Chocolate has been around for thousands of years, dating back to the Mesoamerican people including the Maya and Aztec. Since its discovery many years ago, the way in which cacao is grown, harvested, and processed has advanced a great deal. Cacao beans thrive in tropical climates and as such the trees do best in these types of areas and when planted on small farms. Cacao trees on average, take about five years to begin producing the fruit, or pods that hold the cacao beans which eventually become chocolate.
Types of Cacao Trees
While there are many different varieties of cacao trees, they can be categorized into three basic types.
Forastero - These are the most common cacao trees due to the fact that they are easy to cultivate. They also produce the most pods of all the varieties but the chocolate produced from Forastero trees is normally more bitter.
Criollo - These trees are said to produce the best chocolate. The pods produced by Criollo trees are soft, light colored, and give off a pleasant aroma.
Trinitario - These trees are a cross of Forastero and Criollo trees. They actually blend the better flavor from the Criollo trees with the hardiness of the Forastero trees.
Currently, most chocolate is made from beans produced by Forastero trees because they produce more cacao pods and are hardier trees. There is, however, work being done to develop cacao hybrids that will have a better flavor, while the trees will also be more resistant to pests and diseases. Each year, there are normally two big harvests of cacao pods. Occasionally, there will be a third, smaller harvest in between. Farmers have to pick cacao pods by hand to avoid harming unripened pods, and flowers that will give way to future pods. Cacao trees can be easily damaged so farmers must take great care during harvesting. Once the pods are removed from the trees, the beans and surrounding pulp are removed from the pods and placed in containers so that the fermentation process can begin.
Cacao beans must go through a fermenting process that can last up to seven days. During fermentation, the beans produce flavor precursors, that eventually result in the chocolate taste people have come to know. Pods must be ripe to undergo the fermentation process. If the are not ripe enough, the beans will wind up with low cocoa butter content, which can result in a weaker flavor. Once the fermentation of beans from ripe pods is completed, the beans must be dried out quickly to prevent the growth of mold. Depending on weather and climate, this is normally done by spreading the beans out and allowing them to sit in the sun for anywhere from five to seven days. Once the beans are completely dry, they can be sent to a manufacturing facility which will clean, roast, and grade the beans. After being roasted and graded, the shell of each cacao bean is removed so that the nib can be extracted. The nibs are then ground up and liquefied, forming a pure liquid chocolate called chocolate liquor. The liquor can then be processed into either cocoa butter or cocoa solids.
Once chocolate has been processed into chocolate liquor, it is blended with cocoa butter to create different types of chocolate. The amount of chocolate liquor added depends on the type of chocolate being made. The different types of chocolate are dark, milk, and white chocolate. Dark chocolate contains the highest amount of chocolate liquor while white chocolate contains the least. Higher quality, more expensive chocolate, is normally processed for a longer period of time than lower quality chocolate. Higher quality chocolate tends to have a smoother texture due to the extended processing time.
Conching and Tempering Chocolate
Another important step in chocolate production is conching. A container that is filled with metal beads acts as a sort of grinder. The chocolate is placed in the container (conche), where it is refined and blended. It is kept liquid due to frictional heat. Prior to undergoing the conching process, chocolate has a gritty and uneven texture. Conching helps make the sugar particles in chocolate smaller, thus resulting in a smoother texture. It is the length of conching that ultimately determines the quality and smoothness of the final product. High quality chocolate can be conched for days while lower quality chocolate is normally conched for only a few hours. The final step in the processing of chocolate is tempering. Cocoa butter that crystallizes uncontrolled results in crystals that cause the chocolate to appear mottled. These crystals can also cause the chocolate to crumble instead of snap. Tempering produces smaller crystals causing the chocolate to snap instead of crumble and have a uniform sheen.
Once chocolate has been tempered, it can be packaged and is ready for sale. Explore the following pages to learn more about the process of making chocolate.