The process to make chocolate from bean to bar.
At Captain’s Chocolate, we have total control and transparency of the chocolate making process. We know our farmers and we work with them in Costa Rica to bring you the best quality chocolate possible. Everything from the harvesting all the way to the grinding and packaging is in our control. If you’re wondering how chocolate gets into your hands from start to finish, then stay tuned and we’ll walk you through it.
Getting to know our farmers:
Our farmers implement traditional agricultural methods that have been in their families for generations, even since ancient times. While this does sound over-the-top, it is absolutely true. We work with the indigenous tribes of Costa Rica in regions where cacao has been harvested for thousands of years, dating back to when cacao was used as currency and even for medicinal purposes.
Step 1: Harvesting
Since our farmers have been harvesting cacao for generations, they collect cacao pods by hand and can expertly identify which pods are perfectly ripe and ready for harvest. This is the start of why our cacao is uniquely rich when compared to many commercial brands. Every cacao pod has reached peak ripeness that only local experts could identify. Harvesting for commercial grade chocolate is often done with heavy machinery for efficiency which means it doesn’t matter if the cacao fruit is ready to be harvested or not because there’s no emphasis on quality. We use machetes and other hand tools carefully collect the cacao so as to not damage the tree and other surrounding pods.
Step 2: Fermentation
Fermentation is the process of microbial communities, such as yeast, lactic acid, and acetic acid, start to break down the carbohydrates in the cacao bean. Without this process the cacao is extremely bitter and close to inedible. It can take upward a week for the cacao beans to reach their peak flavor profile, but depending on other variables it can be as soon as three to four days. The flavor that you are familiar with in chocolate starts with fermentation and a good chocolate has very high-quality fermentation process.
Many customers had no idea products like chocolate and coffee are fermented before being turned into their beloved treats. One of the initiatives as part of our mission to continually help our farmers was rebuilding the fermentation and drying sheds. The Captain himself is quite the handyman and worked with the farmers to build new fermentation containers.
The fermentation process is one of the more difficult aspects of developing cacao flavor. Many factors impact the fermentation process that’s out of our control including weather changes and potential fungal colonies. Indigenous farmers already expect these circumstances and know how to handle them, but they still need to be accounted for and carefully handled.
The raw, freshly opened cacao beans are called pulp, which are then put into containers that allow for the pulp to be easily moved around, known as aerating, and for equal fermentation. The containers have holes in them to allow for the undesirable acid to drain so as to not create a bitter flavor and disrupt the microbial colonies. Once the fermentation process completes, we move into the sun drying step.
Step Three: Sun Drying
Once the cacao beans have finished fermenting, the next stage in the process of chocolate making the sun drying. This is done in our hand built drying sheds that accommodate our specific needs. While the fermenting process can take upward a week or more, the drying process does as well, upward to ten days. And much like with the fermenting process, the beans need to be aerated from time-to-time to ensure equal drying surface area so beans aren’t developing mold or fungus, which you can taste in the final product.
Once the drying process has finished, our farmers take great care in sorting these beans for any impurities, and rest assured our farmers have a keen eye and unique skill that’s been handed down for generations to pick out any beans that don’t meet our rigorous standards of quality.
Stage Four: Roasting
Roasting is one of the final stages of the cacao bean-to-bar process. Once roasted, the cacao bean is ready to be turned into chocolate. The roasting process is how we cook the bean and ready it for consumption. Not only do we roast for flavor, but we also roast to ensure food safety. While you can certainly eat unroasted cacao, and it’s even becoming quite popular lately, roasting removes any doubt of contamination and can enhance the flavor based on roast profile. Not only that, but unroasted cacao also has a very different flavor compared to industry standard roasted chocolate and many customers may be shocked at how different unroasted chocolate tastes.
Flavor and food sanitation aren’t the only reasons to roast cacao. Roasting removes water content which helps with shelf life of the cacao, an important aspect when we can roast upward hundreds of pounds of cacao a week. Reducing water content also improves flavor by concentrating the flavor of the chocolate. Furthermore, when we winnow the cacao beans, or grind it into cacao nibs in simple terms, roasting aids in the removal of the husk. The husk is entirely edible and quite healthy, however, it’s bitter and doesn’t taste very good in chocolate products. Our ground cacao brew does have the husk in it as it’s full of antioxidants.
Stage Five: Winnowing
Winnowing is an uncommon terminology for most of our customers. Simply put, winnowing is the process of grinding and blowing the husk/chaff off of the cacao nib. Our machine will take the roasted cacao beans and coarsely grind them into nibs while separating the chaff from the nibs. This is yet another important part of the chocolate making process as the husk is not a desirable flavor in chocolate bars. Once the cacao nibs have been separated from the husk, we can then prepare the nibs for packing and transportation into the United States. Once the nibs make it to our shop in Wisconsin, we then can start turning those cacao nibs into chocolate!
Stage Six: Melangering the chocolate
If your chocolate journey didn’t end at the cacao nibs, then this is the process everyone loves. Often times known as conching which is a similar process, this stage is when we break down cacao nibs into their liquid form to be turned into chocolate bars and other products. Using a machine known as a melanger, we grind and crush the nibs for upwards 72 hours or until we feel the optimal consistency has been achieved. This process uses stone wheels to grind the chocolate incredibly fast to heat the chocolate and separate the naturally occurring fat from the cacao nibs.
To put it plainly, all cacao contains fats, and this process takes dry cacao nibs and uses intense friction at high RPMs to mechanically separate those fats from the cacao solids. Cacao beans are roughly equal parts fat and solids, and all we do is separate them with heat and pressure. This liquid that is formed is known as chocolate liquor. Not to be confused with cacao butter but they are often times interchangeable but have strict differences. Chocolate liquor is a liquid chocolate that contains both fat and solids. Cacao butter is the fat that’s been pressed from the chocolate liquor leaving behind the cacao solids which will then be turned into cocoa powder. The next stage is tempering, a very delicate step that if not perfected can ruin an entire batch of chocolate.
Stage Seven: Tempering
Tempering is the careful process of heating and cooling the chocolate to reach a set temperature, so all of the chocolate particles are uniform, which creates a smooth, flavorful texture in each bite. A poorly tempered chocolate bar will be off-colored, melting at temperatures it shouldn’t, and it will certainly have an inconsistent flavor profile. We take great care at this stage of chocolate making as we would hate to get this far into the chocolate making process just to poorly temper the chocolate. After the chocolate liquor has finished tempering, it’s cooled off in a controlled environment and then poured into the molds.
Stage Eight: Molding
The final stage of the chocolate making process is the molding. Once the chocolate has cooled enough to be worked with, we then pack the chocolate into our molding bags and squeeze the liquid chocolate into pre-made chocolate bar molds. Once each tray of molds has been filled with liquid chocolate, they are then transferred to a vibrating machine the pushes any air bubbles out of the chocolate so every bite is not only equal in texture but so the chocolate bar’s structural integrity remains intact. Any air bubble could weaken the chocolate bar and cause it to break when handled roughly and no customer wants to bite into air and have a crumble chocolate bar. Once the chocolate has been molded, we are technically finished. The last stage is packaging which is the post-chocolate making process.