From Cacao to Chocolate: Sweets in a Swift
Converting cacao seeds into chocolate is a multifaceted and protracted process.
By Hans Audric Estialbo
Unknown to many-especially those who merely frequent chocolate with silver wrappings, crisp cashews on brown bags and Valentine’s Day- chocolate, before it becomes that, entails time, energy, and artistry. Turning cacao seeds into this delectable dessert which we have loved for years now is much of a quest than having it just melts in one’s mouth.
Converting cacao seeds into chocolate is a multifaceted and protracted process. A single chocolate bar can take anywhere from two to four days or more to make. The absorbing process that takes one from muggy rain forests to lustrous factories maybe as easy as doing the ABCs but mastering it by heart is tricky. Farmers grow cacao, harvest, ferment, and dry it by hand. Traders and import/export houses sell the seeds on the coffee, sugar and cocoa exchange/ market to companies that process the seeds into various chocolate products.
Growing and harvesting
When ancient Mesoamerica first discovered cacao’s delicious properties, they made chocolate entirely by hand. Seeds were crushed to create a chocolate paste that becomes a tasty beverage when mixed with water. Same labor-intensive grinding technique was also used by early European chocolate lovers until the Industrial Revolution introduced timesaving machinery.
And much over the years, growing and harvesting cacao still requires quite a few lengthy and physically demanding steps. Before cacao reaches the machinery of a chocolate factory, it must first pass the hands of a farmer. And unfortunately enough, there are no machines for harvesting cacao. Not only could machines damage the tree or the pods that grow from the trunk, it would be difficult for them to maneuver through close-growing trees in the field. Instead, workers must harvest the pods by hand, using hook blades mounted on the long poles to reach the highest fruit. Cacao trees produce pods throughout the year, but large harvests occur twice annually and may take weeks to complete. Like other agricultural crops, cacao must be closely monitored, thus regularly walking the fields and checking for pests, molds and diseases that can potentially wipeout a whole harvest is important.
Once pods are collected into baskets, their thick shells are hacked open with a few precise blows from a long knife, sometimes a machete. Workers then scoop out the pulp-covered cacao seeds and dispose of the husks. They heap them into piles, and cover them with banana leaves, where they will, like fine wine, ferment in time, which will be complete when the seeds finally turn a rich, deep brown.
Fermented seeds must then be dried before they can be scooped into sacks and shipped to chocolate manufacturers. Spreading the fermented seeds on stackable trays or bamboo matting and leaving them in the sun to dry is what most farmers do. To speed up the drying process, others use equipment like hot pipes or air driers, which usually takes about a week.
Once dried, seeds can be scooped into burlap sacks, after which they would be soon transported to shipping centers, where they will be inspected by interested buyers. Since cacao is perishable, sacks usually aren’t left sitting for long before they’re sent to their final destinations- chocolate and cocoa making companies.
Selling the crop
Quite similar to a stock exchange, farmers sell cacao to chocolate-processing companies around the world through traders on certain coffee, sugar, and cocoa exchange. Actually, candy manufacturers, cocoa importers, exporters, and representatives of houses buy and sell contracts for cacao crops before they are even harvested, and the final price for cacao isn’t determined, though, until the crop comes in and is quality inspected.
Farmers sell their cacao harvests roughly twice a year. Actual sale of cacao from the farmer to the buyer is essentially a two-part process: first, early in the year buyer negotiate a sale with farmers based on a prediction of what the cacao market will be doing by the time of harvest; second, once the harvest rolls in, buyers comes to inspect the crop where they slice open several seeds to make sure that they’ve properly fermented.
The manufacturing of actual chocolate officially begins once a shipment of cacao is purchased. Chocolate makers send cacao seeds through a extensive, preset procedure- automated machine roasts, presses, cracks and tempers cacao to create a chocolate, cocoa powder, and cocoa butter and advertising makes sure the people hear of them. Essentially, manufacturing chocolate blends art and science.
Manufacturing processes differ from the plant to plant, but most factories use similar machines to break down the cacao seeds into cocoa powder, cocoa butter and chocolate. Seeds are stored according to type and origin and pass through a cleaning machine that removes bits of remaining pulp and debris. They are then carefully weighed so they can eventually be blended according to special formulas created by each manufacturer. Some candy bars actually contain up to 12 different types of seeds.
The pitch to an excellent flavor on chocolates is roasting. Large ovens roast the seeds at the temperatures of 250°F or more to release the rich aromas and delicious taste, lasting for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. And as the seeds toss about in the oven, they lose much of their moisture and eventually turn a deep brown color, similar to coffee beans. The roasting process makes the shells of the cacao rather brittle.
Once the seeds have cooled, they are placed on a giant winnowing machine where cones that are serrated like the edges of a knife crack open the thin shells to get at the seeds. Giant fans then blow away these empty husks and the remaining broken seed bits, called nibs, pass through a series of sieves, which strain and sort the nibs. The nibs themselves are made up of 53% cocoa butter and 47% pure cocoa solids. Separating these two substances takes work, and in this step, the nibs are milled- crushed by heavy steel discs- generating enough friction and heat dissolve the nibs into a profuse paste, called chocolate liquor.
Some of the chocolate liquor is placed in a huge, 25-ton hydraulic press, which squeezes out the cocoa butter. This fatty yellow substance drains away through metallic screens after which they can be added to dark or milk chocolates, used as the basis for white chocolate, or used in cosmetics and medicine. Once cocoa butter is extracted, the remaining solid cocoa is pulverized into cocoa powder, often used for beverages, cooking and baking.
Unpressed liquor is then blended with condensed milk, sugar, and extra cocoa butter to form chocolate. The reason why chocolate doesn’t spoil- and why it melts in the warmth of your mouth- is the extra cocoa butter that keeps the chocolate solid at room temperature. The raw mixture of milk, liquor, sugar, and cocoa butter is agitated until it becomes a course, brown powder called “crumb.”
Next, the chocolate crumb mixture goes through series of steel rollers stacked on top of one another that split the tiny particles of milk, cocoa, and sugar within the crumb. The manufacturers don’t crush this mixture enough, the chocolate will be coarse and grainy, but if they blend it too much, the chocolate will be pasty and gummy. The refined chocolate paste is poured into a vat in which a large heavy roller kneads, blends, and grinds the mixture. To give the chocolate a silky texture, some whisk this paste levels out the sugar grains. The refined chocolate is then cooled and warmed repeatedly in a process called “tempering.” This gives chocolate its glossy sheen, and ensures that it will melt properly.. if you ever wonder why Swiss and German chocolates taste finer and smoother than others, that’s because they are refined for a longer period.
For handiness, tempered chocolate is shipped in a fluid state to other manufacturers that use the flavoring in candy, cookies, and ice cream. In typical assembly-line manner, machines squirt tempered chocolate into several hundred molds per minute. Some devices pour chocolate over flavored centers, others create chocolate shapes that will be filled with liquid before their bottoms are sealed. Eventually, wrapping-and-packaging machine box the chocolates at speeds unmatched by human hands.
Marid Agribusiness Digest
Vol. 17* No.11* April 2007