As a Chocolatier, it is my joy and passion to work with chocolate every day.
We have all eaten and loved chocolate our whole lives. It has become not only a part of our regular routines, but it is an integral part of our celebrations and holidays; Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter and even Halloween, not to mention birthdays, weddings and anniversaries. It is easy to take this food for granted. To be honest, I had never even considered its origins or how it was made until I began studying chocolate professionally.
I had an opportunity to understand this process – known as Bean to Bar chocolate making – through my Master class studies with Ecole Chocolat. An entire week devoted to the study of learning to taste chocolate and its hundreds of flavour notes, and the rare experience of visiting a Cacao Farm and making chocolate right from the harvest of the pod to the final molding of a chocolate bar. I had the extreme pleasure of learning to do this with a small group of fellow Chocolatiers from around the world, at Mindo Chocolate in beautiful Ecuador.
The art of bean to bar chocolate making takes many years of study and specialized equipment, so taking this course was not for the purpose of making the chocolate myself, but to gain a deeper understanding of the process. My journey and experience gave me a whole new appreciation for this food…and I hope this blog entry will do the same for you!
Arrival in Mindo, Ecuador
I landed in Quito, Ecuador and met up with my fellow Chocolatiers and classmates. The next day we travelled with our group by bus for about 2 hours to the Andes Mountains and the Cloud Forest of Mindo. It’s important to note here that cacao trees can only grow in a very specific part of the world, 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the Equator. Viable plantations for cacao production cannot grow outside of this area, affectionately known as the “Cocoa Belt”.
Harvesting and Fermenting:
We visited a local cacao plantation where we learned how to harvest the cacao pods. The plantations are shaded by other, taller trees, known as the Madre de Cacao (Mother of Cacao) which protect the trees from too much sun and wind. The cacao pods on the trees are quite high off the ground and a specialized tool attached to a long pole is used to cut them down. Great care must be taken at this step so that only the pod stem is cut and not the delicate flowers beside it – which will be the next crop of pods. The cacao pod itself is about the size of a football and basically the same shape. A machete is used to cut the cacao pod in half and the white gooey beans are then scooped out by hand. We tasted the white beans inside and they were sweet and tender with the slight flavour of a cantaloupe melon…..no taste of chocolate at all!
Once harvested, our gooey beans are then fermented in heaps that have been placed on a dry flat surface and covered in banana leaves. The pile is stirred occasionally, almost like composting. In commercial chocolate making, this process is usually done in boxes to make the process more efficient and to control dirt and insects. It takes 6-10 days to fully ferment, so we will be using other cacao beans that were harvested earlier for our final batch of chocolate.
Drying, Roasting and Winnowing:
After fermentation is complete, the next step is drying the cacao beans. A large flat frame with a thick netted bottom about a meter off the ground is used for drying. The cacao beans are spread out in a single layer. This process is normally done in a covered structure to prevent bird droppings and to protect from the rain. The beans are cut and checked regularly to see if they have reached the right stage of dryness.
Once ready, the beans are placed in large roasters with high heat below and a constant rotation. The aroma in the air is amazing! The process is very similar to coffee bean roasting and just as in that process, the cacao beans will be checked for colour and aroma until they have reached the point where the chocolate maker decides the flavours notes are just right. Without the process of fermenting, drying and roasting, the beans would not get their distinct chocolate flavour.
Next we must remove the outer shell of the cacao bean, this is called winnowing. We will only be using the cacao nib inside for making chocolate. The skins are saved and used for making a tea and for composting or mulch.
Grinding and Conching.
Our cacao nibs are now added to a grinder which turns them into what is called a “Cocoa Mass” and also “Cocoa Liquor” (although it does not contain any alcohol – you will sometimes see this term as an ingredient in finished chocolate). At this stage, if the chocolate maker wants to make cocoa powder and cocoa butter, he will put the cacao mass into a press. Under extreme pressure, the cocoa butter is released, and the remaining “pucks” are cocoa powder. If the chocolate maker is working on making a batch of chocolate, he moves the cacao mass into the concher. The grinder makes the beans much smaller, but the paste is still quite coarse. Conching will make it much smoother. This machine gets its name from the grinding stones that are inside some machines that resemble conch shells. Long periods of conching will smooth the mass out into a very fine paste. The cocoa mass will conch for a day or so but in Belgium, by law the minimum conch time is 3 days. This makes the cacao bean particles extremely small and the mouthfeel of the finished chocolate is exceptionally smooth and creamy.
This is also the stage where sugar and dairy (for milk chocolate) will be added. Sometimes vanilla too. The dairy must be added in a powdered form since we cannot add liquid to the cocoa mass.
Tempering and Molding.
Almost there! The final stage after conching is to temper and mold the chocolate. When chocolate is in its warm, liquid state, the cocoa butter crystals in the chocolate have “broken” and they must be recreated. This is done by various tempering methods but the one we used on this day was “tabliering” – pouring the chocolate on a cool marble slab and working it with a spatula and scraper until the cocoa butter crystals have reformed and the chocolate has cooled.
Now we are ready to mold. If the tempering process was done correctly, the bars fall right out of the mold after they have cooled and set. Then we taste!
I hope you enjoyed going on this little Bean to Bar excursion to Ecuador with me and I hope the next time you bite into a piece of chocolate that you have a little better understanding of the journey the cacao bean has made to create that delicious confection for you to enjoy.
Lori, Owner and Master Chocolatier