primary ingredients, every detail makes a difference to the quality of the final chocolate. In 2017, chocolate was a $103.28 billion industry, and there are countless recipes and products available in the market today. Despite the numbers, chocolates generally go through the same manufacturing process. Let’s examine how each step of the process affects chocolate quality:
The first step starts here. Ripe cocoa pods are harvested twice a year. The harvest times vary from region to region, but the process of turning it into chocolate doesn’t start immediately. The pods are cut open with machetes, and the white pulp containing the cocoa beans is scooped out. Not all cocoa harvests are created equal. Everything from the soil type to the climatic conditions of the crop has a significant impact on the beans and the chocolate’s flavor profile.
The harvested cacao bean may taste bitter, but real taste and aroma already begin to emerge during fermentation. For 3-8 days, microorganisms in the environment transform the cacao bean, reducing the bitterness. During the process, the seeds are stirred to help them ferment more evenly. Beans that aren’t fermented enough will be lacking in flavor, while over fermented beans will have too much residual acidity.
- Drying and Roasting
After fermentation, cacao beans are dried to remove moisture and prevent mold from growing. It was made by spreading them out into a single layer in the sun. Then seeds are transferred to a production plant, where they’re roasted in very high temperatures for different time intervals. Roasting parameters vary by bean type, origin, quantity, and the desired flavor profiles—but typically roasters aim for 30-60 minutes or more at temperatures in the range of 300-350°F. This locks in the effects of fermentation, creating that characteristic chocolate flavor that will be carried over to the final product.
- Cracking & Winnowing
The roasted cocoa beans have a thin, papery shell around them which needs to be removed. So the beans are cracked open, and the crust is removed in a process called winnowing. The lighter coatings are blown away with fans, leaving behind pieces of the pure cocoa bean, known as cacao nibs.
The cocoa nibs are ground with stone rollers until they become a paste known as cocoa mass or cocoa liquor. When the shell of the cacao bean falls off with roasting, the cacao nibs inside are ground into cocoa liquor, which is further separated into cocoa butter and cocoa powder. Cocoa butter is responsible for how chocolate melts, while the flavor mostly comes from cocoa powder. Other ingredients such as milk, sugar, and caramel may be added on this step. Finally, the mixture is tempered into a solid block of chocolate. The gleam, texture, and crispness of chocolate are formed during this step.
Traditionally, the cocoa mass is transferred to a separate machine called a conch, where it is further refined. This is simply a large metal cylinder with two rotating granite wheels that grind and refine the chocolate into very small particles. This process can take from a few hours to a few days and affects the chemical structure of the chocolate, as well as the particle size. This part of the process has a significant impact on the flavor notes in the finished chocolate.
Good chocolate should have a shiny finish and a good “snap” – that clean clicking sound when you break a piece off. These were created by tempering, a controlled process of raising, lowering, and raising again the temperature of the chocolate to form precisely the right kind of crystals. If you were to let the untempered chocolate cool naturally, the chocolate would be soft and crumbly and would not melt evenly on the tongue. Tempering can be done by hand, but the process would be enormously time-consuming for the large amounts of chocolate. Most companies use tempering machines that can heat large quantities of chocolate very accurately. The tempering machine will keep the melted chocolate circulating at precisely the right temperature, making the final step easier.
The final step in making a finished chocolate bar is pouring it into a mold. The melted chocolate is poured into plastic bar-shaped molds and agitated to remove any air bubbles. Big chocolate makers will have machines and conveyors that deposit precisely the right amount of chocolate into each mold. But many smaller manufacturers still do this part by hand.
Once cooled, the chocolate is wrapped up and ready.
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