A Delicious Journey: How Dark Chocolate (60-69% Cacao) Is Harvested, Processed, and Delivered to Your Dinner Plate
Chocolate. Just the word is enough to make most people’s mouths water. Even the slightest scent of cocoa can allure the most reluctant sweet tooth. While the popularity of chocolate dates back to the Aztecs over 1,000 years ago, the science of producing and delivering dark chocolate has seen unbelievable advances in just the last few decades. From the harvesting of cocoa beans to the divine cocoa-infused morsels that make it onto your dinner plate, the story behind the development of dark chocolate is one of dedication and finesse.
Harvesting Cocoa Beans
The process of turning cocoa beans into dark chocolate begins in the lush tropics of South and Central America. These vibrant regions produce some of the world’s choicest cocoa beans and the finest dark chocolate. The species of dark chocolate’s main ingredient, the Theobroma cacao tree, was originally grown in parts of Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia. Today, cocoa beans are still harvested from these countries, but Ghana is the top producer of cocoa beans in the world.
The process of harvesting cocoa beans begins with the carefully selected ripening of the cocoa pods. When the pods have matured and the beans are an ideal shade of red, the farmers use a machete and harvest the pods from the tree. The pods are split with a machete to reveal the cocoa beans nestled in a sweet, edible pulp. Subsequently, the beans are removed from the pod and are then spread on the terraces between the trees and allowed to naturally ferment over several days.
Fermentation of the Beans
After being taken from the pods, the cocoa beans are placed in fermentation boxes and allowed to ferment for five to nine days. Throughout this process, the beans reach temperatures of up to 40-45°C, causing the skins to loosen and the beans to release their oxygen-rich enzymes. As the sugars are broken down, the beans slowly turn dark and glossy, developing the characteristic flavor and aroma of dark chocolate.
During fermentation, special bacteria, yeasts and other microorganisms contribute to the growth of the characteristic cocoa flavor and aroma. In some regions, the farmers also add fragrant banana leave coverings to the fermentation boxes to enhance the flavor of the cocoa beans even further.
Drying the Beans
Once the fermentation process is complete, the cocoa beans are left to dry beneath the tropical sun. This is a vital step for preserving the beans and enabling them to retain their flavor and aroma. Drying in the open air also helps to reduce any moisture left in the beans, making them easier to transport and store.
The beans are raked at regular intervals to ensure that they dry evenly and consistently before being placed into jute or sisal sacks. The dried cocoa beans are then transported to export locations and finally make their way to processing plants around the world.
Roasting for Maximum Flavor
The cocoa beans are then roasted to maximize the flavor and aroma of the beans. Roasting plays a major role in the development of chocolate’s flavor, as the temperatures produced activate important enzymes already present in the beans.
When roasting, the beans are constantly monitored and sampled to ensure the perfect combination of flavor and texture has been achieved. Different roasts can be used depending on the desired flavor, while the time and temperature remain consistent, as different characteristics will be brought out.
Once the beans have been roasted to perfection, they are cooled quickly and then moved to the next step in the dark chocolate-making process: winnowing.
Winnowing and Blending
The winnowing and blending stages determine the quality of the final product. The cocoa beans are placed into a winnower, which removes the hulls and splits the beans into their two components – the nibs and the cocoa butter. The nibs are then processed into a thick cocoa paste, while the cocoa butter is melted and added in a specific ratio to the cocoa paste to create a smooth, thick chocolate liquor.
This thick, chocolate-like substance is then refined and conched. The conching involves using large rollers to refine the chocolate liquor into a satiny smooth texture, and also allows for additional flavors and aromas to be incorporated, such as dried fruits, nuts, and spices. The longer and hotter the conching process, the finer the recipe’s texture will become and the flavors will become stronger and more intense.
Mixing and Molding
After conching, the chocolate is poured into large vats where it is combined with the other remaining ingredients such as milk, cocoa butter, and sugars. Depending on the type of chocolate being produced, the ratio of ingredients can vary significantly. For dark chocolate, the combination is typically made up of roughly 60-69% cocoa solids, 15-34% milk, and the remainder being cocoa butter and sugar.
At this stage, the chocolate is flavored and combined until all the ingredients have been properly mixed. The mixture is then tempered, which involves heating and cooling the chocolate at specific temperatures.
The tempered chocolate is then either poured into molds or used to enrobe truffles, bars, cookies, and other confections. Once cooled, a final inspection is done to check that the chocolate conforms to safety and quality guidelines before being wrapped and shipped out to the markets. And just like that, the deliciously dark chocolate is on its way to your dinner plate.
The journey from cocoa tree to dinner plate is a multi-step process that requires intricate planning, precision, and finesse. At each stage, the cocoa beans undergo delicate treatments, from fermentation and roasting to winnowing and conching, with thousands of hands playing a part in the production of dark chocolate. The final product – a perfectly crafted, deliciously dark chocolate – is the result of a long and labored process guided by knowledge handed down over generations. All the work, the science, and the skillful craftsmanship of generations before us come together to make the magical bite of dark chocolate. And for that, we must be grateful.