How Chocolate Is Processed
In this step of chocolate production, technology plays a big role in how chocolate is processed. Once the beans arrive at the factory, they go through a fairly standard set of processing steps, with the number of steps dependent in part on whether the beans are destined to become cocoa powder or chocolate.
Throughout this part of the journey from inedible bean to tasty treat, technology rules. In some manufacturing plants, computers are even used to run the machines and monitor the results to ensure the consistency and quality of the final products.
Yet the modern machines and manufacturing processes have done more than make chocolate production faster and easier than in centuries past. They have actually redefined chocolate for the modern world, transforming the bitter, grainy, liquid chocolate of the ancients into the wide variety of rich, smooth candies, bars, cocoas, fillings, toppings, sauces, and flavorings that we know as chocolate today.
Chocolate manufacturers have their own proprietary recipes for making their various chocolate products. The vast majority of those products are made from specific blends of different types of beans. The secret recipes dictate exactly which types of beans, from which sources, and in what amounts, to use for each product. By following those recipes to the letter, the manufacturer can maintain quality and consistency in its final products.
When cacao beans arrive at the factory, therefore, they are carefully sorted and tracked according to type of cacao and plantation of origin. The beans are then cleaned by a machine that removes any remaining pod fragments, dried pulp, and other debris.
Next comes the all-important roasting stage. The future quality of the chocolate (or cocoa) -- in terms of flavor, aroma, and appearance -- depends on careful roasting. The beans are roasted as they tumble around in large, heated, rotating cylinders. Depending on the variety of bean and the desired result, the beans may be roasted anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours at temperatures of 250 degrees Fahrenheit or above. During roasting, their moisture content drops even further, their color deepens to a rich brown, and the characteristic aroma of chocolate develops.
After roasting, the beans are quickly cooled, leaving their thin shells dry, brittle, and easy to remove. The beans are then fed into a winnowing machine, where rollers crack the shells and fans blow away the shell fragments. What remain are pieces of cacao called "nibs."
At this stage, nibs from various types and sources of cacao are weighed and carefully combined (blended) according to each manufacturer's unique recipe. The specific blend used plays a major role in determining the flavor of the chocolate or cocoa that will result.
The blended nibs are next fed into mills, where they are ground into a paste. The process of crushing the nibs between large grinding stones or heavy steel discs produces heat, which liquefies the fat within the nibs. The fat in cacao is called cocoa butter, and the nibs consist of 54 percent cocoa butter.
The resulting mash of liquefied cocoa butter and ground cocoa solids is known commercially as "chocolate liquor." (The name is a bit of a misnomer, though, because "liquor" here means liquid, not alcohol, yet the substance itself is actually more of a paste than a liquid.) All cocoa powder and chocolate products are made from this chocolate liquor. And it is at this point that the process for making cocoa powder and the process for making chocolate diverge.
Keep reading to learn how cocoa powder is made.