Every piece of chocolate—whether it’s a humble Hershey’s bar or an upmarket Scharffen Berger bar—starts out as a tiny cacao bean. Some chocolatiers, like Francois Kwaku-Dongo—who grew up on a chocolate plantation in Ghana and runs The Chocolate Lab in Greenwich, Connecticut—source cacao beans from a Ghanese chocolate plantation and farmers with whom they have direct contact. Other, like Dutch-born Maarten Steenman of La Tulipe Desserts in Mount Kisco, source their beans from French and Belgian producers, who carry a gourmet standard in the chocolate-consuming community.
For chocolatiers, where they source their cacao beans is usually a matter of personal preference, along with cultural, cost, and other factors. But whatever the source, the taste of chocolate starts here.
Let’s begin with bean origination. The main locations of cocoa bean (after processing, “cacao” is renamed “cocoa”) culture are Central and South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. “There are three main types of cacao beans used in the industry,” says Kwaku-Dongo. “Forastero, the kind the Chocolate Lab uses, which is a very robust and harsh bean grown on the Ivory Coast and Ghana; the red-colored Criollo bean grown in Guatemala and Vietnam, which is acidic; and Trinitario, grown in Jamaica and Trinidad, which is a hybrid of the Criollo and Forastero bean.”
The Chocolate Lab exclusively uses Forastero; other chocolatiers may mix the cacao beans to create a taste profile, but Kwaku-Dongo frowns upon that practice. Forastero is one of the most widely used types of cacao bean; it’s grown on the Ivory Coast, the number-one producer of Forastero beans (and cacao beans in general) in the world.
But, if we step backwards, the chocolate-making process really starts with the tree.
After a cacao tree is pollinated, it takes approximately four months for the pods to ripen. There are different means to pollinate a tree; pollinating by hand yields the most pods—anywhere from 60 to 80 per tree in quantity. In Ghana, the first and most important harvest is between October and January. A secondary crop is ready in June.
The pods, which resemble yellow footballs, are cut off the trees by hand and split open with a sharp knife. Then, the white pulp containing the cacao bean is scraped out, also primarily by hand, as machines can damage the beans.
About two dozen cacao beans are harvested from the pulpy insides of the pod and laid out to dry and ferment. The time for this process varies; at the Omanhene Chocolate Bean Company, where Kwaku-Dongo is director of culinary services, it takes two weeks, and “the fermentation process is a hallmark of Ghana cocoa production as it enhances the flavor and aroma of the cocoa.”
Once the beans are finished drying, they are graded according to acidity, and then bagged to be transported to warehouses and exported and sold to countries like Belgium or the United States, where the chocolate-making process is completed. Or they’re taken directly to a chocolate factory, as they are at the Omanhene Chocolate Bean Company, where the beans are crafted into finished chocolate.
The beans are sorted, cleaned, and then roasted between at 248°F to 300.2°F. Steenman, of La Tulipe, reveals that some very high-end, well-known chocolatiers get away with over-roasting low-grade beans to disguise their poor quality—and charge exorbitant prices. The roasting stage is when the beans get the brown hue and develop their flavor and that distinct chocolate aroma, much like coffee beans do in the roasting stage.
After roasting, the cocoa beans are kibbled or chopped into small pieces called cocoa nibs, which have a bitter flavor. The nibs are then machine-ground into a thick, brown, gooey mess called cocoa mass, which is composed of cocoa butter (the fats) and fine cocoa particles suspended within.
The mass is then pressed and heated until two components are squeezed out: cocoa butter and cocoa liquor. The liquor isn’t alcoholic, but is considered the flavor essence of the bean.
Cocoa butter is mostly flavorless, but adds a smooth “mouth feel” to chocolate. It’s also used in the cosmetic industry due to its renowned moisturizing properties, but it’s expensive, so some chocolatiers use other types of fats in place of cocoa butter when creating their chocolates. (Both Omanhene and La Tulipe use 100-percent cocoa butter.) The more cocoa butter in the chocolate, the more expensive it is to make; white chocolate is the most expensive to produce because it contains the most cocoa butter.
When all the liquid and fat is expressed from the cocoa nibs, what’s left is cocoa cake—a dry, chalky material that is pulverized to make natural cocoa powder. This is what is used in beverages and in baking.
Chocolate producers, like world-famous French brands such as Valrhona and smaller producers like the Ghana-made Omanhene, take the chocolate liquor and cocoa butter with sugar and perhaps a flavoring like vanilla, add an emulsifier, like lethicin, and then “conch” these ingredients. (In the 19th century, the process used to be done with vessels that resembled conch shells.) Today, producers use a heated chamber with steel ladles to blend the mixture until it melts to form chocolate. The physical challenge is to overcome the inclination of cocoa butter and cocoa liquor to separate; the bond between the cocoa butter and cocoa liquor is fragile, so this part of the process breaks down the crystal structure of the cocoa butter and liquor so that they can combine. (Later, a process called tempering does the same thing to keep the cocoa butter and liquor together.)
At a place like Omanhene, the chocolate is conched for days, then poured into molds to become baking chocolate bars which then, after being wrapped, are shipped to The Chocolate Lab at the JHouse Hotel in Greenwich, Connecticut.
However, at chocolate bakeshops like La Tulipe Desserts in Mount Kisco, the chocolatier, Steenman, uses bars and pistoles (French for coin-shaped pieces of chocolate) sourced from a chocolate wholesaler, like Valhrona. Then, he slowly heats the bars or pistoles in a bowl placed in a pot filled with water until they melt.
He uses couverture chocolate—a term for high-quality chocolate that contains extra cocoa butter (18 percent). The higher percentage of cocoa butter, combined with proper tempering, gives the chocolate more sheen and a creamy, mellow flavor.
After the chocolate melts, it’s poured onto a counter where it’s tempered by hand using spatulas. It’s a physical process in which the chocolate is spread and cajoled gently until the chocolate crystals start to become smoother and shinier and harden. When it starts to harden, Steenman puts the chocolate back into the bowl and uses what looks like a giant hair dryer to re-melt it. At that point, the chocolate is ready to be poured into bar molds.
Steenman likes to put upmarket ingredients like Italian pistachios and Japanese crystallized ginger in his bars (pictured right)—which not only look gorgeous, but taste divine.
After cooling overnight, the bars have reached maturity. They are wrapped and ready to be sold in the shop for $12 retail, to be eaten, enjoyed, and not particularly thought about.