It takes several weeks and many steps to create the chocolate bars we all enjoy.
We start with the cacao fruit, which grows along the trunk and branches of cacao trees. The trees are grown from seeds (the unprocessed cocoa beans), and it takes five years for a tree to mature and begin to bear fruit. Ripe pods are generally harvested about every two weeks.
The pods have a tough outer shell, and a gooey, sweet flesh coating the beans inside. Each pod holds about 40 cacao seeds tightly back along an inner stem. The first step in chocolate making is crack open the pod, take out these beans, and separate them from the stem.
Once the seeds have been separated, they must ferment for about a week. The seeds and flesh are placed in a box, usually lined with banana leaves, and turned every day. The fermentation process produces heat and allows the flesh to drip off and for several chemical reactions to occur. The beans take on an almost vinegar smell at this point, and are no longer agriculturally viable. They are now 'cocoa beans' instead of cacao seeds.
After fermenting, the cocoa beans are laid out in the sun to dry for a week and gathered in at night and when it rains. Dried beans are ready to be made into chocolate, and can be stored for up to a year.
After drying, the beans must be roasted. It's a similar process to coffee roasting but at a lower temperature, usually from 5-35 minutes and somewhere between 250 and 235?F. Roasting serves several purposes, including separating the outer husk from the inner bean, sterilizing the beans after the fermentation process, and improving the flavor.
The next step is to separate the beans from the husk. This can be done by hand, but it's much easier to use a mill like the one pictured below. The mill has three rollers, and gently breaks the beans down into large pieces of nibs (the good part of the bean inside) and the hulls (the paper thin shell outside, like the paper covering a peanut).
Once this process has been completed, the hulls are winnowed to separate the nibs from the hulls. This is usually done by tossing the nibs and hulls roughly in a pan outdoors, and letting the wind blow away the chaff.
The leftover nibs are then pulverized into a paste called cocoa liquor or cocoa mass. This can be done by traditional grinding on stone or with more modern methods. At Cotton Tree Lodge, we use a type of juicing machine to process the nibs quickly.
The cocoa liquor can be further separated using a press to create cocoa butter (the oils) and cocoa powder (the solids). You then continue the process by adding cocoa butter and granulated sugar to unseparated cocoa liquor. Milk powder is also added if making milk chocolate.
The next step is to mix these ingredients together in a conch for refinement. The conch is a machine with heavy granite rollers that grind the chocolate continually for 1-3 days. The conching process heats and grinds the chocolate which will become a smooth, creamy liquid when warm, but will solidify at room temperature.
The final task is to temper the chocolate by heating and cooling it under very controlled temperatures. This process forces the cocoa butter crystallize in a particular manner so the chocolate stays solid at warmer temperatures. It will have a smooth, glossy surface and a nice snap to it. Untempered chocolate has a different texture, and will feel rubbery and melt in your hands. Poorly tempered chocolate will feel flaky. Tempered chocolate solidifies very slowly, so there is time to poor it into molds before it hardens.
Once the chocolate has solidified in its final mold, it must be packaged to seal it away from exposure to the air. Chocolate easily absorbs nearby odors. It is best stored in a cool, dry place ideally etween 60 and 70 degrees but better too cold then too warm . Your chocolate will stay good for up to one year.