Turning Beans into Bars

How Chocolate is Made

Columbus was the first European to experience cacao. He came across it in 1502 on his fourth voyage to the Americas, most likely in what we now know as Honduras. History has it that he paid little attention to the brown beans. At the time cacao was consumed as a drink-beans were toasted, coarsely ground and then mixed with hot water, ground chiles and toasted corn meal (as a thickener). Seventeen years later the conquering conquistador Cortes came to the Aztec court of Montezuma, where he discovered that not only could cacao be consumed as a beverage, but that cacao beans were also used as currency. The image is too hard to turn down-for the first time ever, some Spaniard must have thought to himself, "money was actually growing on trees." Cortes seized the moment, seized Mexico and brought cacao back to Europe in 1528.

Although "money may have been growing on trees," chocolate bars never have. The ancient Aztecs never knew chocolate as we do today. To make what we know and love as eating chocolate out of this terrific tropical fruit takes a series of complex steps, far more involved than anything done with cacao 500 years ago.

In case you weren't taking notes the last time you watched Willy Wonka, here's a quick run down on how it's done:

1. The Harvest

Cacao trees grow in two bands of very humid, tropical rain forest, each 20 to 40 degrees north or south of the Equator. It's an unusual looking tree, with blossoms and fruit that jut straight out of its trunk, garnished with garnet-tinted leaves. The tree produces fruit four or five years after planting, is mature at eight, and continues to produce effectively until it is about 30.

The fruit of the tree looks a bit like a tropical melon, passing from green to gold to reddish-brown as it ripens. Ripe pods are harvested off the trees by pickers working with machetes. Inside the fruit is filled with a pinkish-white, lychee-like mucilage which in turn surrounds about 20 to 40 individual cacao beans. A good tree yields about 30 to 40 of the fruit, also known as cacao pods. Roughly, you get about 120 beans per tree per year, weighing in at between one and three kilos, or about enough to make a half-pound of finished chocolate.

2. The Fermentation

Newly harvested pods are split open and the pulp and beans inside are spread out on wooden flats in the sun. A new technique developed in Malaysia leaves the pods alone for five days after picking-priming the beans for fermentation and enhancing flavor development-before splitting and sunning them. As the beans are exposed to the light and air, fermentation begins, enhanced by the naturally high sugars in the mucilage. Better beans are covered during fermentation to encourage more even flavor development.

The better the quality of the cacao, the less time it takes for the fermentation. Good Criollos (the best beans) can fermented in less than 48 hours. Less flavorful Forastero beans may take up to five or six days. At the end of the process, the mucilage has evaporated, leaving the beans darker and wrinkled. Effective fermentation removes most of the bean's natural bitterness.

During fermentation the beans begin to develop their distinctive flavor. Mishandling at this stage can completely mess up the cacao's flavor at every other part of the production. Better fermentation, on the other hand, will lead to much bigger, better flavor in the cacao.

3. Drying

After fermentation has been completed, the now naked beans are spread on slatted wooden trays in the sun for three to five days. They are raked regularly to ensure even drying. In the process, the beans get darker and deeper in color-"sepia, umber and mocha" says author Elizabeth Schneider-and their moisture content is reduced to about 8 percent of their weight. Once dried, the beans can be stored, and then later shipped to producers, the best of whom have traditionally been located in Europe.

4. Storage

Beans in storage must get air circulation or they turn moldy and musky. Effective storage insures that the beans are well-aerated in the time between drying and delivery to producers.

5. Roasting

When the moment arrives to go into actual chocolate production the beans are cleaned, then roasted at low heat. Roasting enhances cacao's flavors, much as it does for coffee beans. Producers who are trying to keep costs down by minimizing the cacao content in their product may overroast the bean, leaving a smoky, sort of unpleasant flavor in the finished chocolate. While heat is being applied, the nib, or nut-meat inside the bean, dries and contracts, cracking the shell. The shell and chaff are then easily blown away by warm air and the nibs are passed along to the grinding room.

7. Grinding

Newly freed from their shells, the nibs are milled into a dark brown, viscous paste which is known as chocolate liquor. The liquor is made up of cacao solids and cocoa butter (the natural fat in the cacao beans). Warm, chocolate liquor remains in a liquid state. Allowed to cool, it solidifies and becomes what we know as unsweetened baking chocolate.

Using a technique patented by the Dutchman Coenraad Van Houten in 1828, the chocolate liquor is subjected to high pressure to force out the cocoa butter. This in turn may be used later to make finished chocolate-it provides much of the creaminess we love about a good chocolate bar. (Cocoa butter is in high demand for pharmacological and cosmetic purposes. Its resulting high cost leads low end producers to make their chocolate with other vegetable fats.) The solids left after the cocoa butter has been removed resemble a dry cake, which is then ground into what we know as cocoa powder.

8. Making Eating Chocolate

To make finished eating chocolate, additional cocoa butter and sugar are added to the chocolate liquor. You need some sugar to unlock the cacao beans' flavor-without it chocolate is almost unbearably bitter. The best chocolates also add pure vanilla. A bit of lecithin, a natural stabilizing agent, is often added as well. The higher the percentage of cacao used, the darker the finished chocolate will be. Conversely, the more sugar you add, the sweeter, and less chocolatey, the chocolate.

To make milk chocolate, powdered milk is added to the mixture as well. Although Americans eat far more milk chocolate than dark, the technique is a relatively recent one, developed in 1876 by Swiss partners Henri Nestlé and Daniel Peter. The quality of a milk chocolate again depends on the ratio of chocolate liquor to sugar and milk, the quality of the milk, and the quality of the chocolate liquor itself.

While the best chocolate makers rely on the best raw ingredients, those at the other end of the spectrum are often far more creative in their pursuit of cash. In the 17th century, it was quite common to cut chocolate with fillers like brick dust, ground shells and starch. These days, lower-grade chocolate makers cut corners on all fronts-they substitute vegetable fats for authentic cocoa butter; use artificial vanillin instead of real vanilla, load up on the lecithin [which leaves a waxy texture], and use a high percentage of sugar, all in a (successful) effort to keep costs down.

8. Conching

Conching (pronounce the "ch" as in "chair") was invented in 1880 by Rodolfe Lindt. This is the technique which brings finished chocolate its incredible, melt-in-the-mouth smoothness. Prior to Lindt's invention chocolate was much grittier and coarser in texture. To conch chocolate, large stainless steel rollers shaped like sea shells (hence the name of the process) are moved back and forth through the liquid chocolate, much like a kneader would do for bread dough, slowly smoothing its texture, and softening the sharp edges of the sugar crystals. The longer the conching, the smoother and silkier the texture of the finished chocolate.

9. Tempering

Tempering protects the chocolate's texture and gives it sheen and visual smoothness. It is accomplished by slowly raising and lowering the temperature of the chocolate.

10. Molding

Once the chocolate has reached the right level of smoothness it is poured into molds. After a gentle cooling period the chocolate is unmolded, then wrapped and packed, ready to ship to chocolate lovers worldwide. Much of the world's best chocolate is molded by firms like Callebaut, Valrhona and El Rey, into large blocks known as couverture. These are in turn sold to small chocolatiers. They, in turn, melt and blend various versions to make their own finished chocolates.