Click around to learn more about our chocolate making process.
Before cacao beans are roasted, they should be sorted to remove unwanted matter that could damage machines later in the process or compromise the final flavor of the chocolate. Larger chocolate manufacturing companies have automated machines to do this process, but we’re old school, and we do it all by hand. We’ve heard stories about large rocks, railroad spikes and other heavy objects being found in cocoa bean sacks upon delivery. The reason for this is that cocoa is a commodity that is sold by weight, and sometimes it’s easier to meet the weight of a cacao sack by just tossing a rock into it. Fortunately, this is a problem that we’ve never encountered. To us, this is usually a sign of poor purchasing practices or poor labor conditions for the farmer. If the relationship is good and the farmer is paid proportionately for quality, not just quantity, then the farmer is going to treat the beans with respect so that they can continue to sell their cacao at a higher price. The most important reason for us to sort our beans is to ensure that only the best cacao makes its way into our chocolate. The potential for great chocolate can be compromised by the presence of unwanted material such as: undeveloped beans, poorly fermented beans, pod parts (placenta and skin), and other non-cacao matter. The logic is simple, if it doesn’t look like a fully developed, healthy, tasty cocao bean, then we don’t want it as part of our ingredients.
There are many schools of thought when it comes to roasting cacao. The truth of the matter is that there is no one right way to roast a cacao bean. The time, temperature, and roast profile will all be dependent upon the genetic type of the bean, the fermentation methods, the drying methods and drying time, the size of the beans relative to other beans, the amount of cacao being roasted, the type of roaster, the rate of cooling after roast, and then the type of equipment used to pre-grind, refine and/or conche. In short, every roast is unique to every chocolate maker and ours is perfect for our beans and for the equipment that we use and the way that we use it. Depending on the chocolate maker, the goal of the roast can be quite different. One goal that we all have in common is to loosen the husk from the bean to help make winnowing more effective later. Another goal that we should all have in common is to kill any harmful bacteria that might have been picked up along the way during harvest, fermentation, drying, and transportation. Apart from these common goals, some chocolate makers might give more importance to uniformity than to true quality. The best analogy for this type of roast is the French Roast of the coffee world. This is a roast for particularly unflavorful cacao beans—more accurately, for beans that have no good flavor whatsoever. But through a high temperature roast, all of the bad flavors (and possibly some good) are roasted out and the final result is a consistent, roasty chocolate flavor. The “French Roast” is arguably the most common roasting method in the chocolate industry today, except when it comes to a handful of reputable, large chocolate makers and quality-focused small batch chocolate makers. Without giving away our trade secrets, we’re happy to share the fact that we do a long, low temperature roast. First of all, you can’t make exceptional chocolate without exceptional cacao. With this in mind, our goal while roasting is to preserve and develop the complex flavor profile that is already present in our cacao beans while simultaneously removing some of the bad tasting acids that were produced during fermentation. It’s important to note, however, that any mistakes made during roasting cannot be undone during later processes—so experience is key when it comes to achieving the perfect roast.
After roasting, the next step in the chocolate making process is to crack and winnow the cacao, with the end result being a separation of the nib (cotyledon), shell (husk) and germ (radical). Generally speaking, the makeup of your average cacao bean is going to be 87% nib, 12% shell and 1% germ. For making chocolate, it is ideal to remove as much of the shell and germ as possible because these parts of the cacao bean are mostly indigestible and are bad for flavor. The basic process of winnowing involves an initial crack of the bean. During this step, it’s important not to crack the bean too vigorously because that can lead to the formation of fine particles. Overly fine shell and nib particles can’t be used for fine chocolate because it is too difficult for the winnower to differentiate between the two. The goal of a good crack is to keep the nib as large as possible while simultaneously separating the shell and dislodging the germ (the germ is a part of the seed that later grows to become the stalk). Now at this point, the cracking has separated the three components of the cacao seed, but now the nibs have to be sifted out to be used for making chocolate. There are endless ways to do this and dozens of large machine designs that all work fairly well. The basic principle behind winnowing is that the shell is less dense than the nib, so if the correct velocity of blowing air is used, then the shell should blow away, leaving the nib behind. A hairdryer and a big bowl does a pretty good job of this; or just throwing a heap of cracked beans in front of a large blowing fan; or if you have plenty of time on your hands and good dexterity, you can hand-peel each bean. The larger winnowers use a series of sieves to sort the mass of cacao pieces into common sizes. Then, these divided groups of particles are exposed to varying air currents that are ideal for each size—blowing away the shells and dust and leaving the nibs behind to be used for making chocolate. Winnowing is a highly important step in the chocolate making process because a poor process can lead to poor tasting chocolate. It doesn’t matter how revered the beans if the final chocolate has a high percentage of cacao shells. Also, if the air currents are too strong for the particle size, a good percentage of the nibs can be blown away with the shell, creating a great deal of inefficiency. So as you can see, winnowing, in theory, is fairly basic, but in application it is one of the most demanding steps of the chocolate making process.
MIXING, REFINING, CONCHING
ABOUT MIXING, REFINING, AND CONCHING
Our first step in the refining process is to do an initial grind of the nibs to create a rough, bitter paste. Then it is time to add the paste to the melangeur (which is French for mixer). The melangeuraccomplishes two goals: 1. it mixes the sugar with the cacao paste; 2. the melangeur begins breaking the cacao and sugar particles into a finer state. After some intimate moments with the melangeur, it’s time for the chocolate to pass through the roll mill. The roll mill is basically a series of long, round rollers that are pressed tightly against one another. Each roller spins in the same direction as the roller in which it is in contact. Beginning with the feed roller, each consecutive roller spins faster than the last—this accomplishes two things: 1. the faster spinning roller “grabs” the chocolate off of the previous roller; 2. this creates a tremendous amount of shear force (which is a function of pressure and relative movement). After the chocolate has passed through several roller contact points it should begin to resemble the smooth texture of what we know as chocolate. On a side note, the shear and friction created by the rollers tends to create a lot of heat. The temperature of the rollers are maintained by a constant convection of water. Without the stable heat capacity of water, the heat would cause the rollers to expand and exponentially produce more friction until they’d begin to self destruct in quite a dramatic fashion. We try to avoid this. And we’ll leave you to imagine what would happen if one of our hands and fingers were to accidentally be pulled into the feed of the roll mill. After the chocolate has passed through the roll mill it is now in a smoother state with almost no detectable particles. It’s at this point that it is finally ready for the conche. The purpose of the conche is to develop the flavor and improve the texture of the chocolate. This is accomplished by keeping the chocolate warm and splashing it to-and-fro—often days on end. There are several different types of acids that are present in the cacao bean. Some of these acids help to improve flavor while others tend to be harmful to the flavor. Roasting and conching are balancing acts between removing the bad acids and taming the good. So depending on the acidity of the bean and the level of roast, conching can last anywhere from 1 to 5 days. Through constant agitation of the chocolate, the conche produces an environment in which the volatile acids are inspired to evaporate from the chocolate and exit the conche. And in case you weren’t keeping track, from sorting the beans to emptying the conche, it takes about 4-6 days to make an 80 pound batch of our chocolate. In defense of this seemingly long process, we believe that making chocolate in the exact way that we do, and following the principles that we’ve learned along the way through books, mentors and experience, that we’re making a better chocolate than can be produced using modern methods and technologically “advanced” chocolate making machines. But then again, we’re not done yet—the chocolate needs to rest for several weeks to allow the flavor to mature.