How do cacao beans become award-winning craft chocolate?
We make our gourmet chocolate from single origin cacao beans, which means the beans come from a single farm or region. Because of this we’re able to highlight the true flavors of the fine flavor cacao beans from which it’s made. Every step of the process is done right here at our farm, from roasting to grinding to molding and wrapping the bars. But most chocolate isn’t made this way.
Our Process is Different
Mass market chocolate is made using beans from many different places, without much (if any) thought given to quality or flavor. The beans are roasted using a one-size-fits-all roast profile, the cocoa butter is pressed out and sold for use in beauty and other products, the cacao is alkalized (a chemical process which strips them of their natural flavors and nutrients), and soy lecithin (extracted from soybeans using the chemical hexane) is usually added to make the substance flow more easily in large industrial equipment. The final “chocolate” product often contains minimal amounts of cacao – sometimes as little as 11%, which is 1% above the minimum level to legally call the product chocolate. And, counterintuitively, most mass market chocolate contains vanilla, which is considered the polar opposite flavor from chocolate. Why is it added? Because the vanilla masks the unappealing flavor of the heavily processed chocolate.
A note on alkalization: Cacao contains very high levels of beneficial antioxidant flavanols such as catechins, epicatechins and procyanidins, however when cacao is alkalized the level of antioxidants is reduced by 80% or more. It’s important to remember that, while the US FDA requires the ingredient label to note when cacao is alkalized, no such requirement exists in the E.U. Therefore, any chocolate products made with cacao from places like Belgium or Switzerland are likely made with cacao which has been alkalized, although that information will not appear on the label.
Look Past the Marketing
Most mass market chocolate is made by one of a few large conglomerates. Smaller chocolate companies, even those who market their products as “specialty” or “gourmet” simply buy this bulk, processed chocolate, melt it down, add their own flavorings and then put their name on the wrapper. This is sometimes true even when companies market their chocolate as something they make themselves, when all they really mean is they’re adding their own flavors to pre-made, bulk chocolate.
By contrast, we make our premium craft chocolate using only directly-sourced single origin highly quality cacao beans, organic sugar and fresh-pressed cocoa butter we make ourselves from the same premium beans we use to make our chocolate. We never alkalize or use any additives. We search throughout Latin America to find the very best cacao beans, and you can read more about fine flavor cacao and our sourcing methods on our “Fine Cacao” page, as well as on our individual bean origin pages. Every step of our crafting process is customized for each individual bean type in order to highlight the unique flavors of the specific beans.
Below we break down each step of the unique and special process we use to craft our award-winning craft chocolate. You can also check out the short video below for a quick overview of what we do!
Step 1 – Sorting
All our beans are sorted by hand. Imperfections in a bean can result in imperfections in the taste of the finished chocolate, so we carefully sort small batches to remove beans that are broken, flat, or just too small to roast properly. We also remove anything that doesn’t belong in chocolate, like rocks and other detritus. Once they’re sorted the beans are taken to our chocolate kitchen for roasting.
Step 2 – Roasting
This is a critical step in developing flavor, because roasting transforms the many “flavor precursors” in cacao beans into actual flavor. How a bean is roasted has a tremendous impact on the flavors of the finished chocolate, which is why we do dozens of test roasts before deciding on our preferred roasting profiles. Our profiles are very different for different beans, and creating these customized roast profiles is one of the most enjoyable and challenging aspects of making craft chocolate.
Step 3 – Winnowing
Each bean is covered with a protective shell, which needs to be removed prior to refining because it adds a bitter taste to the finished chocolate. The beans are cracked to separate the meat of the bean (called the nib) from the shell. Once cracked, the bits of nib and shell travel across a screen and pass under a vacuum. Since the shell is much lighter than the nib, the pieces of shell are sucked up into the vacuum while the nibs fall down into a container for later refining. (The shells are collected and used for compost.)
Step 4 – Pressing Cocoa Butter
We're one of the only craft chocolate makers to press our own cocoa butter. Why does this matter? Because when you see cocoa butter as an ingredient in a chocolate bar it's almost always deodorized cocoa butter. Adding this "flavorless" butter to chocolate dilutes the cacao flavors at best, and can also add off-flavors. By pressing our own butter from the same beans we use to make our chocolate our butter retains the same flavors as the beans, which not only enhances the flavor but makes our chocolate incredibly rich and creamy as well. It’s a time consuming process, but one which ensures the flavors in each bar truly reflect the flavors in the cacao from which it's made.
Step 5 – Refining and Conching
This is a complicated step because two things are happening simultaneously. Particle size is being reduced (refining) and volatile compounds, like acetic acid, are being released (conching). Along with roasting, conching is one of the most important steps in developing chocolate flavors. In this step the cacao nibs from the winnower are placed in a stone grinder. The heavy granite wheels slowly crush the nibs into a paste, and eventually turn it into a liquid known as “cocoa liquor.” During this step we also add sugar and cocoa butter. Once the particle size has been reduced to a certain level (but not too small!) and the flavors are just right, the liquor is poured out of the grinder and put in the tempering machine. We spend a lot of time developing just the right conche profile for each bean.
Step 6 – Tempering and Molding
Tempering is the process of creating a certain type of crystals in cocoa butter to give the bar a harder consistency, higher melting point, and a nice appearance. To create the right type of crystal the temperature is raised high enough to melt all of the cocoa butter crystals, and then lowered to a point that’s ideal for the correct type of crystal to be created. Once our chocolate is tempered properly we deposit it into molds, chill the molds to further stabilize the cocoa butter crystals, and then let the bars come back up to room temperature in preparation for wrapping.
Step 7 – Wrapping
Each bar is painstakingly wrapped by hand, with an interior resealable pouch and an outer wrapper which includes the batch number and a "best by" date.
The process is very time consuming but the incredible flavors make it all worthwhile!