Once a chocolate maker receives a bag of cacao beans, the production of chocolate can begin. The chocolate making process begins with makers removing any debris from the bags of cacao, and sorting the beans by size. The beans are then roasted, winnowed, and ground into chocolate. This is then conched and tempered before being molded into bars. Mastering the more minute details of chocolate production requires both technical and chemical knowledge and can differ greatly depending upon the size of the chocolate making operation.
Delicious chocolate is being made everywhere, from South Africa and the South of France, to Taiwan and rural Costa Rica. The process of chocolate making from the tree to a chocolate bar can be broken down into seven basic steps: harvest, fermentation, drying, roasting, winnowing, refining, and tempering. Except for in very rare cases, each one of these steps has been done— to some extent— for every chocolate bar you’ve ever had.
Because chocolate relies on a crop from faraway countries and on expensive equipment you cannot pick at a kitchen supply store, it remains a mysterious food for most. However, knowing where your food is coming from from is important, as it will provide a deeper appreciation of it. So in this post, you’ll learn how chocolate is born and how it’s made. Spoiler: it takes a lot of work to make your favorite food.
Large chocolate manufacturers almost always source their cacao on the commodity market, paying for quantity over quality. When that cacao arrives at their processing facility, it must be carefully inspected to remove trash and other debris from farms. When farmers are paid by weight, it's not uncommon to add a bit of rocks or soil to a bag in order to get more for their cacao, so manufacturers must check for and remove such items. In small chocolate making operations— those processing less than 1-2 tons of cacao per year— cacao is often bought at a high price with a high standard of hygiene.
All cacao must be inspected to remove beans that are too small, stuck together, moldy or flat, but it generally takes less time to sort than it would if the cacao was bought at commodity prices. The cleaned cacao goes into the roaster next, where the flavors inherent in the cacao are either enhanced or covered up. Large chocolate manufacturers value consistency of flavor, so they roast all cacao at high heat to bring out a deep, bitter chocolatey flavor regardless of origin.
Most small producers take the opposite approach, roasting each cacao origin individually, at a roast temperature and length that's best suited to the characteristics of each origin. Roasting cacao brings out the flavors inherent to the beans, flavors which were previously formed during fermentation on the farm.
No matter what kind of chocolate is made, the cacao beans must be peeled after roasting. Most chocolate makers throw away or give away these cacao husks for fertilizer, but some makers recycle the husks as a part of a cacao tea recipe. The process of both cracking and peeling the cacao beans is called winnowing. Most makers have a machine called a winnower, which uses air to separate the cracked beans into nibs and husks. Next, these nibs will be ground into chocolate.
A chocolate refiner can hold anything from a few kilograms to several hundred kilograms of chocolate. Most refiners are either stone or ball-mill grinders, meaning that the rollers are either made of hard stone or metal. Each has its merits, but both will lend a nearly unnoticeable flavor to the final product, as the rollers slowly wear down.
Chocolate is ground for anywhere from 24-72 hours. Some makers loosen the rollers for the last part of grinding, as a way to partially conche the chocolate. Others use a conching machine, which incorporates air into the chocolate to allow volatile acids to escape, mellowing the flavor of the chocolate.
From the conche, chocolate is tempered, meaning that the temperature is raised, lowered, and then raised again to encourage the cocoa butter to form the most stable form of crystals. Hand tempering is a complicated process that can take years to master, but it can now also be done in a tempering machine.
Due to the cocoa butter content, all chocolate must be tempered unless a significant portion of the cocoa butter has been replaced by other oils. This chocolate is called compound chocolate. Making compound chocolate removes the need to temper, as well as making the chocolate cheaper to produce, but it completely changes the product’s flavor. After it’s tempered, chocolate is molded into bars or used to create another chocolatey treat.
These days chocolate is produced all around the world, with at least one chocolate maker in most countries. Look for a maker from your country here.