Have you ever wondered how to make chocolate? How does it get from the farm to the store? Chocolate starts as a seed that grows in a small football-shaped pod on the Theobroma (cacao) tree in tropical areas. From cultivation to harvesting and fermentation to drying and shipping to roasting to grinding, the process of making chocolate takes a number of steps to get to the finished product we all know and love.
To learn more about how chocolate is made—and what chocolate is made of—keep reading.
Chocolate creation is a laborious process that starts with growing and cultivating in the right conditions. Cacao trees are native to Central and South America and only grow in tropical regions within the latitudes of the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer. About 75 percent of the world’s cacao is grown in the West African regions of the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana. Cacao is also grown in southeastern Asia, Central and South America and the Caribbean.
Most of the climate in the US is not suitable for growing cacao trees. Hawaii sits about 20 degrees north of the equator and is the only state with a climate that allows cacao trees to grow and flourish.
The amount of rainfall and the temperatures found in tropical regions are ideal for growing and cultivating cacao. A good cacao crop needs about 1250 to 3000 millimeters of rain each year. Preferably, the area will receive at least 1500 to 2000 millimeters of rain with a dry season that lasts no more than three months. The ideal temperature for growing cacao falls between about 27 degrees Fahrenheit and 86 degrees Fahrenheit.
Theobroma trees start out as seeds or cuttings that are transplanted to grow among trees like banana, mahogany, rubber, palm or fruit trees like avocado, mango, breadfruit, orange, guava and coconut. Theobroma trees need shade and protection from the elements, especially wind and rain, and other, taller trees provide a shield for the young Theobroma trees. The method of planting cacao trees under the protection of other trees is known as cabruca and is one of the oldest methods of growing and cultivating cacao trees.
Cacao trees produce flowers that develop into pods that contain the cacao beans. Farmers must wait about five to 10 years for cacao trees to reach maturity and produce fruit. During the first few years of growth, the flower buds will be removed to encourage continued growth. These flowers are delicate and fragile, and once mature, a cacao tree may develop up to 100 flowers, but only about 10 to 15 will remain and produce fruit.
In West Africa, the cabruca method isn’t used as often as in other parts of the world. Instead, cacao is cultivated on plantations where the trees are planted close together without shade and with mechanical irrigation. The region has seen success with this method.
Most cacao—about 90 percent—is grown on small farms of 25 acres or less instead of large plantations to try to keep disease and pests from spreading. Even so, cacao farmers often lose anywhere from 30 to 100 percent of their crop to disease.
Harvest and Fermentation
How do you make chocolate? Harvesting and fermentation are two critical steps in the chocolate making process. Cacao harvesting is labor intensive and continues to be done as it has been for centuries—by hand. Because cacao pods don’t all ripen at the same time, they must be carefully picked by hand using a machete or specialized knife that removes them from the tree at the base of the pod without damaging the pod or the tree. Ripe pods are produced all year long, typically with two periods during the year when production is especially high.
After the cacao pods are picked, they are opened to reveal a fibrous white pulp surrounding the seeds. This pulp must be fermented off before the beans can be roasted and processed. The cacao beans turn brown and begin to develop their flavor during the fermenting process.
For fermentation, the seeds are scooped out of the pod, placed in fermentation boxes and covered with banana leaves for three or four days to protect them from the air. This is known as anaerobic fermentation and allows microorganisms like yeast to grow. Next, air is introduced to promote aerobic fermentation. During this time, workers stir the beans so that they will all be fermented equally.
The fermentation process can take anywhere from three to seven days. The length of the process, temperature and amount of air the cacao receives are all variables that need to be controlled in order to produce cacao beans that will make the best chocolate. Different varieties of beans need to be fermented for different lengths of time.
Drying & Shipping
After fermentation, cacao beans must be dried before they can be shipped to chocolate manufacturers. Drying protects cacao beans against mold and fungus growth. During the drying process, which takes about one to two weeks, cacao farmers spread the beans on trays or raised beds that are placed under a clear plastic roof to allow sunlight to get to them and to protect them from the rain. They can also dry them on concrete pads or by fire.
Drying is a delicate process in which enough moisture must be retained in order to keep the cacao beans from becoming brittle or cracked, so moisture levels are monitored electronically several times a day.
When the drying process is complete, the cacao beans will be about half their original weight. Most farmers get 40 to 42 pounds of dry beans from 100 pounds of wet beans. The color of the beans changes from reddish brown to dark brown. Any flat or small beans are removed, and the remaining cacao beans are polished by a machine. The dried beans are then scooped into sacks to be shipped to chocolate makers around the world.
Testing, Cleaning, and Roasting
So how is chocolate made? Testing, cleaning and roasting are critical steps. When cacao beans reach the craft chocolate maker or the chocolate manufacturing plant, they are cleaned to remove any foreign contaminants such as twigs, stones or dust. Then a small sample is tested for size and any defects such as mold. Some of them may be cut in half to look at the color to determine whether the beans were fermented correctly. A small batch may be cleaned, roasted and made into chocolate liquor for taste testing. If the taste is off, roasting conditions can be adjusted.
Cacao beans are roasted for anywhere from 10 to 35 minutes. Roasting does the following:
- Develops the distinctive, chocolate aroma of pure chocolate
- Reduces astringency and acidity
- Lowers moisture content
- Deepens color
- Makes shells easier to remove for cracking or winnowing
- Kills any organisms remaining on the beans after fermenting
Roasting is a crucial step in chocolate processing that creates the final flavor of the chocolate. Cacao beans can be roasted one of two ways: by pre-roasting or direct roasting.
In pre-roasting, cacao beans are heated quickly using hot air or infra-red radiant heat at temperatures ranging from 212 degrees to 300 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 to 40 minutes. During this process, the shells separate from the cacao nibs.
Direct roasting (which skips the pre-roasting step) is an older and more traditional roasting method that allows the flavor of the chocolate to develop properly. Direct roasting is carried out at between 300 to 320 degrees Fahrenheit for 40 to 50 minutes. The cacao beans are all shelled at the same time after they are roasted.
Cracking (or Fanning) and Grinding
During the roasting process, the shell of the cacao bean separates from the bean kernel. The next step is the cracking process (also known as fanning, hulling or winnowing). In this phase, the shells are separated from the meat of the cacao beans by passing the beans through serrated cones that crack the shells but do not crush them. Powerful fans blow away the light shells and leave behind the heavier cocoa nibs.
The next step in chocolate producing is grinding the cacao nibs, which contain about 53 percent cocoa butter. The way this works is that the cacao nibs pass through refining mills with large grinding stones or heavy steel disks. The heat generated by grinding causes the cocoa butter to melt and form a paste called chocolate liquor, or cocoa mass. Cocoa butter is an essential part of any chocolate recipe. It creates chocolate’s fine structure and lustrous sheen and makes up about 25 percent of the weight of most chocolate bars.
Grinding or Refining
The final steps in chocolate making are refining and conching. These are two different processes, but they can be performed at the same time using a melanger. During refining, the coarse particles found in chocolate liquor are ground so finely they produce an extremely smooth texture with no grit.
Conching is a long process of heating, mixing, agitating and aerating liquid chocolate. Bitter substances and water vapor evaporate during this process. Conch machines are made with heavy rollers that plow back and forth through the chocolate paste for anywhere from a few hours to a few days. These rollers produce different degrees of agitation and aeration to create unique and distinct flavors.
Even though refining and conching aren’t the final steps in the chocolate making process, they are some of the most important steps in chocolate making because they determine the final flavor and texture of the chocolate. To complete the process, the refined and conched chocolate must be tempered. Tempering is an important step that shouldn’t be skipped, but it doesn’t affect the final flavor. The tempered chocolate is then molded into chocolate bars and wrapped for distribution.
Each month at Cococlectic, we feature a different American small-batch bean-to-bar chocolate maker who is passionate about producing their chocolate from scratch using only three main ingredients: cacao beans, sugar and cocoa butter.
The chocolates sold at Cococlectic are vegan, non-GMO, fair trade and ethically sourced. They do not contain any soy, gluten, dairy or nut, but they may be produced in a facility that handles these ingredients.
We sell only dark chocolate bars in our chocolate shop. Monthly subscription boxes, one-time gift boxes or corporate gift boxes containing your choice of dark bars only or mixed bars with inclusions of fruits and nuts are available with the purchase of the Office Box. Each chocolate box comes with 4 full-size dark chocolate bars that are made in the US.
Sign up for our chocolate-of-the-month subscription club and join us for a free virtual chocolate tasting with our featured chocolate maker of the month.