We're decoding this incredibly delicious craft.

By Michelle Preli
February 26, 2020

What bit of culinary magic transforms a cacao bean into a chocolate bar? Science, plus some human imagination. Cacao beans have been cultivated for thousands of years originating in pre-modern Meso-America. Shepherding them into the gooey rich form we know today takes attention to detail, patience, and no small amount of taste-testing.

Courtesy of Askinosie Chocolate

The growing American craft chocolate movement has given chocolate lovers options that are rich in both flavor and in fairness. Those who source and import the beans directly in order to make chocolate gives them greater control over the quality and the ability to work collaboratively with farmers to benefit all. "Chocolate is magical and we believe it's even more magical when it's ethically sourced and produced and gives back to the farmers who grow it—and people can truly feel good about enjoying this 'indulgent' snack," says Lawren Askinosie of the family-owned Askinosie Chocolate in Springfield, Missouri.

Related: Chocolate Ganache Is Our Favorite Two-Ingredient Recipe

Bean to Bar Basics

Chocolate making is not a simple, one-and-done process (Askinosie Chocolate follows a 70-step process.). It all starts with the cacao bean. Indeed, Charley Wheelock, who owns the single-source bean-to-bar chocolate maker, Woodblock Chocolate in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Jessica, says: "A chocolate maker looks at the cacao like a winemaker looks at a grape. Without fussing with it too much, we try to coax out the best possible flavors that this unique fruit brings to the table. You need good genetics! It takes great cacao to make great chocolate." Finding the right beans and the farmers with the best post-harvest drying and fermenting techniques is key.

Fermenting

Chocolate shares some science with wine. Fermenting the cacao beans after they are harvested plays a role in the final flavor. "Fermentation is actually the most important step in determining the final outcome of the flavor of a chocolate bar, and it happens at origin," says Askinosie. "The beans are fermented before they're dried during a natural (no machines) process of several days that uses heat via fermentation boxes."

The Roast

The trek from farm to chocolate factory is truly a logistical achievement for chocolate makers who buy beans directly from farmers around the world. Once the beans arrive from the farm to the chocolate factory, they are cleaned then roasted. "The roast is where we get to put our thumbprint on the flavor," says Wheelock, because they are tasting along the way to land on just the right profile. The first scents of chocolate are evident in the aroma of the roast. Then the shell is removed from the roasted bean by a process called winnowing, leaving the nibs.

Grinding, Refining, Conching, and Tempering

This is the heart of the chocolate-making process. The nibs, rich in cocoa butter, are ground to create the chocolate liquor (there's no actual alcohol content!). Sugar is added to the melted liquor. At Askinosie Chocolate, they then mix with the single origin cocoa butter that they press themselves from the same batch of beans used to make the liquor. "It's very unique in our industry because it's expensive and labor intensive, but we think it provides the best flavor over industrial cocoa butter," says Askinosie.

Conching is the process of aerating the chocolate by agitating it. In general, this can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. The flavor and texture are monitored. "Volatiles escape, flavonoids dance together, the small particles are polishing their tiny edges as they bump into each other," says Wheelock. "The cocoa butter is being evenly distributed making for a balanced melt and a smooth mouthfeel so the flavors open up evenly and explosively on your pallet as the chocolate melts across your tongue." The chocolate is then tempered (raising and lowering the temperature) before pouring into the molds and cooled. It's carefully removed from the molds and wrapped—and ready to eat.

Taste Test

Along the way, chocolate makers taste frequently for flavor and quality. This sounds like every chocolate lover's fantasy job, but it really does require a knowledge of flavor and texture. "Chocolate is a complicated science," says Askinosie, "and while each batch can vary slightly because of small variances in the excellent beans we're sourcing directly from farmers, we hold ourselves to a very high standard when it comes to maintaining quality." For Wheelock, taste-testing the chocolate "never gets old."

What to Look For When Buying Chocolate

For quality, rely on chocolate makers who know the source of their beans and work with the farmers to meet high standards. This also means supporting farmers world-wide with fair pricing and supporting the environment with sustainability in order to produce the best. "It's ideal to look for chocolate made by makers that can speak with specificity to how their cocoa is sourced, which is paramount to how we make our chocolate and baked into our direct trade practices," says Askinosie. "We know the name of every smallholder cocoa farmer we work with because after all, you can't profit share with people you don't know."

The logistics of importing cacao beans directly can be challenging for bean to bar chocolate makers, but it allows them to work out any problems with the bean before it's shipped. "Don't just make purchases based upon feel good certifications," says Wheelock. "Take some time and learn about the brands you are supporting."

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