The Farming Process

Cultivation

Cocoa only grows in a hot, wet and tropical climate that is within 20 degrees of the equator. The main cocoa producing areas are West Africa, Central/South America and South East Asia. Thailand is a relatively small producer of cocoa but is steadily increasing.

To grow a cocoa tree, some fresh cacao seeds, seedlings or grafted cuttings are needed first. For seeds, 1-3 beans are taken from the pod and within 5 days are put in a hot, wet place to germinate. Then once a root starts to appear, it is placed into soil and a baby tree should start to grow. For seedlings, it should be 4-5 months old before being placed in the centre of a pot. Cocoa is a shade loving plant, especially in its early stages of growth. Therefore it is usually grown in partnership with some other crops such as coconut, palm oil or banana trees.


Collection of Cocoa Pods

Cocoa pods are the rugby ball-shaped fruits that contain the beans needed to make chocolate. They grow on the branches of cocoa trees that take between 3-5 years to bear the fruit. The pods grow out of tiny flowers that are pollinated by midges and takes around 5-6 months to ripen. There are many varieties of cacao and the pods appear in different colours, ranging from green to yellow to a reddish purple. Different conditions during harvest such as the geography, the climate and the type of soil, all affect the final flavour of the fruit and then later the cocoa beans. Read More


Fermentation

Fermentation is one of the most important stages in the chocolate making process when it comes to flavour development. It is where the sugar from the white pulp is broken down, with the help of yeast and bacteria, to create alcohol. The beans, along with the white pulp, is traditionally wrapped in banana leaves and then put into wooden boxes. This ensures they can reach a high enough temperature, sometimes up to 45 Degrees Celsius. This kills of the seeds, prevents germination and leaves you with cocoa beans.Read More

Drying

After fermentation, the beans need to be dried, usually in the sun. The beans are spread out in a single layer on bamboo mats, wooden tables or a concrete floor and left under the sun to dry. The beans still have a lot of moisture inside after fermentation and needs to be dried to under 7% before they can be shipped. If they are not dried properly, mould can form, the flavour of the beans are negatively impacted and they will taste very acidic. They are then rotated regularly using a rake to ensure a uniform fermentation. In wetter countries such as Papua New Guinea and Trinidad, the beans are sometimes dried either artificially or using wood fires, which infuses the beans with a smoky flavour.


Shipping

Once the beans are fully fermented and dried, they are then ready to be shipped around the world to different chocolate makers. They are normally packed in 60kg jute sacks for distribution, but some farmers may send the beans in smaller or larger quantities. The beans are shipped worldwide in cargo containers that are kept clean, dry and to a suitable temperature. This is to make sure that mould doesn’t develop and that the fermentation process isn’t restarted due to the heat.

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The Chocolate Maker Process

Bean Selection & Sorting

This is where the chocolate maker gets involved. In order to find the best cocoa beans, it is necessary to search, visit and then test the beans from different cocoa farms. Artisan chocolate makers deal directly with the farmers. This is so they can have an influence on how the beans are treated and so that they can give a fair price to the farmers. It is pretty well known that there is far too much exploitation in the chocolate industry. It is important to gain a good relationship between the chocolate makers and the farmers. Read More

Roasting the cocoa beans

There are many ways to roast cocoa beans and there is no right or wrong way, it is totally dependent on the preferences, taste and recipe of the chocolate maker. They can determine the tools used, the temperature and the length of time of the roast. All the variables contribute to the final flavour of the chocolate. During a roast, the chemical composition of the beans change and the final chocolate flavour is formed. It is up to the maker to experiment and taste different roasts until they find a formula they are happy with. Read More

Cracking & Winnowing

The roasted beans need to have their husks or outer shells removed before they can be ground into chocolate. Winnowing is the process of using air flow to separate the lighter husks from the heavier nibs. For this to happen, the beans need to be cracked first, to separate the nibs from their shell. This is not as easy as it sounds and can be quite time consuming, especially for smaller chocolate makers. Large manufacturers use machines that crack and winnow the beans without much effort. These machines are quite expensive and so small makers have had to be quite inventive and as a result have found many ingenious solutions, some far cheaper than others. Read More

Ingredient Selection

Once the beans are roasted, cracked and winnowed, the nibs are ready to be ground into chocolate. What ingredients to prepare depends on what kind of chocolate you are going to make. You have to decide if you want to make a dark, milk or white chocolate and then what percentage of cocoa you want the chocolate to be. The percentage on chocolate bars refers to the amount of cocoa beans and cocoa butter in the chocolate compared to the other ingredients. Bean to bar chocolate makers try to stick to just the core ingredients of chocolate, depending on what chocolate they are making. Read More

Grinding

The cocoa nibs should be pre-ground in a food processor or juicer before being added to the grinder. The nibs can be put straight into the grinder but pre-grinding them will prolong the life of the grinder by protecting the stones. The nibs should be ground down into a chocolate liquor and then added to the wet stone grinder. Most food processors and coffee grinders will struggle to do this job but they will at least crush the nibs enough to protect your grinder somewhat. The most effective machine is the Champion Juicer, as it can be used for not only cracking the beans but also for pre-grinding, by liquefying the nibs after a few passes through. The least effective way is the mortar & pestle as it is hard work and takes a lot of time. After pre-grinding, it is time to add the cocoa liquor into your Melanger, the stone or metal grinder that refines and conches the chocolate.

Refining & Conching

Refining and conching are two different processes but can be performed at the same time in a melanger (wet stone grinder). Refining is the process of reducing the particle size of cocoa solids and sugar crystals whereas conching is the heating and mixing of chocolate to develop the taste, smell and texture. Big chocolate manufacturers would usually achieve these two processes in different machines, however, smaller makers tend to fulfil both in a single melanger. There are a few low volume melangers on the market that are perfect for small-scale or home chocolate makers. I would personally recommend the Premier wet stone grinder. I use it and have found it to be a very durable and effective machine that comes at a very reasonable price. Read More

Tempering

Tempering is probably the most exciting yet most difficult part of the chocolate making process. It involves the heating and cooling of chocolate to stabilise the fat molecules and form the right kind of crystal structure. There are 6 crystal structures the cocoa fat can form into, with Beta 5 crystal (Type V) structure, being the type that we desire for our chocolate.  When chocolate is properly tempered, it will result in a glossy, firm chocolate that will have a clean “snap” when broken. It should be stable enough to only melt near body temperature, so to melt in the mouth and not in the hands. Chocolate will become untempered if it exceeds 31 degrees Celsius. Untempered chocolate can result in a dull blotchy finish, becomes soft and crumbly, and won’t melt on the mouth evenly. It can also ‘bloom’, which is when the cocoa butter rises to the surface, causing grey streaks or spots. Read More

Thermometer

Moulding & Packaging

Once the chocolate has been tempered, it is ready to be poured into a mould. Moulds are usually made of plastic or silicone and come in an untold amount of shapes and sizes. The moulds should be warmed up slightly in either an oven, for a few seconds, or using a hair dryer, to allow more time to distribute the chocolate before it sets. Be careful not to overheat the moulds enough to take the chocolate out of temper. The chocolate can be either poured, spooned or piped into the mould and then agitated using vibration to remove any air bubbles. Read More