Roasting Cocoa Beans and Chocolate

The techniques used by the chocolate maker to roast the cocoa beans are one of the ways that chocolate makers can bring their own unique artistic vision to their chocolate making. It is one of the most important steps in the process of developing chocolate flavor. Variables such as temperature, the temperature curve (how long the temperature remains at a particular point), the degree of roast, the type of roaster used, and a whole host of other variables are within the chocolate maker’s control, and all make a significant impact on the flavor of the final chocolate.

Antique cocoa roaster from a German engraving dated 1915

Antique cocoa roaster from a German engraving dated 1915

There is no single “right” way to roast cocoa beans though there are an incredible number of wrong ways. The techniques used by the chocolate maker for roasting cocoa beans need to be suited to the types of bean being roasted. Particular attention needs to be given to the size of the bean, its plumpness, the moisture content, the variety, and the bean’s own unique flavor profile and the flavor profile of other beans that will be used during the chocolate-making process. All these must be considered when roasting the bean in order to bring out the bean’s optimal flavor and the best flavor in the final chocolate. There is no single “right way”; the “right way” consists of a series of techniques needed to roast and bring about the optimal flavor profile for the beans being roasted. Unfortunately, most industrial chocolate manufacturers use a series of shortcuts to increase production as well as to reduce labor costs. Roasting cocoa beans properly requires a significant amount of labor, care, and attention to detail, something few chocolate makers are willing to expend.

When most people think of roasting cocoa beans, the first thing they think of is the roasting of coffee. But the roasting of cocoa beans is quite a bit different from the roasting of coffee. For example, coffee is roasted at much higher temperatures than cocoa beans. Cocoa beans are also much more fragile than coffee beans, and if roasted whole and not treated with respect, they are prone to breakage that will likely influence the final flavor profile.

Unlike coffee, which is typically roasted at high temperatures from 380F (195 C) to 480F (250C), cocoa beans must be roasted gently and carefully.. Cocoa beans are sensitive to slight temperature variations—a degree or two in either direction or a few seconds too long or too short is enough to throw off the roast and result in an inferior product. Roasting begins at 210F and typically continues up to 310F. High-speed roasters may roast at temperatures as high as 415 degrees Fahrenheit, though then the roasting time is extremely short—as brief as three minutes.

Amano's cocoa ball roaster.

Antique ball cocoa roaster at Amano Artisan Chocolate. We imported this cocoa roaster from Portugal. Note how it is almost identical to the German one from the 1915 engraving.

It is extremely important during roasting that the cocoa beans and roast process be very closely monitored. If the beans are over-roasted, there is nothing that may be done to correct the flavor of the resultant chocolate. If the beans are particularly flavorful, such as is the case with criollo and similar varieties, the incredible flavor notes that make them so highly sought after are driven from the beans and up through the chimney into the air outside. While the blocks surrounding the chocolate factory may smell wonderful, the flavor of the beans is ruined. For beans of high quality, a moment of inattention may be a very costly mistake.

When cocoa beans are roasted with the goal of bringing out the best flavors possible, the final phases of the roast are crucially important. It is not uncommon for the cocoa beans to be tasted frequently during this stage. The cocoa beans are removed from the roaster by use of a sampling rod that has a little cup on the end. The rod is inserted into the roaster and used to catch a sampling of beans as they tumble within the roaster. The cocoa beans are crushed and tasted, and the flavor evaluated. This may happen as frequently as every 15 seconds during the last stages of a roast. (This is also about as fast as the artisanal chocolate maker can catch and remove beans, and taste and evaluate the roast.) Surprisingly, the beans should not be pulled from the roaster once the optimal flavor is reached. If they are, they will be over-roasted. The reason is that once the beans are pulled from the roaster, they will continue roasting until their temperature drops below 210 degrees Fahrenheit. This may be as much as 100 degrees below the roast temperature, and roasting happens quickly. To solve this dilemma, the cocoa beans must be removed from the roasterbefore the peak flavor has been reached. It takes a high degree of skill to determine when this point has been reached so the beans are at the peak of their flavor once they have cooled.

When the cocoa beans are unloaded from the roaster, they are cooled on a large cooling table that uses extremely powerful fans to move large volumes of air through the beans to quickly cool them and stop the roasting process. While they are being cooled, the beans are stirred to ensure that they cool quickly and evenly.

Next: Flavor Development in Chocolate  (Part 2) –>>
Next: Types of Cocoa Roasters (Part 3) –>>

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