The chocolate bars we all know and obsess over all started in the tropics. Every single one of them went from football-shaped fruits, harvested, (fermented,) and dried, to smooth, sweet chocolate. But what exactly has to be done to turn a tropical fruit into a fine chocolate bar?
The Origins Of Chocolate
The chocolate making process depends upon the Theobroma cacao tree. Native to South America, cacao is millions of years old, and its history with humans is thousands of years old. It’s widely believed that humans originally started consuming cacao in the form of its fermented juice, as a primitive cacao wine of sorts. But at some point, they figured out that the seeds of these large fruits also tasted pretty good after they were fermented. And hey, they weren’t poisonous!
There are still many cacao cousins found & consumed in the tropics of South America, including grandiflorum and bicolor. But at some point these seeds made their way north, where they were planted, prized, and slowly evolved in the hands of ancient Mesoamerican peoples. Cacao became an integral part of Aztec and Mayan cultures, playing an important role in ceremonies and the daily life of the royalty.
In the 16th century, Spanish colonizers stumbled upon the land in their search for the West Indies, and shortly afterwards, they began taking these “strange almonds” around the world. At the time, cacao was only consumed in the form of a beverage, and it continued as such for centuries afterwards. But in the 19th century, “eating chocolate” was introduced, and it completely transformed chocolate consumption. Now, drinking chocolate is a foreign concept to most people, especially vegan chocolate lovers.
Chocolate On The Farm
Theobroma cacao is a medium-sized tree with the potential to live hundreds of years if properly cared for. After 2-4 years, depending on varietal, the tree begins to bear fruits. The fruits start off as tiny flowers grown all over the tree, including directly on the trunk. Once the flowers are pollinated by a tiny fly called a midge, they grow into fruits called pods, filled with large seeds each roughly the size of an almond. The scale of growth is truly impressive.
Pods range in color from red and yellow to a pale green, and once they’re ripe they’ll change color. The outside is still a very hard shell, however. So farmers harvest the pods using a machete or other sharp object, and then they usually cut the pods open with the same tool, or even hit the pods against each other until they crack. The seeds will begin to germinate (prepare to become a tree of their own) right after harvest, so farmers must rush to gather all the seeds in one place and begin fermenting the seeds as quickly as possible.
That’s right, chocolate is a fermented food!
Placing the harvested cacao into fermentation boxes, the seeds are then left to ferment on their own for 3-6 days, depending on the varietal. Just like wheat or coffee or apples, there are several different varietals of cacao, each of which looks different and can taste slightly different. After fermentation, the cacao is set out to dry in the sun for several more days, getting the seeds down to around 7% moisture content. The seeds are then bagged and prepared for shipment, almost always to a country in Europe or North America, where most of the world’s chocolate is produced.
Making Chocolate From Cacao Beans
Now that our cacao is harvested and processed, it’s shipped off to a chocolate maker. This can be a long process, often done by boat, which is why it’s so important that cacao is low in moisture. Mold is a fast friend in a cargo ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean! Arriving to a chocolate maker, the cacao must now be unloaded and inspected, making sure it wasn’t damaged or ruined in transit. Once it’s deemed fine, cacao can be stored for months or even years before it’s used.
Before starting the chocolate making process, the chocolate makers take out their cacao seeds (now usually called cacao beans) and inspect them, sorting out any bad or small beans, or even refuse from the farm. Once the beans are all clean, they need to be roasted. Along with fermentation, roasting is the part of the process when much of the “chocolaty” flavor is developed. Heat is incredibly important in chocolate making. This is why “raw” chocolate is almost never actually raw, and why it almost always tastes like dirt.
These roasted beans then need to be peeled, or “winnowed,” to remove the rough exterior. In the process the beans are broken up into pieces often called cacao nibs, which are then ready to be ground into the beginning stages of chocolate. Once ground, this cacao mass, also called cacao liquor (non-alcoholic, of course), is then refined even further to release some of the more intense acids created during fermentation. It’s just a few hours into the 24- to 72-hour process of chocolate refining that a sweetener is added. It’s right here that dark chocolate often goes from vegan to non-vegan, with the addition of white sugar.
At the same time as a sweetener is added, milk powder and cocoa butter, as well as any preservatives or smoothers may be added, further diluting the cacao. This makes chocolate sweeter and more appealing to all ages, as well as much cheaper to produce & consistently-flavored for the mass market. After the chocolate has been refined, it’s taken out of the grinder and tempered. Even chocolatiers, who buy pre-made chocolate, must temper their chocolate.
The process of tempering is basically heating, cooling, and then re-heating the chocolate so that the structure of the fat is more uniform and shelf-stable. Untempered chocolate will quickly turn grey or have white streaks appear on it, which is just the fat rising to the surface since it wasn’t stabilized. This is called fat bloom. After it’s tempered, the chocolate is put into molds and then packaged, or used to make bonbons and truffles.
While not all chocolate is vegan, there are lots of companies out there making chocolate thoughtfully and with the vegan lifestyle in mind. Do you have a favorite brand? Did you learn anything new about how chocolate is made?