Making chocolate is a complicated and time-consuming process, so here are the key processes involved.
Processing the cocoa beans
Once harvested, the cocoa pods are crushed, and the cocoa beans and surrounding pulp extracted and fermented naturally for about six days until the beans dry. The finest chocolate is produced when drying occurs naturally in the sun. Artificial drying is quicker, but produces inferior quality chocolate used in mass production and for cake coverings.
The next stage involves grading and roasting the beans. Roasting times depend on the type and size of beans, and like coffee, affect the final flavour of the chocolate.
Light crushing separates the kernel or 'nib' from the shell or husk, which is discarded. At this stage, most manufacturers use an alkalization process to develop the nibs’ flavour and colour. However, many luxury chocolate producers prefer to rely on the quality of the beans and natural processing to achieve this.
The nibs are finely milled and liquefy in the heat from the milling process to produce ‘cocoa liquor’ or ‘cocoa mass’. This is allowed to cool and solidify.
To make chocolate, some cocoa liquor is reserved, while the rest is pressed to extract the cocoa butter. The solid residue left is finely ground to make cocoa powder.
Cocoa liquor or cocoa mass is blended back with cocoa butter in different quantities to make different types of chocolate. The finest plain or dark chocolate contains 70% cocoa or more, whereas white or milk chocolate contains 30% or more cocoa butter. Inferior and mass-produced chocolate contains much less cocoa solids – often as little as 7%. Interestingly, the demand for high-quality chocolate, containing at least 70% cocoa solids, is increasing every year.
Refining and conching
The blended chocolate is refined using heavy rollers to grind down and blend the particles into a smooth texture. This is usually followed by the ‘conching’ process. A conch is a container that continually kneads and smooths the chocolate, keeping it liquid. The longer the conching, the smoother and better the chocolate’s quality. The finest chocolate is conched for at least a week, and once completed, is stored in heated tanks ready for the final process ‘tempering’.
Tempering is a very precise cycle of heating and cooling to encourage the stable crystal formation needed to bring out the chocolate’s most desirable qualities. Once complete, the chocolate can then be held 'in temper' and is ready for use as a coating on chocolates, biscuits and other coated products, or poured into moulds and cooled for sale as solid chocolate bars. Well-tempered chocolate has a glossy shine, snappy or brittle bite, and a smooth, tender melt on the tongue that coats the palate with lasting flavour and a wonderful taste.