'The Chocolate Maker's Story'
PartOne: At The Farm
Theobroma cacao which roughly translates to "food of the gods" is a tree that is grown around the world roughly between the tropic of Cancer and the tropic of Capricorn (20 degrees North and South of the Equator). Native to the upper Amazon region of Peru, and originally cultivated by the Mayans and Aztec cultures, the cacao tree is the basis for all the chocolate produced worldwide. Not all cacao is created equal though, genetics and growing conditions (including how much rainfall they had that year, soil type, whether they compost regularly etc.) go hand in hand to impact the potential quality of the beans. Of all the cacao grown in the world, about 1% is considered "fine grade" or "flavor grade." We search far and wide for that 1% to use in our unique single origin chocolate bars. We have also scoured that 1% and have sourced in cacao now from 32 different farms within that 1% to hone in on how we want to present our particular bars.
Cacao pods develop from the tiny pollinated flowers of the tree. It takes approximately 140 days for the pods to fully mature. It's critical that the pods are harvested at their peak of ripeness. If they are harvested too early, there is not enough sugar in the pulp to give a full fermentation to develop the initial flavor precursors for that beautiful deep rich chocolate flavor we all know and love. If they harvest it too late the beans can germinate in the pod rendering them useless. The window for a perfectly ripe cacao pod is as narrow as 7-10 days out of the 4 years it takes from seed to fruit. Once ripe, the pods are carefully cut from the trees by hand and collected into heaps to be cracked open and have the beans with their pulp(fruit) removed. This step is typically done on the farm in the trees and the empty pods are left on the ground to decompose and compost into the soil to replenish the nutrients and keep a healthy fertile environment for generations to come.
Fermentation is hands down one of the most critical steps in the entire chocolate making process, and we firmly believe this. Without a really solid understanding of cacao fermentation the cacao beans are completely devoid of the wonderfully complex array of flavors that are distinctly "chocolaty." The freshly harvested beans still covered in wet sugary pulp, are collected in heaps or boxes to naturally ferment for 3-7 days. Fermentation facilitates a complex array of chemical reactions that not only kill the seed and prevent it from germinating, but also it develops flavor profiles beyond what you will find in store bought chocolate. This process is dependent upon the skill of the farmer, which often time comes down to generations of experience. We have found that newer farmers in say Hawaii have a far inferior product to say Peru, or Ecuador.
The next process in the proper development of the cacao bean is drying. This step can take an average cacao bean and make it outstanding. As moisture is reduced, fermentation slows down, but the flavor and the color of the bean continue to develop and change. Slowly and carefully sun drying can greatly reduce acidity in the bean as well as developing the signature brown color of the finished chocolate. This 5-7 day process is complete when the moisture content of the bean reaches 6-9%; any higher than that and the beans will develop internal mold that will render them useless. The beans are then bagged up and are ready to be exported to our ridiculously small chocolate factory here in Scottsdale, Arizona!
The now bagged cacao beans are stored in warehouses waiting for a large enough volume to fill a container for shipment. We work with several different cacao bean importers to get the fermented and dried cacao to our doorstep. We have chosen our cacao suppliers carefully to insure complete transparency throughout the entire process of export - transport - import. The reason we do this is because the cacao passes through so many hands during this time, its critically important to make sure that they are all paid fairly throughout this process. Starting with the price, the price paid at farm gate, all the way to the real humans bagging them up into containers to ship to the US, Europe, and ll over the world. Now the beans have arrived at our doorstep! We have multiple 150lb bags now ready to be turned into world class chocolate!
Part Two: In Factory
Sort & Clean
First we handsort the entire batch of cacao. We sit down on the table with our hands and a bucket and sort out all sorts of stuff that got into the sack at the farm. Twigs, cigarette butts, you name it its in there. We sort all of that out and get it nice and clean for roasting and flavor development!
This is the first interaction we have with the flavor of the beans. Through the roasting process a complicated set of chemical reactions not only helps devlop the chocolate flavor of the bean, but it also expels, or reduces, the bitter (and astringent(think alcohol(fermentation)))the bitter notes of the cacao. Each bean is delicately roasted in our home oven! Crazy right? We take the time to truly develop a unique roasting profile for each cacao bean we use. Roasting also helps reduce moisture content in the cacao bean to loosen the husk from the nib.
The next step is to remove the husk from the roasted and cooled cacao bean. We achieve this by first cracking the beans into small pieces. We use a champion juicer and a shop vac hooked up to multiple PVC pipes that we rigged together with a couple of 5 gallon buckets! The husk is lighter weight than the nib so as it cracks and as it's in free fall the husk gets sucked up into one bucket and the nibs fall down into the main bucket that we will use. We sell our husks as compost at the local farmers market!
Refining The Dark Chocolate
The nibs and sugar are now ready to begin their alchemic transformation into smooth silky dark chocolate. First, the nibs are ground using a stone melangeur. This initial grinding not only begins to reduce the particle size of the nibs but it releases the cacao butter. The ground nibs (called Chocolate Liquor) are now ready for the sugar to be added. The sugar and Liquor are allowed to grind and homogenize further until they are ground so fine it feels silky smooth to the tongue. This process usually takes 24-36 hours of constant grinding in the electrically operated stone grinder.
Conching The Dark Chocolate
After the chocolate has been reduced in particle size until it feels super silky and tastes silky texture wise, we have to conche the chocolate. The ground chocolate contains particles that are of the perfect size but not the perfect shape. As the sugar and the cacao solids are sheered from the stone grinder's wheels, the newly ground sugar particles are coarse and have sharp edges molecularly. Not only this, but the flavor of the chocolate will be on the brighter side, still retaining many of the initial bitter notes. These bittere notes are the lactic and acetic acid left over from the fermentation process. Conching is an extended period of agitation under aeration and heat, allowing the chocolate flavor to mature and develop. Its a fancy word for high heat aeration to reduce the lactic and acetic acid out of the chocolate and mellow the flavor profile so its outstandingly good, not just mediocre like what we find at the grocery store.
By now the chocolate has undergone a lot and it's time for a rest. We age our chocolate for about a month or so (longer tends to be better to a certain point) so the flavor can mature. At this point the flavor changes subtly but realistically. It breathes like a fine wine and mellows even further, some flavors tend to become softer, while some brighter tones hiding beneath can come up from beneath. It is quite interesting how much it truly changes from the day it comes out of the grinder (from grinding and conching), to when its finished aging.
Temper & Mold
Up to this point the chocolate has undergone a ton of transformation. It's time to take it one massive step further and temper the untempered block of aged chocolate. Entire chapters in textbooks have been dedicated to tempering, from massive forums to blog posts there are infinite theories on how to optimize it, but the principles are fairly simple. We are trying to isolate a specific crystal structure that gives the dark chocolate its wonderful snap, sheen, and melting properties. We use a sophisticated machine to help us do this accurately by seeding our finished, melted, and aged chocolate.
Wrap & Enjoy
Finally, the dark chocolate bars are finished and ready to be wrapped. We hand wrap each bar, we also hand stamp, and hand sticker each bar with it's award sticker. The entire process is incredibly meticulous and exhausting, but it is SO worth it! It's important to us that the packaging reflects the skill and the story of crafting dark chocolate. That's why we hand seal and hand wrap every single bar we craft!