After sorting, roasting, and winnowing, it’s time to begin refining. This is the step in the chocolate making process when the solid nibs begin to take the liquid form of melted chocolate. The best analogy here is that of almond or peanut butter: Take a few nuts, send them threw a simple mill and voilà! you have a mostly liquid paste of nuts. The same goes for chocolate…
Disclaimer: To the purist, “refining” might carry a bit of negative connotation. But for us, refining our chocolate doesn’t involve anything… unnatural. We’re just making the nibs and sugar crystals smaller using old fashion techniques.
Important basic concept #1: There is no water in the nibs, sugar, or resulting chocolate (for all intents and purposes).
Important basic concept #2: Because there is no water present, sugar does not just simply dissolve into the chocolate paste.
Important basic concept #3: Cacao beans are composed of about 50% fat (+/-), which is commonly referred to as cocoa butter. Similar to nuts, the fat is released during the grinding process. When this fat is released, it acts to coat and suspend the solid cacao and sugar particles. In lieu of our low sugar content, we have no need to add additional cocoa butter (which is otherwise an industry standard), because there is enough cocoa butter to go around for all of our solid particles.
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 melangeur accomplishes 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.