Food Bloggers and the Chocolate Factory
October 1, 2011
A week ago, I was fortunate enough to take a tour of a local bean to bar chocolate company, Ritual Chocolate. Owners Robbie and Anna showed 5 local food bloggers around their facility and gave a detailed and fascinating account of chocolate making (and answered a ton of questions – you know, food bloggers). An ignorant person (such as myself, before this tour) might think that making chocolate is fairly simple – you just get the chocolate beans, grind them up really, really well, throw in some sugar, cocoa butter, mix it up and you’re good to go. As it turns out, that’s a little like thinking that making wine is just crushing up some grapes and letting them sit in your basement for a few years. I was also unaware of how rare it is for a company to actually make its own chocolate. Most companies, even those you might think make their own, use chocolate manufactured by someone else, and then add to it and mold it. And a lot of large-scale manufacturers do things to cut corners in order to make chocolate as quickly as possible. As Robbie and Anna explained how they make chocolate, their respect for the process was immediately apparent – from the quality of the beans to start with, to taking the necessary time and performing the right steps to get the best taste and texture.
It seems perfectly reasonable now that I think about it, but I actually didn’t know that there were different varieties of cocoa beans, with distinct taste characteristics. The Forastero bean is used for the vast majority of chocolate production (over 90%). Criollo is more rare, and seems to be considered by most people to be superior in taste to Forastero. Criollo actually used to be the main type of bean used for chocolate, but since it’s less resistant to disease, Forastero became the primary bean, and therefore is the taste standard that most people are familiar with. There’s also a hybrid of the two called Trinitario, which is apparently closer to Criollo than Forastero in terms of taste quality and characteristics. (Ritual Chocolate currently uses mainly Trinitario, with some Criollo).
Cocoa beans are grown in tropical or subtropical regions, and Africa produces over two-thirds of the world’s supply. A smaller share of beans comes from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia. To add to the complexity of flavors, beans that are from the same type of tree taste different depending on their geographic origin. Robbie and Anna travelled to Costa Rica to tour cocoa bean farms and decide on a supplier to start with. (And I would say they selected quite well after tasting their product).
As I said earlier, making chocolate from beans is actually an incredibly complex process that takes time to do correcly. The first step is to open the pods and let the beans, which are covered in pulp, ferment for about 2-5 days. The fermentation is an important step in reducing bitterness, and pretty much making beans actually taste like chocolate.
Roasting is the next step, which Ritual Chocolate does in two commercial convection ovens. Good cocoa beans don’t need to be roasted for a long time, just enough to get rid of some of the acetic acid formed during fermentation. In fact, dark roasting is a technique that can be used to make up for sub-par beans. I was surprised to hear that the temperature used to roast chocolate beans is much lower than that for coffee beans – about 230 degrees maximum.
The step after roasting involved what turned out to be my favorite piece of equipment during the tour. The Winnower. (It may not officially be capitalized, but to me, it deserves a capital). I’ve always been fascinated by large, pretty much single function machines used in making food, and I loved the Winnower. This particular one is over 100 years old, and from Germany, by way of Scharffenberger. Its job is to gently crack the shell, and separate the nibs out from the shells and germ.
Next is a trip to the corona mill, which is basically a grain mill used to break up the nibs and turn them into a paste. After that is a few hours in the melangeur (French for mixer), where fair trade cane sugar, and only sugar, is added. (The addition of only sugar and no cocoa butter is worth noting. Large-scale manufacturers use a much quicker, brute force method to crush the beans to speed things up, and as a result, have to add cocoa butter to their chocolate to make it smoother. Since Ritual Chocolate doesn’t rush the process, their chocolate is smooth enough that they don’t need to add cocoa butter.) Since crystals in the chocolate won’t dissolve on their own as there’s no water involved, the chocolate then spends about 8 hours in a roll mill to break the crystals up.
After the roll mill, the conch is used to evaporate out more of the acids, and to smooth out the texture, which takes about 4 days. The motion of the conch is sort of like a gentle folding or whipping. Particles in the chocolate which were stretched by the rolling mill are rounded out during this phase. Large-scale manufacturers generally use a type of conch designed for faster results, but Robbie and Anna use a slower longitudinal conch, as they feel that this step is critical in developing the flavor of the chocolate.
Once the chocolate is out of the conch, they age it for at least a month in solid blocks. Right after a batch is done, it has a lot of harshness, so aging is used to mellow it out. Once the chocolate has aged and is ready for forming into its final shape, the last step is to temper it. Cocoa can form 6 different crystals, which all have different melting points. The crystal you want in chocolate is the number 5 crystal, which is the one that melts in your mouth. Untempered chocolate has all 6 crystals, so does not melt in your mouth, but it can be used for drinking chocolate. (This explains very well some chocolate that I picked up in Seattle over Labor Day – I realized as we were listening to the explanation that I had purchased untempered chocolate while in Pike Place Market!). During tempering, the chocolate is heated to a temperature high enough to break up all the crystals, then cooled enough to form number 4 and number 5 crystals, and then heated just enough to get rid of the number 4 crystals. Tempering also helps the chocolate come out of the molds better.
We were lucky enough to be able to try samples of the chocolate in various states of production, and it was fascinating to see the progression from the strong, almost wine-like taste of the roasted beans, to the more complex and mellower chocolate in the conch phase, to the smooth, I-really-want-more taste of the tempering phase. The finished samples we tried were fairly small disks, but the chocolate was so rich and satisfying that you didn’t need more. Which is one of the best things about really good chocolate (or any really good food for the most part). If the taste is richer, fuller, and more intriguing, and the texture is just perfect, you don’t need massive amounts of it to feel like you have experienced it. Yes, this kind of craft chocolate costs more than mass-produced chocolate. But it’s like spending extra money on real crab instead of buying imitation crab (aka ‘krab’). The real thing is going to be so much better than the fake is. (Especially when it’s something as important as chocolate!). A bar of fine chocolate can last a least a couple of weeks in our house, because we just take a bit of it at a time, and it turns out that’s enough.
Ritual Chocolate can be purchased in several coffee shops and specialty stores around Boulder, as well as Alfalfa’s. This is an awesome company run by a couple of great chocolatiers, so buy local, and enjoy some great chocolate!