Once the cacao beans have been removed from the pods, they are fermented to remove the mucilage, stop the bean from germinating, and to begin flavor development. Many farmers traditionally ferment the beans in a large pile on the ground in between banana leaves or sacks. Some producer groups, such as our producer partners in the Dominican Republic, the farmers of CONACADO Co-op, bring the beans to a central fermentation area where they are fermented in wooden boxes for a period up to six days. Fermentation is essential to the development of a high quality cacao bean that will be transformed into gourmet chocolate.
Do you know where chocolate comes from? Have you ever seen a cacao bean or a cacao pod? Most people have only experienced the end result, like a chocolate bar or a cup of hot cocoa. These divinely delicious products can be magical – inspiring our palates, bringing back fond memories, and simply making us happy.
The manufacturing of chocolate is a precise and scientific process, and yet, it still holds some of this magic and inspiration. From the cacao farms that can feel like enchanted forests, to the manufacturing plant, each step impacts the final quality of the chocolate and each step is a combination of science and art. Due to the great care and pride that our producers put into their work, these beans can be transformed into chocolate that will wow the senses and put a smile on your face.
So, sit back, bite into a delicious piece of Equal Exchange chocolate, and read about how it was crafted – from bean to bar.
After fermentation, the beans are dried, bringing the humidity of the beans down to between 6% and 8% for storage and export. Cacao beans are often dried in the sun, which can happen on tarps, mats, or patios. They are continually raked so that they will dry more evenly. The drying process can take up to a week; however, if the beans are dried too long they will become brittle. If they are not dried long enough they run the risk of becoming moldy. Some producers also have access to automatic driers, which are used when the weather is rainy or cloudy and they are unable to sun dry the beans. Once dried, cacao beans can be stored for 4-5 years.
Roasting & Winnowing
When the dried cacao beans arrive at the processing plant they are first cleaned to remove any debris. Next, the beans are roasted to darken the color and to further bring out the flavor characteristics of the cacao. The beans can be roasted at different temperatures and for different lengths of time, depending on different variables such as humidity, size of the beans, and the desired flavor. After roasting, the beans are "winnowed" to remove the shells from around the bean, leaving only the roasted cocoa nib, which is the key ingredient for making chocolate.
After roasting and winnowing, the cocoa nibs are ground into a paste called chocolate liquor (a.k.a cocoa mass). Despite the name, chocolate liquor has absolutely no alcoholic content.
Chocolate liquor can either be used directly in the production of chocolate bars or further processed to separate the fat, known as cocoa butter, from the cocoa solid, leaving cocoa presscake. Cocoa butter is used in chocolate bars and beauty products. Cocoa presscake is milled into cocoa powder to be used for baking cocoa and hot cocoa.
Once the beans are processed into chocolate liquor and cocoa butter, the manufacturing of finished products can begin. To make chocolate bars, chocolate liquor and cocoa butter are blended with other ingredients such as sugar, vanilla, and milk (for milk chocolate). These ingredients are then refined. For Equal Exchange chocolate bars, this means the particle size of the ingredients is refined to such a small size that they cannot be felt by the human tongue, giving the chocolate much of its smooth texture. This mixture is then "conched," or mixed and aerated at high temperatures. This process thoroughly blends the ingredients, taking out some of the acidity of the cacao and further developing the flavors that will appear in the final bar.
Traditionally, conching has been an extended process of mixing the ingredients for long periods of time, often for days. It is now common for companies to use soy lecithin, an emulsifier, to help blend the ingredients, allowing them to drastically cut down on conching time and costs. We are proud to say that Equal Exchange does not use soy lecithin in any of our products. Instead, our bars are crafted using extended conching for a period of 24-72 hours depending on the bar. It is our belief that this method creates a superior chocolate that is both incredibly smooth and full of well balanced flavors.
Tempering & Molding
After the conching is complete, the chocolate is then "tempered" through a slow, stepped decrease in temperature. During this process, the chocolate is cooled and then warmed, then cooled further and warmed once again, and so on until it reaches the correct temperature, creating an even crystallization of the ingredients throughout the chocolate. If done well, tempering is what gives the chocolate its smooth texture and snap when broken in two. After the chocolate is properly tempered, it is ready for additional ingredient inclusions such as almonds, coffee beans, or sea salt. The chocolate is then poured into molds, which form the shape of the bar. The chocolate cools until it becomes solid and is then removed from the molds as chocolate bars. Once the bars are cooled, they are wrapped in their inner wrapper to keep the chocolate fresh for 12-24 months. They are then labeled, packed in cases and stacked on pallets ready to be shipped to and to be eaten!
We want to make sure every chocolate and cocoa product that leaves our warehouse is of the highest quality. Our Chocolate Tasting Panel meets weekly (and sometimes more) for intense product evaluation. Tasting Panel is a hand-picked group of the best mouths at Equal Exchange, from various departments. The members have undergone extensive sensory training and calibration as a group, honing their skills and continually developing their pallets. Panel often compares a new shipment of chocolate to a previous shipment, to ensure consistency. Another task is to write a descriptive analysis of a product's aromas, flavors, aftertaste, mouthfeel, and so on, using a special "intensity" scoring system.
Cacao (a.k.a. cocoa beans) comes from the cacao tree or Theobroma cacao. Theobroma is a Greek word that means "food of the gods." The cacao tree is an evergreen found in over 50 tropical countries, and estimated to be grown by 2 million to 2.5 million producers, 90% of whom are small-scale farmers with 12 acres or less.
The tree can grow up to 30 feet but is often pruned to make harvesting easier for the farmers. Once a tree is planted, it can take up to five years before it produces cacao pods, and it can continue to produce pods year round until it is 25 or 30 years old. Every year, cacao trees grow thousands of flowers on their trunks and branches. Only a small percentage (as low as 1%) of these flowers will actually produce a cacao pod or masorca. This pod, which is the fruit from the tree, can be similar to the size and shape of a football and grows out of the trunk and branches of the tree. Pods can be found in a range of colors from dark brown to orange, red, yellow, and green. A cacao pod will begin to ripen 5-6 months after it flowers. Each pod contains beans, the seeds of the fruit that are shaped like a flat almond, surrounded by a sweet pulp. There are roughly 30-50 beans in a typical pod. These beans are what ultimately get transformed into cocoa powder or chocolate.
Once the pods are ripe, they are cut down from the trees, typically with machetes or, for the higher pods, using long poles with a cutting edge. They are cut with care so that the stalks are not damaged and can produce fruit the following year. Though pods can be harvested year round there are two major harvest times: the main harvest and the mid-harvest, which falls about six months after the main harvest.
Once on the ground, the pods are graded for quality and placed into piles. The pods are then opened with a machete or a wooden club by cracking the pod so that it can be split in half. The beans, still surrounded by the sweet pulp, are removed and piled on top of large leaves, often from banana trees.