The cacao tree's average altitude is 500 cm and flowers twice a year. Not all flowers become a cacao pod. Productivity depends on the age of the tree. After 5 years, trees are more productive and can yield around 3 kilos of cacao per year. The trees only grow in tropical forests between 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator.
The fruit of the cacao tree is a football-shaped pod that comes in various colors depending on the genetics and degree of ripeness. The pod ranges from 8 to 14 inches long and grows directly from the tree's main branches and trunk. Inside the pod we can find between 10 and 60 cacao beans or seeds depending on the size of the fruit. To make one of our 80 gram chocolate bars we need around 30-35 cacao beans.
The trees yield three main varieties:
1. Criollo: Called "the prince of cacaos". Criollo is a rare bean grown mainly in Central America and the Caribbean. Its pod is soft, thin and light colored. Only a very small percentage of the world's production comes is this fragrant bean.
2. Forastero: More commonly found and more productive, Forastero trees have thicker pods and strong chocolate taste. Most cocoa is of this variety and it thrives in Brazil and Africa. It comes from the word "foreigner" because it is not the original Central American criollo variety.
3. Trinitario: This cross of Criollo and Forastero, which originated in Trinidad, is easily cultivated. It has smooth pods and flavorful beans.
Following a tradition of more than a thousand years, workers in the indigenous communities harvest the beans by hand very carefully. They can't climb the fragile trees so they use machetes to slice off the lower pods and long handled mitten shaped steel knives to snip the higher ones. The fruit is harvested when it's yellow. After gathering the pods the farmer scoops out the white pulp and seeds. There are between 10-60 seeds or cocoa beans inside the pod. The seeds are so bitter that only humans eat them and only after much preparation at that.
Fermenting is where the seed first begins to take on the qualities we recognize as chocolate. After removing the seeds from the pods, the farmer places them into large wooden boxes or rake them into piles and cover them with banana leaves. The seeds ferment by heating as high as 125 degrees. During the yeasting process, the seeds' sugars convert to acid and enzymes break down the bitterness to produce important chocolate flavor precursors. Then, the seeds are dried in the sun and the best ones are hand selected to send to us! This step dries the beans and tames their bitter taste.
Roasting cocoa beans is an important step in the process of developing chocolate flavor and color. The techniques used for roasting cocoa beans need to be suited to the type of bean being roasted. Particular attention needs to be given to the size of the bean, its plumpness, the moisture content, the variety and the bean's unique flavor profile.
The part of the bean needed to make chocolate is the nib. To get this, the freshly roasted beans are cooled, then manually cracked in a Mayan stone mortar. Furthermore, winnowing is used to separate the thin brittle shells from the nib.
The nibs are now manually ground into a rough cacao paste, properly known as cacao liquor. Then it is mechanically ground between grinding stones inside a refining or mixing machine. The pressure and friction of the stones melts the natural fat inside the nib to a liquid form. This liquid is called chocolate liquor. The next step in chocolate making is to mix the chocolate liquor and all the other ingredients together into a paste. The mixture then undergoes the conching process. Conching is a kneading or smoothing process used to further develop the flavor and texture of chocolate.
Once the mixture is conched, it is then transferred to the tempering machine, where it is passed through a heating, cooling and a reheating process. This prevents discoloration and fat bloom on the finished chocolates by preventing certain crystalline formations of cocoa butter from developing. This process is not only done to better preserve the chocolate, but to give it a smooth and creamy texture, as well as its shiny look.
The liquid chocolate is then poured from the tempering machine into moulds to give it the desired shape.
This process is done to solidify the liquid chocolate into chocolate bars. The time it takes depends on the type of chocolate. The greater the percentage of cacao, the less time it takes for it to solidify.
Last but not least, the chocolate bars are wrapped and ready to go!