What is chocolate, and how is it made? What is the difference between milk and dark chocolate? What the heck is a conche? This page is intended to help readers of CacaoLab understand the posts here, understand why micro-producers are so important, and define terms that may be confusing. This page will be updated from time to time to clarify and expand as needed.
Chocolate is made by roasting, crushing, and refining cacao beans along with sugar. Usually, some additional ingredients, like lecithin, cocoa butter, and vanilla are added to alter flavor and texture. If a chocolate is labelled with a percentage (like 70%), this refers to the percentage of the chocolate that comes from cacao beans. Dark chocolate is usually at least 50% cacao.
Milk chocolate is similar, but some form of dehydrated milk is added. This milk softens the chocolate and adds flavors which may be buttery, cheesy or creamy. Milk chocolate usually has a smaller cacao percentage than dark chocolate, and may be as small as 10%.
Let’s start by looking at the three most important people in the chocolate process:
Cacao Farmers grow the trees that produce cacao pods, which contain a fruity mass and cacao beans. They pick these pods, scoop out the contents, and ferment the beans along with the fruity mass. The beans are then cleaned, dried, and shipped to….
Chocolate Makers take cacao beans, and refine them (with the other needed ingredients) into chocolate. Chocolate makers range from gigantic industrial operations producing tons of chocolate an hour to small companies making small, carefully controlled batches. Micro-producers and artisan chocolate makers typically work very closely with Cacao farmers to control the fermentation and drying process, which is critical to flavor production. They also work with single origin beans, and work to produce chocolate with a minimal number of ingredients that highlight the subtle natural flavor of the Cacao.
Chocolate makers may sell chocolate in bar form for nibbling, or in a bulk form to….
Chocolatiers take chocolate and make truffles, coated candies, and other “finished” products. Some companies, like Hershey’s and Mars, are both Chocolate makers and Chocolatiers. (Note that under Belgian law, a “Chocolatier” must be someone that produces chocolate from beans. There really isn’t a clear nomenclature for this, which someone should figure how to fix!)
It is a tricky, technical process to go from cacao beans to finished chocolate. The basic steps to making chocolate are different from maker to maker, but all chocolate goes through some version of this process:
Growing – Cacao grows on plantations within 15 degrees of the equator. There are (arguably) three types of cacao grown in the world: Criollo, Trinitario, and Forestero. Criollo is the oldest form of cacao. Forestero is the most popular breed, more hardy and productive than Criollo, and constitutes the vast majority of world production. Trinitario is a cross between these two breeds.
Harvesting – Cacao pods are harvested from the trees twice a year.
Fermenting – The pods are opened, the mass inside is scooped out, and left in piles or fermentation boxes to self-ferment. This fermentation process is critical to the development of chocolate flavor.
Drying – The fermented beans are cleaned, and left in the sun to dry. Some farmers will use artificial drying processes to speed the process.
Roasting – Chocolate makers take the dried beans, and roast them. The roasting process develops flavor and loosens the hulls from the “meat” of the bean, which is called a nib.
Cracking and Winnowing – After roasting, the bean is broken up, and the hulls are separated from the nibs.
Milling – The nibs are crushed, resulting in a liquid paste called chocolate liquor. The chocolate liquor is about half cocoa butter and half cocoa solids. The cocoa butter provides a fat matrix for the flavorful cocoa solids in the final chocolate.
Refining – The chocolate liquor is mixed with the other ingredients, and the mass is passed through a refiner, which reduces the size of the particles in the mixture. For smooth chocolate, all the particles in the mixture must be below 20 microns. Finer chocolate will have a smaller particle size.
Conching – The refined mixture is then put into a (usually) heated mixing machine, which improves the texture of the chocolate by making a better mixture of cocoa butter and cocoa solids. It also removes volatile chemicals and their associated bitter, sour, or astringent flavors.
Tempering – The result of the conching process is a matrix of cocoa butter, in solid and liquid form, suspending sugar and cocoa particles. Chocolate’s unique mouthfeel and texture comes from the fact that the cocoa butter matrix melts just below body temperature, slowly releasing flavor particles onto the tongue. However, cocoa butter will crystallize in six different ways. Tempering controls the crystallization of the chocolate so that the chocolate contains mostly the specific crystals that have this melting property.
The tempered chocolate is then either poured into bar form, a block bar form, or chips. Chocolatiers will work with these forms of chocolate to build candies.