Many people don’t realize it, but most of the world’s chocolate is industrial. It’s made by one of the giant cocoa grinders — companies like ADM, Cargill, Barry Callebaut, and Blommer, just to name a few.
Any big company is going to have different priorities than a small one, and for industrial chocolate the goals are consistency and low cost. It’s a miracle of manufacturing that a candy bar can be so inexpensive and taste exactly the same as any other one. However, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Chocolate is one of the few foods that is both fermented and roasted, two processes that create interesting flavor notes. It can have more complexity than wine, but as most companies will try to remove these nuances for the sake of consistency and cost, many people have never experienced chocolate’s full potential.
Change is afoot and we are proud to be part of it. Launched in garages and kitchens around the country, the New American Chocolate Movement is giving Europe a run for its money as small-makers everywhere are searching for the one thing that’s been missing for a long time in the chocolate world: flavor.
This is the story of how chocolate is made in small batches.
It all starts with the cacao trees. Generally growing twenty degrees north and south of the equator, these trees bear a fruit — cacao pods:
We like to visit the farms we collaborate with — get to know our farmers and see how they work.
The farmers will cut open the pods and remove the beans, which are surrounded by a white fruity mucilage.
The beans are then removed and put into large wooden boxes to ferment.
Fermentation is the precursor to the more intense flavor development that begins once the beans have been roasted. This step requires much skill on the farmer’s part.
To stop fermentation, the beans are dried. Then, they’re packed up and sent to us in San Francisco.
Once we receive the beans, we immediately start conducting taste tests. We will do roast after roast after roast, making incremental changes, until we find a profile we like. We may do as many as eight to sixteen tastings before we decide — assuming we ever find a profile we’re happy with. We prefer a very light roast, which doesn’t work on all beans.
Now, we are ready to make a batch. First, we open a bag of beans and sort through them by hand.
We’re looking for anything out of place — a rock, some twigs, rope. There can be all sorts of strange things in cacao sacks. We also remove cracked beans and other minor defects. Many other chocolate makers think we are crazy for discarding so much, but we’ve done our homework and we know that these little details matter.
Even amongst our fellow New American makers, our chocolate is special because we only use two ingredients: cacao and sugar. We don’t add cocoa butter, vanilla, lecithin, or any of the other usual chocolate suspects. We like to taste the pure flavor of the bean, but that means that we have nowhere to hide. That’s why the sorting step is extra-critical.
After sorting, we roast up our beans, five kilos at a time in a modified coffee roaster. We like to roast them long and slow, retaining as much flavor as we can.
Next up is winnowing, a process that removes the shell and leaves us with the meat of the beans, the nibs. We built a machine to do this, though you could do it at home using a hair dryer or by simply rolling the beans between your fingers, one at a time.
Once we have nibs, we grind them together with sugar in a melanger for three days. A melanger is a machine with stone rollers that crushes the beans into smaller and smaller particles.
The grinding does two things. First, it reduces the particles down so that the chocolate doesn’t taste gritty. The friction from the rollers creates heat, which causes some of the harsher flavors to boil off. So we essentially mellow out the chocolate at this step. We don’t want to mellow it too much however, because we want to retain as much of the bean’s inherent character as possible.
Once we have finished grinding, we’ll block up the chocolate until we are ready to turn it into bars.
Turning it into bars requires tempering. The crystals in chocolate can take many forms and are not stable. If you leave an untempered bar of chocolate out for too long it will bloom — turn white and gritty.
Tempering causes the chocolate to become stable by aligning the crystals in the fat. You need to heat, cool, and agitate it in a very particular way to form the right type of crystals. We use a special machine for this.
We then set the bars into molds, cool them, unmold them, and wrap them in foil by hand.
Once they’re covered in foil, we encase them in paper that’s made specially for us, by hand, in India, so it can have a lot of variance. We had to search long and hard for a wrapping machine that could work the way we liked and do a better and faster job than we could. We settled on a 1950s Otto Hansel.
Then we add our labels and have chocolate bars!