Love chocolate? You're not alone. In fact, the industry boasts a stunning worldwide value of more than $131 billion [source: Markets & Markets]. Whether you yearn for gourmet truffles, a gas station candy bar or a confection somewhere in between, some sort of chocolate-flavored product is likely your Achilles heel. Indeed, chocolate is so beloved that some people wind down a long, stressful day with a bit of chocolate rather than a glass of wine or a beer.
Although chocolate has been consumed since at least 1500 B.C.E., the way it's enjoyed today is a huge departure from how the original chocoholics tried it. Mesoamericans, who were the first to crack the potential of the cacao bean, simply fermented, roasted and then ground the beans to produce a bitter beverage. No sweeteners, no added sugar, just beans. The taste is fairly akin to taking a bite of today's unsweetened baking chocolate. Although it might not sound like such a delicacy, cacao drinks were often enjoyed on celebratory occasions, or to show one's status in society [source: Garthwaite].
Europeans later added sugar and milk, but they were still drinking chocolate instead of eating it until the Industrial Revolution. If entrepreneurs hadn't figured out how to process it further to make it easier to eat (and less expensive), chocolate might never have morphed into the pervasive treat that it is today. Can you imagine? Americans eat up to 12 pounds (5 kilograms) of chocolate every year, but they aren't the winners by far when it comes to chocolate consumption — that honor goes to the Swiss, who wolf down 22 pounds (10 kilograms) a year [source: World Atlas of Chocolate].
Next up, let's dive a little deeper into the sticky sweet history of chocolate.
Nobody knows when the first person looked at the cacao tree and decided to eat its seeds. The earliest record of chocolate comes from Mesoamerica, a region that stretches from central Mexico south through Costa Rica. The Mayans were drinking it by about 600 C.E., with the Aztecs joining in on the fun a few hundred years later (when they conquered the Mayan empire). Both cultures considered chocolate sacred and included it in ceremonies and offerings to their gods. The Aztecs believed that it actually came from a god; specifically Quetzalcoatl, and that drinking cacao beverages helped mere mortals share in some of the god's wisdom [sources: International Cocoa Organization; Robles].
The Aztecs called chocolate xocoatl (thought to mean "bitter water") and often added spices like chili and vanilla for flavoring before mixing it with water into a frothy beverage. Kings and other royals sucked it down because they believed chocolate could fill them with power and good health. Chocolate wasn't just a food, though; the beans were one of the main forms of currency of the day [source: Robles] An Aztec document from the 1500s states that you could buy a turkey for 100 cacao beans and a tamale for one [source: Fiegl]. Definitely more valuable as currency than food!
Europeans got their first taste of chocolate when Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes showed up at the court of Aztec ruler Montezuma II in 1519 [source: Fiegl]. The great ruler supposedly downed 50 cups of chocolate a day, although the legitimacy of that claim has since been debunked [source: Garthwaite].
Adding sugar or honey to the bitter brew soon became the norm for Europeans when cacao started getting shipped back home in 1585. Guess what? They loved the drink once it was sweetened, and sadly for the Aztecs, that soon meant enslaving them to keep up with demand overseas. Wealthy Europeans paid dearly for the import all the way from Central America, but eventually, prices fell as more countries planted cacao trees in their own territories around the Equator.
Remember, this was still a drink — and a gritty, unrefined one at that — but a series of inventions during the Industrial Revolution changed chocolate forever. In 1828, a Dutch entrepreneur named Coenraad Johannes van Houten learned how to press the cacao beans to separate dry cocoa from the cocoa butter. He also treated the cocoa with alkali, making it smoother and less bitter [source: Cornell University]. About 20 years later, this Dutch cocoa was taken by Joseph Fry, an Englishman, and mixed with sugar and additional cocoa butter and pressed into a mold to make the first solid chocolate bar [source: Candy History].
Rodolphe Lindt invented conching in 1879 [source: Lindt]. This process consistently created a smooth-textured bar of chocolate and made chocolate even more affordable to mass-produce. By the early 1900s, people like Henri Nestle, Milton Hershey and other big names in chocolate were churning out tons of chocolate candy.
Our beloved confection starts out very humbly as a seed (which we call a "bean") growing in pods on a tree. Looking at it, you'd wonder how anybody would think of turning it into food. Let's look at the complicated process.
The delicate cacao tree grows no taller than 25 feet (8 meters) and will only grow close to the Equator in rainforest conditions, where it can get lots of shade. It's a strange-looking thing with pink flowers that grow directly on its trunk. The tree's fruit is a hefty, 6- to 12-inch (15.24- to 30.48-centimeter) pod shaped like a football. Although originally from Mesoamerica, today most of the world's supply of cacao comes from West Africa — namely Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The Ivory Coast alone produced more than 2.2 million tons (2 million metric tons) of cacao beans in 2017 [source: FAOSTAT]. (By the way, we'll use "cacao" to distinguish the tree and the bean from cocoa, the finished product, but they mean the same thing.)
Some people compare the cacao bean to a wine grape; there can be huge differences between beans depending on where they're grown. For instance, a Forastero bean from the Ivory Coast will produce a chocolate that tastes different from a Forastero bean from Cameroon [source: Garnsworthy].
There are just three main varieties of cacao bean:
- Forastero is the most commonly grown bean by far because it's the hardiest tree and yields the most beans. Its beans also have the strongest chocolate flavor.
- Criollo falls on the other end of the spectrum. It's known for a more complex flavor, but it's also the most delicate and difficult to grow, so just a tiny percentage of all cacao grown is criollo.
- Trinitario falls in between; it's a hybrid of the two that occurred when Forastero was brought to Trinidad, which until then primarily grew Criollo.
Usually, the bean is grown on small family-owned farms of less than 10 acres (4 hectares). Mass production just isn't possible because cacao farming is a really intensive process. The pods are harvested by hand — there's no other way to remove them without damaging the bud from which additional pods will grow.
Cacao pods don't ripen all at the same time, either; the pods, which turn from green to orange, have to be monitored carefully and harvested individually using knives on long poles. After the ripened pods are cut, the beans and pulp are removed and left to ferment either in piles covered in banana leaves or in wooden boxes (depending on where the cacao is grown).The fermentation process can take up to eight days. After fermentation comes drying. The beans are dried in the sun to reduce moisture from 60 percent to 7.5 percent. The whole mass is mixed periodically to ensure even drying [source: International Cocoa Organization].
After drying, the family/farmer then packs the bags and takes them to buyers, who grade the beans before paying for them. Next, they're off to the factory.
Making chocolate is a complicated process, and it varies depending on the company and how the chocolate will be used. But it always starts with the beans. Some companies rely on a single source for their beans or only buy them from a certain region. Others may use up to 12 different sub-varieties of bean to create a single chocolate blend. The mix of cacao beans is usually a big company secret, and no two brands use the same one.
When the beans show up at the factory (usually in huge, jute bags), they next get roasted. Roasting is a necessary step for a couple of reasons. First, it kills any bacteria or mold that may be lingering. While the traditional method is to roast the whole bean (in the hull) some manufacturers follow an alternative method because they're concerned about uneven roasting when using beans of different sizes, or they just think that roasting in the hull makes the chocolate bitter. They may pre-treat the bean with just enough heat (via steam or infrared radiation) to kill the bacteria and crack the hull.
The roasting process both removes bitterness and develops flavor. The bean gets mellower when some of the acids, such as ethanoic acid, evaporate. Roasting also creates a chemical reaction called non-enzymatic browning, or the Maillard reaction (which is responsible for flavors in lots of other foods, too) [source: Science of Cooking]. It's a complex process that happens when the sugars and amino acids in cacao react with each other in the presence of heat, creating that distinctive chocolaty flavor and smell. It's different with each roasting method and with each type of cacao bean [source: Science of Cooking].
The beans are then winnowed from their hulls and milled to create cocoa liquor (liquid). The grinding process is done by a machine called a melangeur, which has huge granite rollers that mash the cacao nibs into a paste called mass. The mass goes into a powerful press, which splits the cacao into its two components: powder and butter. The powder is a dry circle called presscake, and if it's going to be used to make drinking chocolate or cocoa powder, it's pulverized into a fine powder.
If the company is making solid chocolate, workers may make it straight from the mass or start with cocoa powder and add back in cocoa butter (plus some extra if it's really good chocolate or vegetable oil if it's not). Now's the time they'll also add in sugar, an emulsifier like lecithin and other flavorings [source: ecole chocolat].
The next two steps, conching and tempering, are so complicated and mysterious that they deserve their own section.
Unless you're really into chocolate making, you've probably never heard the term conching. Yet if our eating chocolate wasn't conched, you'd definitely be able to tell the difference because it would be gritty and uneven.
Exactly how Swiss chocolate maker Rodolphe Lindt figured out the process is a legend — some sources claim that he accidentally left chocolate mixing for a few days in a melangeur, a sort of "happy accident." The result was a smooth liquid that was much easier to pour into molds and that also made chocolate customers very happy.
The crazy thing is that even after more than 100 years, we still aren't sure of everything that happens during conching. (The name, by the way, comes from the shell-shaped machine that Lindt eventually designed just for this process.) We just know that it makes chocolate delicious. Like most other things about the chocolate-making process, it's different depending on the type of chocolate and the company making it.
It is universal, though, that a few basic things happen to the chocolate during conching. The constant grinding action evenly distributes the cocoa butter within the chocolate mass, creating a smoother mixture. The friction polishes the cocoa particles and makes them smoother. It also generates heat in the cocoa mass, releasing volatile oils and flavor compounds. If the mass contains milk powder (which is often the case when making milk chocolate), heat will also encourage the Maillard reaction. Finally, the rotation introduces air into the mass, removing more bitter acids and compounds [source: Science of Cooking].
Tempering is another "science is magic" step in the process of making chocolate to eat. You might be familiar with this one if you've made candy. In factories, there are machines that do it automatically to take out the possibility of error. Without tempering, candy wouldn't be shiny and snappy, plus it wouldn't last as long. Basically, it involves getting the crystals of cocoa butter to the perfect size. Left to their own devices, the crystals cool into irregular, jagged shapes. Not pretty.
Chocolate scientists (what a job!) have discovered that there are six different stages of crystals depending on the temperature. Only one, stage V, at about 93 degrees Fahrenheit (34 degrees Celsius) makes for the perfect eating chocolate. So the chocolate is heated to melt all of the crystals, cooled to the temperature that induces type IV and V crystallization (81 degrees Fahrenheit or 27 degrees Celsius), agitated to create tiny type V crystals and finally, heated again high enough to get rid of all the type IV crystals. Done correctly, you end up with type V. Perfect. Screw it up and you have to start over — unless you've burned it [source: Science of Cooking].
Much like other products of varying price points and quality (like beer and wine) there's a huge range of normal in the cost of chocolate treats. You're simply not going to pay the same for a run-of-the-mill Hershey's bar and an artisan bar produced by a much smaller company.
This is in large part because artisan bars take much longer to make, with some functions of the process being performed by hand. Craft chocolate shops account for less than 2 percent of chocolate producers in the U.S., with 200 craft chocolatiers in 2017, some of which only had three or fewer employees [source: National Confectioners Association]. By comparison, we all know that huge companies can make things more cheaply than mom and pop shops. They have better manufacturing facilities and more cost-effective contracts worked out with suppliers. Companies like Hershey's didn't start out huge though; they grew over time and fine-tuned the process to make it as efficient as possible.
Another factor that affects price point is that many large companies choose to source their beans from countries like the previously mentioned Ivory Coast, which is notorious for vastly under-compensating its farmers and workers. As a result, the big companies get the beans for next to nothing, passing on the savings in dubious fashion to the consumers, but not to the benefit of the farmers. Craft companies usually strive to pay the cocoa farmers a sustainable price for their goods. For their part, Hershey's website states that the company has committed to use 100 percent certified cocoa by 2020, meaning that they'll only use suppliers that follow a process committed to providing sustainable incomes for farmers [source: Hershey's].
Higher-end chocolatiers are also more focused on a quality taste experience, so they tend to source their beans from the more expensive, but better quality cacao farms of other African countries, like Madagascar and Tanzania, as well as some South American countries. These brands also prefer to not dilute the cacao flavor with a bunch of additional ingredients, so as a result they must use greater quantities of the pricier beans to get the job done [source: Abesamis]. For Lindt, their lowest cocoa content is 30 percent, with some products shooting all the way up to 99 percent! [source: Lindt]. Even Cadbury milk bars boast a minimum cocoa content of 20 percent, compared with Hershey's paltry 11 percent [sources: Cadbury; Gourmet Boutique].
Chocolate product selection honestly comes down to a question of personal taste. If you're happy with the taste and texture of a cheaper candy bar, save those dollars (or buy a lot more!). But if you long for a creamier, more decadent experience, go for high-end chocolatiers, or even "settle" for a midrange product like Lindt. You won't be alone — gourmet chocolates are having a moment.
Food product standards have skyrocketed in recent years, with many people turning to organic options to get their fix. The chocolate market is no exception, and as a result the premium chocolate category has consistently posted impressive growth, with an 11 percent uptick from 2018 to 2019. On a smaller scale, non-GMO chocolates and those that support fair trade agreements have also enjoyed growth [source: National Confectioners Association].
Here are some of the current trends in chocolate production:
- Sales of dark chocolate products have jumped 9 percent in recent years, as buyers are looking for a higher cocoa content, as well as the added health boost the confection is said to have. (Dark chocolate is rich in flavenols, which are believed to have heart-protecting properties, and is also packed with vitamins and minerals) [sources: Harvard; National Confectioners Association].
- Hazelnut has experienced the biggest growth in flavors worldwide. Hazelnut product launches saw a 50 percent increase from 2012 to 2015, followed by coffee-flavored options, which saw a 40 percent launch growth. The current top five flavors of chocolate worldwide are: plain, hazelnut, caramel, almond and orange [source: Candy Industry].
- Unconventional additions to chocolate (like jalapeno pepper, bacon and lavender) are popular with millennials.
- Ruby chocolate, a pink-colored chocolate with "berry notes" was introduced to the world in 2017 and to the U.S. in 2019. It's the first new type of chocolate since white chocolate (which doesn't have any cocoa powder) was invented in the 1930s. The processing technique for ruby chocolate is a closely guarded secret.
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