Chocolate begins its life as a tree that grows best in wet lowland tropics. Because of this, countries like Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Brazil and Malaysia are the top harvesting countries. To start the process, workers gather the seed pods from the trunks and branches of the cocoa trees. These pods are about the size of a football and are orange when ripe. The reason machetes are used to gently separate the pods from the tree is because machines are not nearly as precise or gentle. Using such unreliable means could easily result in irreversible damage to the flower clusters that regularly grow the pods. Once collected, the pods head to a processing house where they are split open and the seeds are removed. Each pod contains up to 50 unsweet and not brown cocoa seeds.
Next on the list is either putting the beans into shallow, heated trays or covering them with banana leaves. Because of the climate they grow in, it is usually hot enough for the beans to be fermented by the sun alone. The beans are sporadically stirred so as to make sure all ferment equally. It is a process that lasts up to 8 days and turns the beans into the brown color we know and love.
Before the now fermented beans can be loaded into sacks and shipped worldwide, they must be dried. This process allows them to withstand the trials of travel. For this step, they are simply left uncovered in the sunlight. In about a week, they are half their original weight and ready to ship.
This part of the process marks the halfway point. It is in this stage that candy companies and producers of chocolate begin to deviate from any one set of rules. Even still, there are three initial steps that almost all companies follow. This begins as soon as the beans reach a manufacturing plant to be turned into chocolate.
The first is known as roasting and winnowing. Roasting the beans, like coffee, brings out the latent flavor and color that we are used to. The outer shell is removed and the inner meat of the bean is broken down into smaller pieces known as “nibs”. Winnowing is the second phase of this step where the nibs are sorted by size as they pass through a variety of sieves.
The second involves grinding up the nibs. They are mashed up until they create a “cocoa liquor” that is more commonly referred to as unsweetened chocolate. Because the grinding requires energy, it produces the heat that melts the cocoa fat, turning the solid chunks into a liquid. Depending on its final destination, some form of milk is added at this point to create unsweetened milk chocolate.
The third and final step is what leads to the chocolate’s ultimate form. The cocoa liquor is refined even more to guarantee the desired particle size is achieved in a thorough consistency throughout. Once this happens, the cocoa is mixed with cocoa butter in differing degrees to create specific types of chocolate. Milk chocolate, for instance, requires a much different make-up than dark chocolate. Once the blend is complete, it is molded, hardened, packaged and sold.