Bean-to-bar chocolate: how it’s made
Buckle up, this is a long blog post, but if you want to know exactly how bean-to-bar chocolate is made, it’s the perfect post for you.
But before we dive in, what is bean-to-bar chocolate? There are many definitions flying around the internet. Simply put it’s when cacao beans are turned into a chocolate product in-house, with no step outsourced.
“A bean-to-bar company produces chocolate by processing cacao beans into a product in-house, rather than merely melting readymade chocolate(couverture chocolate) from another manufacturer.” – Wikipedia
That’s also the key difference between chocolate makers and chocolatiers, as chocolatiers buy ready-made chocolate that’s already been processed from the bean and simply melt it down.
Bean-to-bar chocolate: how it’s made
Making craft chocolate from bean-to-bar involves multiple processes which we’ll go into individually. It’s humbling how much passion and dedication and time craft chocolate makers put into each chocolate bar.
These are the 9 steps which take the humble cacao bean to a chocolate bar:
- Cracking & Winnowing
- Grinding & Conching
This is done roughly twice a year, and by hand. The cacao tree (Theobroma Cacao) is a spindly, evergreen tree 5 to 8m tall, growing only in tropical climates near the equator e.g. Mexico, Ecuador and Papua New Guinea. Unusually it has both flowers and fruits all year round.
Each pod contains 30 to 40 seeds. Once cut open the fibrous white pulp that surrounds each seed begins to ferment when exposed to the air. The plup covered seeds are scooped out and fermented in big banana leaves or boxes with holes to allow the sticky white liquid to escape.
Fermenting happens when the pulp surrounding the cacao bean is converted into alcohol by the yeasts present in the air and the heat generated by the box. To ensure the beans are processed evenly they are turned or mixed. And it can take anywhere from 5 to 8 days and can reach temperatures of 45C and 50C.
And fermentation is the first flavour developing milestone for the bean. Chocolate makers who work closely with farmers to achieve better fermentation results, gives better flavours early on, which means less roasting time, later on.
After fermentation, only the bean is left, but because of the high moisture content, it needs to be dried out to avoid over-development of flavour. Drying can usually be done on location with beans spread out onto a single layer under the sun.
But when that’s not possible e.g. Papua New Guinea where it’s too wet the beans are dried near open fires giving them a smoky flavour. Once dried they are sorted bagged up ready to be shipped around the world.
The roasting process is done by chocolate makers and is another flavour developing milestone. The length of time and temperature the beans are roasted at depends on the type of quality of the bean and directly affects their flavour.
Roasting also kills off any remaining bacteria. Chocolate makers spend a lot of time experimenting to find the perfect temperature and roast time to give that oh so delicious taste they are seeking and will ferociously protect their secret recipe!
5. Cracking & Winnowing
After the roasting process, the cacao beans are left with a dry and brittle outer shell, the beans are then cracked (by hand or by machine) and the shell is removed by a process called winnowing. The shells are blown away by fans leaving behind pure cacao bean pieces, known as “nibs”.
The nibs are used in chocolate production but the shells aren’t, but as they are full of anti-oxidants can be used in cacao tea or even garden fertiliser. You can eat nibs on their own but they have a strong sometimes bitter taste.
6. Grinding & Conching
These two steps are usually done with a melangeur, which use two giant revolving granite rollers on top of a revolving granite slab. It converts the nibs into a cocoa mass which consists of cocoa solids and butter. During conching, some chocolate makers add extra ingredients e.g. sugar, milk, vanilla depending on what the final product.
The conching process can take a few hours or a few days and has a big impact on the texture and taste of the final product. Deciding how long to conch for is down to the experience and skill of the chocolate maker.
Part of enjoying chocolate is that satisfying snap when you break off your first piece. To get this snap should the chocolate needs to be tempered, where the temperature of the chocolate is raised and lowered so it creates the right kind of crystals.
These crystal ensure the right consistency of the chocolate without them and the tempering process chocolate would be an uneven texture of soft and crumbly. This process was traditionally done by hand but is very time consuming and a large machine can very easily keep the chocolate circulating at the correct temperature.
This is the fun part where the chocolate makers can express some personality with fun patterns and unique mould shapes. The tempered chocolate is poured into plastic moulds and gently but firmly tapped to remove any air bubbles. Small batch chocolate makers to this by hand but large scale chocolate production has a machine for it.
How exciting the cooled and hardened chocolate bars are now ready to be inspected for quality and carefully wrapped in paper or foil to keep it fresh. The packaging is not just a way to communicate best before and ingredient lists, craft chocolate makers are realising colourful and striking packaging helps them stand out from the crowd and communicate their unique personality with some even winning awards for their packaging.
That’s a wrap for bean-to-bar chocolate: how its made
Congratulations you’ve made it to the end and you now know exactly what it takes to make delicious bean-to-bar chocolate. After it’s a long journey the chocolate bars are now ready to be unwrapped and enjoyed.
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