About Chocolate

Cocoa beans were an important part of ancient South American cultures. The Mayans created a ritual beverage made from the ground cocoa beans mixed with water, black pepper, vanilla and spices. The beverage was shared during betrothal and marriage ceremonies, providing one of the first links we know of between chocolate and romance.

Cocoa beans also served as money in South American civilizations and were only consumed as they wore out. A horse, ancient records show, could be purchased for ten beans.

For nearly a hundred years after the Spaniards discovered chocolatl, the coveted drink of New World inhabitants, they kept the secret of its production to themselves. In the same years as Shakespeare wrote his final plays, the missionary and theologian José de Acosta, wrote from Lima, Peru, of cocoa, “It is so much esteemed among the Indians (yea, among the Spaniards), that it is one of the richest and the greatest traffickes of New Spain.”

Chocolate Goes Mainstream

After a century, Spain lost its monopoly on the European chocolate market. By the mid-1600s, the drink made from the little brown beans had gained widespread popularity in France. It was praised as a delicious, health-giving food enjoyed by the wealthy. One enterprising Frenchman opened the first hot chocolate shop in London and by the 1700s, these “chocolate houses” were a common sight in England.

By the 18th century, every country, from England to Austria, was producing confections from the fruit of the cocoa tree, called in Latin Theobroma Cacao. That name tells us a lot about cocoa’s place in our culture—translated literally, theobroma means “food of the gods.”

The introduction of the steam engine during this century mechanized cocoa bean grinding, reducing production costs and making chocolate affordable to all.

Chocolate Today

Today, people around the world enjoy chocolate in thousands of different forms, consuming more than 3 million tons of cocoa beans annually. Each country still has its own preferences and distinctive blends for candy and desserts— think of German chocolate cake, Swiss cocoa, and French chocolate truffles. Even the brands are blended differently for different consumers: try a particular chocolate from Europe, and then the same chocolate made for the American market.

Throughout its evolution, from the first bitter beverage to the thousands of different ways chocolate is enjoyed today, one thing has remained constant—chocolate has never lacked an avid following of people who love the “food of the gods.”

Growing the Cocoa Bean

From Seedling to Tree

Farmers grow cocoa trees on small farms in hot, rainy environments, mostly in areas near the equator. Cocoa is a delicate and sensitive crop, and farmers must look after the trees, making sure the trees are protecting from the wind and sun. Such care is particularly important for younger trees, up to four years old.

Cacao seedlings are often sheltered by other trees, like banana, plantain, coconuts or hardwood trees. Seedlings take a few months to grow before they are ready to be transplanted. Once the trees are established, the farmers must fertilize the soil and watch the trees closely for signs of distress.

With careful care, most cocoa trees begin to bear fruit in the fifth year, although some cocoa trees can yield pods in the third and forth years. A cocoa tree reaches peek production in approximately 10 years and will continue producing pods at a high level for an additional 12-13 years. It is not uncommon to find trees 30-40 years old, still producing pods.

Bearing Fruit

Cocoa farms are awash in color. Young cocoa leaves are large, red, and glossy, but darken to green when mature. Moss and colorful lichens often cling to the bark of cocoa trees, and in some areas beautiful orchids grow on the branches.

Thousands of tiny, waxy pink or white five-pedaled blossoms cluster together on the trunk and older branches. But only three to 10 percent of these blossoms will mature into full fruit.

The fruit grows as green or maroon pods on the trunk and main branches. Shaped like an elongated melon tapered at both ends, these pods ripen to a golden or sometimes scarlet hue with multicolored flecks.

Handling the Harvest

Harvesting the Cocoa

To harvest cocoa beans, the ripe pods must be removed from the trees.

Cocoa trees are fragile and farmers cannot climb the trees to reach the fruit without snapping branches or uprooting entire trees. Instead, cocoa farmers and family members reach the cocoa pods with long handled, mitten-shaped steel tools. These tools reach the highest pods and snip them without wounding the soft bark of the tree. They can also use machetes to remove pods growing closer to the ground.

Experience Counts

The growing season in the tropics is continuous, due to rainfall that is evenly distributed through the year. As a result, ripe pods may be found on cocoa trees at any time. It takes a lot of experience to recognize which fruit is ready to be cut.

In most cocoa areas, the main harvest lasts several months. Another harvest – the mid-crop – lasts for several additional months. Changes in weather can dramatically affect harvest times, causing fluctuations from year to year, even on the same farm.

After Harvesting

Once ripe, the pods are removed from the trees and fall to the ground. Gathering the harvest pods can be a family affair. The farmer, family members and neighboring farmers collect the pods in baskets and transport them to the edge of a field where the pod-breaking operation begins.

An experienced pod breaker takes one or two blows to split the shells with a hammer or other, similar instrument. A good breaker can open 500 pods an hour.

The husk and inner membrane of the pod is discarded, and a farmer can expect 20 to 50 cream-colored beans from a typical pod. Dried beans from an average pod weigh less than two ounces, and approximately 400 beans are required to make one pound of chocolate.

After the Harvest

Preparing the Crop for Shipment

Once the beans have been removed from the pods, the farmer packs the beans into boxes or heaps them into piles and covers them with mats. A layer of pulp that naturally surrounds the beans heats up and ferments the beans themselves.

Fermentation is an important step, lasting three to nine days, that removes the raw, bitter taste of cocoa. The sugars contained in the beans are converted to acid, primarily lactic and acetic, during fermentation.

The process generates temperatures as high as 125 degrees Fahrenheit (52 degrees Celsius), activating existing enzymes in the beans to form compounds that produce the chocolate flavor when the beans are roasted. The result is a fully developed bean with a rich brown color, a sign that the cocoa is now ready for drying.

Drying, a Natural Preservative

Like any moist fruit, the cocoa beans must be dried if they are to keep from spoiling. In some months, the cocoa farmer can dry his beans simply by laying them on trays or matting and leaving them to bask in the sun. Sometimes farmers use solar dryers to help dry the crop.

With favorable weather, the drying process usually takes several days. The cocoa farmer turns the beans frequently and checks for foreign matter and flat, broken or germinated beans. During drying, beans lose nearly all their moisture and more than half their weight.

Finally, when beans are dried, they are packed in 130 to 200 pound sacks for shipping.

Global Market

From Farmer to Exporter

After the farmer has packed all the dried cocoa beans, he delivers them to an exporting company. The exporting company inspects the cocoa and places it into burlap, sisal, or polymer bags.

The cocoa is trucked to the exporter’s warehouse near a port. Sometimes additional drying is necessary at this point.

From Exporter to Shipper

The exporting company finalizes the time and place for shipment, an independent grading agency grades the bean and the beans are loaded onto ships.

Once the ship reaches its destination, the cocoa is removed from the hold and taken to a pier warehouse, where it is sampled and inspected by the importer and declared to customs.

From Shipper to Processor

U.S. importers often remove the cocoa from the bags at a warehouse. Trucks carry the cocoa in large tote bags or loose in the trailer to the manufacturer’s facility on a “just-in-time” basis.

Larger processors in Europe frequently receive cocoa in “mega-bulk” shipments. The cocoa is placed loosely, into barges alongside the ships; into a “flat storage area,” where it is held on the floor of the warehouse, or to silos, and shipped at prearranged intervals to the processing facility.

How Chocolate is Made

Chocolate Manufacturing and Cocoa Processing

Before cocoa can be made into chocolate, it goes through several steps of processing. Cocoa processing includes converting the beans into nibs, liquor, butter, cake and powder. Chocolate manufacturing includes the blending and refining of cocoa liquor, cocoa butter and various ingredients, such as milk and sugar.

Cocoa Processing

Inspection and Cleaning

First, the beans are inspected and thoroughly cleaned of any debris that may have fallen into the sacks, such as sticks, stones, or broken beans. Once the beans are cleaned, the processor has the option of roasting them before or after the shell is removed.

The inside of the cocoa bean is called the nib. Generally speaking, chocolate manufacturers prefer to roast the beans before shelling them, while cocoa processors favor the nib-roasting process.

Roasting, Shelling, and Grinding

Roasting the whole bean allows for more variety in the degree of roast and development of flavor, but requires beans of a uniform size, while nib roasting is more even and does not require uniform bean size. Roasting the nib directly also prevents migration of cocoa butter from the bean into the shell, which is discarded.

Once the beans have been shelled and roasted (or roasted and shelled, as the case may be), the nib is ground into a paste. The heat generated by this process causes the cocoa butter in the nib to melt, earning it the name “cocoa liquor.” The paste, further refined, may be sold as unsweetened baking chocolate.

All cocoa products start with cocoa liquor, although the liquor required in the manufacture of chocolate has a different texture from the liquor required to make cocoa butter, cake and powder. Chocolate liquor destined for processing into cocoa butter and cake is refined to a very small particle size, while chocolate liquor for chocolate production need not be as finely ground.

Cocoa Butter and Cocoa Cakes

The liquor is then fed into hydraulic presses that remove a certain percentage of the cocoa butter, leaving behind a cake containing from 6 to 24 percent of the cocoa’s initial butter. The extracted butter can be kept either in liquid or moulded form.

The cocoa cake is either broken into smaller pieces (kibbled) and sold into the generic cocoa cake market, or ground into a fine powder.

Dutch Process

The cocoa processor has the option of treating the nib or the liquor with an alkali solution (alkalizing), which reduces the acidity by increasing the normal pH factor from about 5.0 up to 8.0. This treatment is also known as “dutching”, honoring the homeland of its inventor, C. J. Van Houten, who also developed the cocoa butter pressing method.

Alkalizing cocoa nib or cocoa liquor renders the powder darker; gives it a milder, but more chocolaty flavor, and allows it to stay in suspension longer in liquids such as milk.

Cocoa butter extracted from alkalized liquor is more pungent, with a less desirable odor and flavor, and must be deodorized and refined. It is then carefully blended with other cocoa butters, so that the final butter for sale has a consistent flavor, color and viscosity.

Chocolate Manufacturing

To manufacture chocolate, cocoa liquor is mixed with cocoa butter and sugar.

For milk chocolate, producers can add fresh, sweetened condensed or powdered milk, depending on the desired taste.

In the crumb or flake process, liquor is blended with sugar and pre-condensed milk, or sweetened condensed milk. It is then dried on heated rollers to produce the flavor more typical of European chocolate or mixed with slightly acidified milk to produce the flavor customary in the United States.

After the mixing process, the blend is further refined to reduce the size of the milk and sugar particles. The mixture is then placed into conches—large agitators that stir the mixture under heat. Normally, cocoa butter is added to the mix at this stage, although some manufacturers add it during the original blending process.

“Conching” further smoothes the mixture. As a rule, the longer chocolate is conched, the smoother it will be. The process may last for a few hours to three full days, or even longer.

After conching, the liquid chocolate may be shipped in tanks or tempered and poured into molds for sale in blocks to confectioners, dairies, or bakers. It may also be converted into proprietary bars for sale direct to the consumer market.

*Credit – This post is courtesy of the World Cocoa Foundation.

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