How Do Cocoa Beans Become Chocolate?

Question: How Do Cocoa Beans Become Chocolate?

Answer: The process by which cocoa beans become chocolate is so complex that it’s no wonder it took centuries to perfect (don’t forget that human knowledge of chocolate extended only to its being a beverage until the 1800’s).

Let’s start at the beginning of the long road to chocolate. Cocoa beans grow in cocoa pods, the “fruit” of the cocoa tree. The pods vary greatly in shape, size, and color, as cocoa trees cross-pollinate very easily. Cocoa pods do not fall to the ground when ripe; it takes an experienced eye to know when it’s time to harvest them, and harvesting is one by hand, as both the trees and pods are delicate.

Once the pods are harvested, they’re split open, but even this requires skill and care. Some pods have very hard rinds, and the rind must be cut through cleanly, without cutting into the beans, which are housed in the pod’s sticky mass of pulp. The beans and pulp (cleaned of any foreign objects or pieces of rind) are now fermented. The fermentation process, which also demands knowledge and experience to understand how long particular beans need to ferment, is crucial to eliminating some of the naturally-occurring bitter and sour flavor elements in the beans. Complete fermentation takes from two to six days or so, depending upon cocoa bean variety. During fermentation, the sticky pulp turns to a liquid and drains off on its own.

After fermentation, the cocoa beans are dried for about five to six days, until their moisture level drops sufficiently to permit bagging, storage, and transportation. Cocoa beans are grown within 20 degrees latitude north and south of the equator, and that means warm to hot temperatures. If the beans were not dried prior to bagging, they would rot. Following the drying process, beans are classified according to size and quality. The cocoa beans are bagged in burlap sacks; most are then transported internationally, to chocolate-making facilities.

Once the beans arrive at a chocolate production factory, they are cleaned again (it’s not uncommon for sticks or stones to make their way into the burlap bags that hold the beans). The cocoa beans are now roasted, a process vital to the development of chocolate flavor. Roasting time and temperature depend entirely on the type of bean and what the producer wants the final chocolate to taste like, so here again, knowledge and experience are absolute necessities. Roasting causes the beans to shrink slightly, so it’s easier to rid them of their hulls, and that process is now undertaken. A machine crushes the beans just enough so that their hulls can be removed, leaving the cocoa nibs, or “meat”.

From there, the nibs are crushed and ground in mills, producing chocolate liquor. Despite its name, chocolate liquor contains no alcohol. It’s a thick, gritty, dark brown paste that is the base for (and chief ingredient in) all chocolate products. Next, the chocolate liquor is blended with sugar and possibly other ingredients, such as vanilla or lecithin (some chocolate manufacturers eschew the use of these ingredients, claiming that they merely cover up the use of inferior-quality cocoa beans, but not everybody agrees with that); if milk chocolate is being made, milk powder is also added to the mix. Think we’re done yet? Nope, but we’re getting there.

After blending, the chocolate liquor, sugar, and other ingredients are further refined via conching. Originally, conching, which is a process involving kneading and agitation of the mass, was done to reduce particle size; the machines of yesteryear couldn’t break down the nibs or sugar crystals into the fine particles today’s tools can achieve, and nobody likes a gritty chocolate bar. Modern machinery does a much better job of reducing particle size to a specific narrow range (believe it or not, if the particles in chocolate are too small, the chocolate will have a pasty texture in the mouth, so even here great care must be taken). So today, conching is used chiefly as a means of flavor improvement. Although there is considerable debate about this, many chocolate manufacturers insist that conching causes the flavor of their chocolate to improve, although the mechanisms for this are not well-understood. The conched chocolate is sampled at intervals; if necessary, additional cocoa butter can be added to the chocolate.

Next, the chocolate is tempered. The fat from the cocoa bean (that is, cocoa butter) is polymorphic, meaning that it has multiple crystalline shapes when it hardens (in the case of cocoa butter, there are 6 crystalline shapes). The tempering process ensures that the cocoa butter crystals are all of the same type and are small and packed together tightly. If chocolate is poorly tempered or not tempered at all, the resulting chocolate will not have the typical surface sheen, it will develop unattractive white blotches on its surface, and its texture will become soft or crumbly.

After tempering, and as a final step, the chocolate is poured into bar molds. Once it has cooled and set, the bars are wrapped; from there, they begin the arduous process of storage and delivery to the consumer.

Whew! Talk about a long journey! The next time you see a bar of good-quality chocolate, think about the many steps needed to go from cocoa bean to finished bar. Considering what you know now and all that has to happen to get from one to the other, high-quality chocolate is less expensive than you’d expect.