Do We Take Chocolate Makers For Granted?

Posted on April 29, 2014 by  Lee Mccoy | 0 Comments

Although the Cadbury TV advert launching their new Fair Trade chocolate may make us think the process of chocolate making is a magical one, the truth couldn't be more different. Cocoa beans just don't jump off cacao trees, as depicted in the Zingolo advert. They don't get thrown into the air and transform them into something you will see on the shelves. The process is far more complicated than that and doesn't do the hard work chocolate makers endure any justice. To produce the final chocolate bar not only takes several months of time from start to finish, but also a massive amount of trial, error and a massive amount of frustration. To show my appreciation for all the last nights, early mornings and 'wasted' beans, I've gone through the chocolate making process to show how they create the wonderful flavours you'll spend good money to enjoy.

Far too often retailers, bloggers and journalists (and even some chocolate makers) will say that for a given cocoa bean from a single origin, you will experience a given flavour profile. Given the numerous stages of the chocolate making process and how they will change from country to country and maker to maker, this simply isn't the truth. There are so many variables outside of a chocolate maker's control that it is naive at best, and misleading at worst, for a retailer to assert this. And here's why: (Jump straight to the summary)

Factors Outside of the Chocolate Maker's Control

The BBC Programme "Business Boomers" profiled the coffee shop industry and how the head of one in particular sourced coffee beans from around the world and Gennaro Pelliccia from Costa Coffee altered the balance of beans from these different origins to produce a consistent flavour profile, and this made me think about cocoa.

Around the same time I had the Blyss Chocolate jars of 100% cocoa from different vintages where you are able to differentiate between the wet season of March 2013 to the dry season of the same year and the dry season of the following year. Not only is there a difference between the dry and wet seasons within the same year, but also of different years of the same season. One of the reasons that temperature can have a direct impact on the bean is that lower temperatures reduce hardness of the cocoa butter which, in turn, slows down the fermentation process and changes the optimal timing for the production of acids outside and inside the cocoa bean.

Chocolate makers will alter their approach to this natural variation in two ways. They will either try and alter their production processes to try and create a consistent flavour profile for the same origin over time so that customers will not notice the difference in the beans or they will embrace the difference and state on their packaging that the chocolate is made with a bean from a different season. An example of this approach is Daintree Estates which label their bars with the particular harvest their chocolate is made from.

You may be wondering why a season will make a difference. The answer is that there are many reasons. Not only is cocoa highly sensitive to climatic conditions, with changes in the amount of sunshine, precipitation and temperature having a direct effect on the development of the tree and its fruit - just as it does for any plant, not least in your own garden. The weather also affects the balance of present microbes during the fermentation process as well as the profile of the drying stage of the cocoa.

Pod Storage
Many forget about how cocoa pods are stored prior to fermentation and how that may affect flavour. Smaller farmers may take longer to bring their harvested pods to the fermentation stage and this will affect the length of time required during fermentation and will also alter the amount of pulp present. Also the manner of storage will affect flavour. Storing then under artificial sheeting which doesn't allow the air to circulate will negatively affect the flavour, whilst allowing them to rest for a few days with air circulation will not harm the flavour. Dr. Smilja Lambert also suggests (pdf) that storing pods beforehand allows for higher temperatures to be reached during fermentation.

Chocolate makers also have to cope with actually different fermenters. After the beans have been harvested they are fermented in heaps, boxes or baskets. They may also be fermented by hand or using mechanisation. It is not a given that all beans over time will be fermented in the same way, not least with the same environmental conditions. To cope with this chocolate makers will have to roast and conch in their usual way for that given bean/origin/estate combination and tweak to get the most out of the beans.

Around the cocoa bean is, on the simplest level, a pulp. It is this pulp that contains around 10-13% sugars, around 8-10% salts, 1-2% citric acid and around 85% (source: Dr Smilka Lambert) water that reacts with the bacteria and yeast to intact the first stage of the fermentation process. A few groups remove this pulp by washing which greatly affects the flavour.

The second stage turns the alcoholic 'soup' into acetic acid and it is this that penetrates and effectively 'kills' it and creates the building blocks for flavour.

Each origin will have their own approach to fermentation. African origins may have many different approaches with fermenting at up to 1000kg at a time to turning twice, once or never during three to five days. Whilst in Brazil they may ferment for longer with fewer beans and turn more frequently. What's more, the actual method of fermentation affects the length of time required for fermentation.

What's more, the amount of beans fermented at any one time will also greatly affect the flavour as significantly more acids are produced as they are less able to drain away.

Given there are so many different variables in this stage from the available bacteria, to aeration to the length of time the process takes that, again, chocolate makers have to react to this use the inherent chemical construct of the bean to develop the required flavours.

The drying process can be seen as an extension of the fermentation process in that as long as heat and moisture is present, the development of those flavour pre-cursors will continue. The exact nature of the drying process can greatly affect the final flavour of the chocolate in that a slow drying process allows for the acetic acid and lactic which were created during the fermentation process to evaporate through the husk. The nature of oxidisation during this process is important to the final flavour potential of the beans.

It seems that every origin has a different approach to drying from rudimentary wooden racks, substantial tables, the floor and mechanical drying. Papua New Guinea dryers may even use wood or diesel fired dryers to quicken the process which can dramatically (and not always positively) affect the flavour given that the level of acidity often isn't reduced sufficiently enough as their isn't sufficient time to allow for the acids to escape.

Another issue is that chocolate makers encounter that isn't within their control is the storage of beans during their shipment to the country of final manufacturer. The cocoa bans can be contaminated by chemicals and other items in close proximity. Furthermore, they can be greatly affected by damp and temperature. The chocolate maker will have to decide to try and work with the beans or reject them.

Allied this point is that if you do not by direct from cocoa farmers then you may be getting beans of a lower quality or different nature to the ones you were expecting. This is why it is important for bean-to-bar chocolate makers to work directly with growers.


Factors Within the Chocolate Maker's Control

To my mind, this is the most important part of the process within the chocolate maker's control - purely because I have fallen out of love with 'dark roast' chocolate - which is chocolate made with cocoa beans which have had a lengthy roasting time. One example of this is the new Salt's Chocolate bar which tasted like peanuts because Katie 'over-roasted' the beans. Another example is the Pralus Chuao (in particular) and Pralus bars in general.

During the roasting process a number of compounds are affected by the length and temperature of the roast (the protocol). Smilja Lambert has studied how the roast protocol affects the flavour of chocolate and a higher the temperature for a given length of fermentation allows for a greater quantity of a particular acid. In short, it is down to the chocolate maker how they roast their cocoa beans that have a direct influence on how the incumbent acids are 'processed' to produce flavour. Depending on their desired outcome, they will alter the roasting protocol. They don't always get it right, even though there are just two main variables. There is a great deal of trial and error - especially given the chemical profile of the beans relate to future stages of the chocolate making process.


This has become is a controversial stage given the recent trials of 'Whole Bean Chocolate'. Many have called this a sacrilegious approach given to the various recorded health issues. That is a debate to be had, but is outside the remit of this post. It would be remiss of us, however, if we excluded this process from the review as it does affect the final flavour, texture and 'quality' of the chocolate.

This is another stage that is often omitted from commentary, but is a startlingly obvious one. How much sugar and what type of sugar used will, of course, greatly affect the resultant flavour of the chocolate. How much sugar is used is determined by the flavour profile of the chocolate 'cake' given the maker's desired final flavour profile. This is why some dark chocolate is made with 70%, some with 72% and the one with 73.5% (by Claudio Corallo).

Also during this stage the chocolate maker will decide on how much cocoa butter to include (if it was separated in the grinding stage), which again affects the intensity of the chocolate. As we've noted elsewhere, not all 100% chocolate has the same intensity given the different balance of cocoa butter to solids.


Here the chocolate 'cake' is mixed, stirred and aerated to bring the particle size down and 'work out' some of the harsher edges to the acidity present. The chocolate maker will alter how long this process takes given the types of beans used, the roasting protocol and the desired flavour profile. Some will even display on the packaging how long the chocolate was conched for. The Chocolate Tree, for example conch their 60% Arriba for 100 hours whilst Benoit Hihant conch their 50% Trinitario Fleur de Sel for 70 hours and Hotel Chocolat conch their Madagascar 72% for 45 hours. In fact a good look around their 'region' map shows how they change their conch time by the cocoa % present and the origin.

Coco Beans
We shouldn't forget the most important of ingredients: the cocoa bean. It isn't often the case that a chocolate maker will find themselves in possession of a sack or two, not knowing where they came from or what strain they are and then make fantastic chocolate from them. Chocolate makers will harass their contacts for interesting, flavoursome cocoa beans which match a profile they have in mind. They may also decide they want to explore a different 'origin' to them and try and locate growers with the right strain and suitable post-harvest processing.

Katie visited the Chocoa trade fair in Amsterdam to build her contacts and find suppliers. Other makers will make regular visits to various estates, farms and plantations to find suitable cocoa. They expend a great deal of energy and effort to secure the best beans and should be applauded for this.

What was it you said?
Essentially a chocolate maker is an artist. They will use the materials given to them to produce beautiful art. Sometimes the landscape they have before them will be of a wet and windy vista, whilst other times they will have a colourful, esoteric vista that has to be prized out for only a few to enjoy. The crux of it is the manner is that the beans one chocolate maker may be from the same origin or the same estate but differing conditions over time, not only environmental but also production-wise will test the maker's ability. How they react will be related to their understanding of the cocoa bean and their connection with it. The resultant flavour you experience is not only dependent on the raw materials and their skill, but also their vision. So the next time you compare chocolates from the same origin and have differing views, have a think what causes that flavour difference and consider if the chocolate maker wanted to achieve something unique with it or if all the other factors outside of their control has had a greater impact on the flavour.

All images sourced from my own photography or Wikipedia except the winnower image which is by Leslie Seaton from the Theo Chocolate Factory Tour album on Flickr and used with attribution.

And this is a related, and highly important question I'd love to hear your views on (please do visit the Direct Cacao Facebook page to add your views:


  • There are many factors usually outside of a chocolate maker's direct control:
    • The season the cocoa beans are harvested cause the beans to have different flavour potential from the climate the beans grew in and the climatic conditions they are fermented.
    • How long and how the cocoa pods are stored also affects the flavour
    • Fermentation is one of the most important processes for creaming the available flavours.
    • Slowly sun drying is best, forcing the drying of the cocoa beans via fire or propane will greatly affect the available flavours
    • Some chocolate makers are able to directly control those processes when they own the cacao and directly employ the workers
    • How the cocoa beans are transported to the maker can also affect the flavour and quality of beans (mould etc.).
  • There are a number of factors within the control of the chocolate maker:
    • Roasting - the length of time and temperature at which the cocoa beans are roasted
    • Winnowing - often a moot point and one open to debate.
    • Mixing - how much sugar and other ingredients are used
    • Conching - how long the process is carried out for will affect the vibrancy of the chocolate
    • Cocoa beans - the chocolate maker will usually take a great deal of time sourcing the right cocoa beans.
  • Chocolate just doesn't just 'happen' as if by magic. It is a slide rule of complicated and inter-related factors. A great chocolate maker will instinctively know how the individual stages of the chocolate making process affect later stages and the likely cause of a particular flavour feature. New chocolate makers have a very steep learning curve to gain this knowledge.
  • As consumers we can only assume we know what the chocolate maker was trying to achieve and we have the choice to appreciate what they have made or not.

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