Next time you see your favorite craft chocolate maker, give him or her a hug. They need it. For them, every single day is a real grind. They have to keep their noses to the grindstone in order to bring you great chocolate.
Why? Grinding is an essential process in making chocolate. After the cocoa beans are roasted, cracked and winnowed (these processes are covered in other blog posts), the resulting cocoa nibs (chunks of the interior of a cocoa bean) must be ground until they become liquid chocolate.
To achieve the smooth consistency we expect from fine chocolate today, the nibs (and any added sugar) must be reduced in size to particles measuring about 20 microns or less. That's tiny! Your eyes cannot see particles that small, and your mouth can't feel them. For comparison, the average particle size of a grain of wheat flour is about 30 microns. Human hair is usually between 40 and 150 microns thick.
It wasn't always this way. Chocolate was first ground on stone slabs by hand. In some places today, this traditional method is still used. As you might expect, the result of hand-grinding is more coarse, and if sugar is involved, pretty gritty. But given the choice between gritty chocolate or no chocolate, I know which one I would choose! Note: If your craft chocolate maker grinds your chocolate by hand this way, then he or she gets two hugs!
When cocoa nibs are ground, the cell walls of the nib are broken open, and cocoa butter that has been hiding inside is released. Liquid chocolate is really a suspension of bits of the cell structure floating in cocoa butter. If the cocoa butter was pressed out of this suspension, the remaining product would be cocoa powder!
Sugar: The Problem Child
Given its plant-based cellular structure, the cocoa nib is actually the easier part of the mix to work with. Sugar, on the other hand, is a hard crystal, and tough to grind down to size. Depending on the grinding method, sugar can take hours or even days to crush to the appropriate size. And the friction of grinding sugar produces a large amount of heat.
Your craft chocolate maker has a lot of choices for how to accomplish all this grinding. There are impact mills, roller mills, ball mills, or granite wheels - all of which grind in different ways with different outcomes. Sometimes, more than one grinding method is used. The chocolate maker chooses the grinding method that best achieves the maker's vision for the finished product.
So now the nibs and sugar are ground down to size, and we have liquid chocolate. We're finished, right? Well, usually not. There's another step involved, called conching. (Conching is technically not part of the grinding process, but it usually follow grinding so closely that we're going to talk about them together.)
Conching is an extended stirring, sometimes with an added heat source. Conching accomplishes two goals. First, it ensures that all of the now-tiny cocoa and sugar particles are evenly coated with cocoa butter - for that melt-in-your-mouth sensation when you eat the chocolate. Second, conching drives away some remaining volatile (vinegar-y) compounds that don't taste very good.
Why is it called conching? The very first conching machine resembled a conch shell - home to the tasty sea creature. The newly-invented process was named after the shape of the machine. The conche machine was invented less that 150 years ago, so the smooth chocolate bars we know today are a relatively recent development. It really makes you wonder how humankind survived and progressed prior to the invention of conching!
So hopefully you can see now why making chocolate is such a grind. And why your favorite craft chocolate maker deserves a hug for dealing with it every day. Just another reason to love them - and the great chocolate they make!
Comment and let us know if you have other questions about chocolate. Watch for future installments in our Crafting Chocolate series.
Black Mountain Chocolate on the radio!
On November 6, Brent had the chance to chat on the radio with Bob Bowles, host of the NC Wine & Food Radio Show on WZGM 1350 AM Independent Asheville Radio. For 20 minutes, Brent and Bob discussed the art of crafting fine chocolate, and even did a little tasting on the air. Click here to listen on your web browser.
You probably don’t need another reason to love your local craft chocolate maker, but here’s one just in case: his continual quest for great-tasting cocoa beans. The flavor of chocolate depends largely on the cocoa beans used to make it, so finding beans that express the craft maker’s artistic vision is important.
But how hard can it be, you ask? Aren’t cocoa beans all the same? Thank goodness, no! Like coffee beans or wine grapes, the variations are amazing. (This is often how I justify the purchase and consumption of my next bar of craft chocolate: “Ooh! I’ve never tried those beans before!”)
And some beans are just better than others. You can certainly ruin fine beans and make mediocre chocolate from them, but average beans will never make exceptional chocolate. Your craft chocolate maker wants to make exceptional chocolate for you, and that drives her on-going search for flavorful cocoa beans.
With coffee beans, you have your Arabica and Robusta varieties, and each variety is impacted (taste-wise) by where it is grown. With wine grapes, you have many varieties – such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, again with the flavor of the wine being influenced by the geographic region, soil type and climate where the grape grows. With the large number of varieties, and the wide variations in locale, the array of potential coffees or wines is virtually endless. That’s where the skill of the coffee roaster or the artistry of the winemaker plays its part.
So it is with chocolate. There are varieties of cacao, and a range of locations where it is grown. Add to these the variables of post-harvest handling, roasting and grinding, and it’s easy to see why the range of fine chocolate flavors is so broad!
So how does your craft chocolate maker find great cocoa beans? This is where slick detective skills come in handy! And to answer the question, it helps to know a little bit about what he is hunting for.
The plant we sometimes call cocoa goes by the scientific name “theobroma cacao,” meaning "food of the gods"; from “theos” (or god), and “broma” (or food). Wikipedia tells us that theobroma cacao is a small (13–26 ft tall) evergreen tree, native to the deep tropical regions of Central and South America. Its fruit, called a cacao pod, is a little smaller than an American football, ripening yellow to orange, and weighing about one pound when ripe. The pods contain 20 to 60 seeds embedded in a white pulp. The seeds become the main ingredient of chocolate (cocoa beans), while the pulp is used in some countries to prepare a refreshing juice.
Historically, the world of theobroma cacao has been divided into three major varieties. The Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) explains the origins. Although the exact location is debated, theobroma cacao started in the wild, somewhere in the canopies below the tropical forests of South America, and spread throughout Central America and Mexico. From these regions, the name of the original strain, Criollo or “born in the New World,” was taken. Another strain, Forestero (or “foreign”) is thought to have originated in the Amazon basin. A third variety of cacao, called Trinitario, is believed to be a hybrid of the other two varieties.
‘Only three? This is going to be easy! Which one tastes best? Let’s make chocolate out of that one!’ If only it were that simple. Yes, the Criollo variety – which represents only about 5 - 10% of the world’s cacao production – is thought have superior characteristics of taste, aroma and astringency. Forestero – representing about 80% of cacao – is often said to taste like chocolate, but only chocolate – a monotone note. (Forestero was likely used to make that cheap bar of industrial chocolate you recently bought on impulse at the grocery store checkout line.)
And purity of variety is hard to find. Let’s just say theobroma cacao gets around. Cacao trees cross-pollinate readily, so it can be very difficult to determine the exact genetics of a particular bean without DNA testing!
The three historic types of cacao are gradually giving way to a more sophisticated genome-typing system. The new world of cacao has about ten clusters - rather than three types - and will help us tie a particular bean more closely with its actual origin.
Cacao grows generally within 20 degrees latitude either side of the equator. Cacao thrives in countries like Venezuela, Columbia, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, The Ivory Coast of Africa, Madagascar, Indonesia and even Hawaii (which is just slightly north of the border at 23 degrees). While the crop is naturally a rainforest understory plant, requiring high humidity, fertile soils, rainfall and warm temperatures it has also been grown successfully in drier, poorer conditions under irrigation.
Since soil conditions vary widely throughout the equatorial zone, the “terroir’ or specific geography, soil and climatic conditions of a region can add distinction to the character and flavor of the cacao, according to the FCIA. Perhaps like the viticultural regions in wine, the flavors of fine chocolate will become tied more closely with place.
Want to know more? A great resource comes from Ecole Chocolat: their new book, Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. Learn more about the book here: http://www.ecolechocolat.com/raisingthebar.php
And in the meantime, seek out your local craft chocolate maker and see what terroir she has up her sleeve!
Join the conversation by posting your comments and suggestions below. (Your posts will go through a review process before showing up – just to keep the spam out.)
Don't bother if all you've got is one of those industrial chocolate bars from your youth. But if you have had the savvy to acquire some good craft chocolate made from fine cocoa beans, then it's worth spending some time to extract as much pleasure from your investment as possible.
The tasting process outlined below might look daunting, but it can really be summed up in just one word: savor. Tasting is nothing but eating slowly, and paying attention to your senses while you eat. Play detective and search for unique tastes you have never experienced before. If you are new to the experience, prepare to be amazed! Savor the taste, but don’t forget to enjoy the effort. It’s chocolate, after all!
- Morning is actually the best time to taste. Your taste buds are most sensitive early in the day.
- If you are tasting multiple chocolate bars, arrange them from dark to light, delicate to intense flavor.
- It’s generally best to limit a tasting session to six samples.
- Serve the chocolate at room temperature.
- You can use plain bread or crackers to cleanse your palate between chocolates. Our favorite is animal crackers - the old-fashioned, puffy kind! Still or plain sparkling water also helps.
Try these steps to glean the most from each sample:
Appearance: First, "eat" the chocolate with your eyes. Is it glossy and smooth? Does it have white or discolored spots? Does it have bubbles or pits? A good quality chocolate will have an even glossy shine. It will have a consistent color and a smooth surface, both of which are signs of the quality of the chocolate-making process. Also note the color – which can range from red to deep brown - but remember that color by itself is not an indicator of quality.
Snap: How a bar of chocolate breaks is often an indicator of quality. A well-made, high cacao-content bar should produce a firm, clean snap when broken in two. The opposite of a clean snap is a crumbly texture.
Aroma: Before eating your chocolate, make sure you smell it. Rub the peice of chocolate with your thumb to release the aromas. The aroma of chocolate often gives hints of what flavors you will experience once you bite into the chocolate. Is it pleasant? Do you smell something sweet or floral or fruity; is it musty or smoky?
Flavor: Now it's time to eat! Take a bite of the chocolate, chew it just a few times and then hold it with your tongue against the roof of your mouth. Let the pieces melt slowly. This is the moment to savor!
What flavors appear? Can you sense any of the four basic tastes (sweet, sour, salt and bitter)? Our minds are conditioned to seek sweet tastes first, so it may take some conscious effort to find the other flavors.
Do you taste any aromatics - the flavors beyond the four basic tastes - such as fruits or nuts? Is it earthy, or do you get a roast flavor? Fine chocolate often has an amazing variety of tastes beyond the basic cocoa flavor. Take the suggestions that the chocolate maker may offer on the package, but don't be afraid to identify your own flavors. You're not trying to get the "correct" answer, your just exploring your own senses.
Does the chocolate taste bright or muted? The acid content of the cocoa beans - which varies by bean type, as well as the way the chocolate maker handles the beans, can influence this characteristic. Some prefer the clean taste of a high-acid bean; others like the warm, mild flavor of a low-acid bean.
A good chocolate will have different flavors that appear throughout the bite. It is important that the flavors are both pleasing and well balanced so that one flavor doesn't overpower the others.
Aftertaste: The flavors and aromas of fine chocolate often linger long after you have swallowed the melted mass. What flavors are left on your tongue a minute or more after you finish your bite? How long does the taste last? Does the chocolate leave your mouth dry? A good quality chocolate will leave a delicious taste on your tongue and make you want to come back for more.
Texture: Is the chocolate smooth or powdery or gritty or waxy? Does is melt away quickly or hold its shape as it melts? Texture is an important part of taste. A fine chocolate will feel smooth in the mouth as it melts, and will not be waxy. But whether it melts quickly or holds it shape may differ by bean type, and is not an indicator of quality. Also note that a few chocolate makers add sugars late in the grinding cycle to intentionally add texture.
Consider recording your impressions on paper, as this makes comparing chocolates easier. Remember to cleanse your palate between bars. Now start again at the top of the list with the next chocolate sample.
Again, you are not seeking a "correct" answer. The idea is to identify differences and then select the chocolates that most appeal to you. If you like it, that's the right answer!
Savor some fine chocolate soon. And leave us a comment with your questions about the process of crafting chocolate from the bean.
Why do you love local craft chocolate so much more than the big brands? Lots of reasons, most stemming from the fact that your craft chocolate maker cares enough about you and about her craft to do lots of little things that add up to a big difference. Reason #17 is about cleaning the beans.
Chocolate in the Raw
Why clean the beans? Cocoa beans beans are a raw agricultural product. Most beans are grown in developing countries, where they are harvested and handled in conditions that are often quite basic. During the fermenting and drying parts of the process, the beans can pick up lots of extra stuff that needs to be removed before the beans can be made into chocolate.
There's a legendary saying, sometimes attributed to Michelangelo, that a sculptor looks at a block of marble and simply chips away anything that does not look like the intended subject. In a sense, that saying describes what a craft chocolate maker does when cleaning beans. He looks at the beans and takes away everything that doesn't look it would make good chocolate.
Bean by bean by bean...
Cocoa beans usually arrive in our factory in 70 Kg bags. Each bean must pass inspection before it makes its way into your chocolate. Your craft chocolate maker makes a difference because a human being sees every bean. Unlike the big makers, no electric eye or robot or computer automates the cleaning process.
And it's a dusty process! When cleaning beans, the craft chocolate maker removes rocks, flat beans, doubles (beans that have stuck together during fermentation) and under-fermented beans. She picks out debris that might burn in the roaster. We've even found flower blossoms and bird feathers in the beans! In the words of that famous foodie, Alton Brown, this stuff is "not good eats."
After sorting, the beans are poured over powerful magnets that remove any metal that the human might have missed. We've never caught any metal this way, but better safe than sorry.
So the next time you are enjoying the fruits of your craft chocolate maker's efforts, you'll know that one of the reasons is because he took so much care to ensure that only great cocoa beans made it into the chocolate.
Comment and let us know if you have other questions about chocolate. Watch for future installments in our Crafting Chocolate series.