Trends > Hot & Cool >

Advanced Chocolate 201: From Cocoa Beans to Chocolate Bars

First in a Series

By Tanja Kern

Most of us haven’t had the opportunity to taste a cocoa bean fresh out of the pod, but if you have, you’ll know it tastes nothing like chocolate. The Olmec Indians are believed to be the first to grow cocoa beans (kakawa) as a domestic crop somewhere between 1500 B.C. and 400 B.C. in what is known today as Mexico.

‘The Olmec Indians must have had divine guidance in making the chocolate drink called xocolatl,’ says Gary Dinsthul sales representative for the Guittard Chocolate Co. in Burlingame, Calif. Europeans first learned about this popular drink in the 16th century during the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs.

Much Is Still Produced on Family Farms

It takes experience with the cocoa tree to know when the cocoa pods are ripe. That’s why a lot of chocolate that is produced comes from small family farms, Dinsthul says. The pods are split open, the beans are piled up and covered for 5 to 8 days, and they are allowed to ferment. Some operations rotate the beans during this fermenting period to allow the heat that is generated to permeate all of the beans. This is a critical step in developing the flavor of the bean.

After fermentation, the beans are dried. Most farms dry the beans in direct sunlight, but some use forced hot air. Beans are still fermenting when they are drying. If they dry too fast, they get acidic, and if they are dried too slow they will lose their aroma.

Some cocoa beans are naturally acidic, while others are soaked in an alkalai solution to neutralize them. Neutralizing the beans in an alkali solution produces a bean that is much milder and darker.

Turning Cocoa into Chocolate

The shells can be removed either before or after the beans are roasted. What’s left is the meat of the bean, called the cocoa nib. The nibs are composed of 52 to 54% cocoa butter and 46 to 48% cocoa powder or solids. The nibs are then finely ground.

The ground cocoa can be transformed three ways:
⋅ melted into a liquid and formed into bars, known as unsweetened baking chocolate
⋅ pressed into cocoa butter and cocoa cake
⋅ or blended with sugar, vanilla and other ingredients to become chocolate

To create a chocolate bar, the liquid is blended with sugar, vanilla, lecithin and other ingredients and sent to a refiner to reduce the particle size. From there it goes to the conch. Cocoa butter is also added to chocolate so that it will have certain viscosities, depending on its use, to produce a thin coating or thick coating, Dinsthul says. Conching used to last 7-10 days; however, with today’s modern conches the same result can be achieved in a fraction of that time.

The final step is the molding. The chocolate is tempered by running through a series of cooling and heating chambers and deposited into molds of 10-pound bars or deposited onto metal belts to form small wafers. Bars were the industry standard 15 years ago until wafers came along. They became the most popular size and shape because they were easier to handle and measure.

NEXT UP: Chocolate Ganache

Some information provided by Retail Confectioners International, a non-profit trade association serving the chocolate and confectionery industry since 1917.