Bean to Bar
Bean sourcing is difficult and there are no guarantees; there are many, many co-ops, plantations and small producers. It takes a lot of work to build a relationship and a lot of quality control to assure that the beans are up to our standards. In addition, we put our money where our values are. We work with producers in whom we have confidence in terms of 100% organic ingredients and fair treatment / pay for all of their employees and farmers. After that, we spend time to understand the bean and then turn it into chocolate with no special additives or preservatives for use in our single origin bars and blends for our confections.
Sourcing and Origin Handling
Visiting farms, inspecting cacao fermentation partners and meeting all the people involved in bringing cacao beans from the pod to our door is very important for us.
We want to be sure that our purchases are supporting farmers and enacting positive changes in farmers' lives, the environment and the countries in which the cacao is grown.
On our recent trip to Haiti, we saw the positive changes our partnerships were making—reorienting farmers toward proper management of land/cultivation, bringing a crop with steady pay and demand to the region creating consistency, driving out speculators and other people who thrive on the chaos of the lack of a high quality partner for farmers.
We currently only source from Central and South America, specifically Haiti, The Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Ecuador to assure we can visit frequently and maintain our relationships.
When we receive beans after an ocean voyage, there is no guarantee of anything! We open bags, inspect the beans for damage and pests that may have come along for the ride.
In addition, we look at the interior of beans themselves to assure proper fermentation (80% is about ideal) and to prevent common defects. Over or fully fermented beans decrease flavor. It's all a balance! (although we never want mold!)
Once the initial inspection is complete, we start a manual sorting process to remove any leaves, rocks, glass, debris. We have even heard of people finding glass and bullets in their beans. If you are a big industrial processor, imagine what goes into the chocolate! They don't have time or the ability to sort and go through beans, instead focusing on processing huge quantities rather than quality.
This is an extra step we take and it ensures the flavor and quality of the beans as we turn them into chocolate.
For each origin, each region and each harvest we go through a process to determine the optimal roast to give the perfect flavor to each chocolate. We typically start with a slow roast and take beans out every few minutes to assess flavor. We pick our favorites and then make small test batches to see how the final results will taste.
The typical rule of thumb is that a short roast will keep more distinct flavors (fruits, nuts, marshmallow, even tobacco!) and a long roast will develop a deeper, dark chocolate flavor. We meet as a group and then decide what will work best. For our blend, we try to balance each origin and flavor to give a nice balanced chocolate.
Aside from flavor development, roasts also kill pathogens that ride along with the beans. Cacao is a plant product that is fermented in a minimally covered building (no windows or doors) and then dried outdoors.
Some companies produce 'raw' or 'virgin' cacao. We think the roasting process is critical to reducing pathogens and fully developing a delicious chocolate flavor.
After the roasting process is complete, we let the beans cool for 6-8 hours and then go to the winnower. The roasting process dries out the beans to allow the husk to be separated from the nib more easily (the nib is 100% chocolate!) Our winnower uses the weight difference between the husk and the nib by applying just enough suction that the husk is pulled out while the heavier nibs drop down into buckets.
Getting a good, clean nib means better flavor. Husks make the final chocolate more bitter. And who likes picking husks out of their teeth!?
Grind / Conche / Aging
The grinding process applies significant force to the nibs which breaks the cell walls and releases the fat. Nibs are about 50% fat (the actual percentage varies by batch) and the friction heats the nibs which liquifies the fat. We then add sugar and grind for 24 hours to reduce the particle size below 50 microns—the size at which your tongue can no longer feel roughness. Chocolate is a suspension so the grinding process also fully envelopes the sugar particles in chocolate. We also add extra cocoa butter during this process to give a better mouth feel.
The conching process immediately follows the grind and continually mixes the chocolate while the friction keeps it heated. This exposes the chocolate to air and allows many volatile compounds to evaporate. It smells really great in the shop while we do this! But it also results in a smooth tasting chocolate without a lot of bite!
After the conche is complete (we do it for about 60 hours), we pour out blocks of chocolate and age them. During the first 30-60 days, the flavor changes significantly. The flavors slowly meld together and the flavor tends to mellow. Just what we are looking for!
Temper / Mold
Chocolate is tempered in a similar process to tempering glass or steel. The fat in chocolate crystalizes and each crystal type has different properties. We use several different types of machines to change the temperature of the chocolate in a specific way to form the crystal type we want and melt those that we don't.
Type V crystals have a nice snap, a shiny finish and melt just below body temperature so when you take a bite, the chocolate releases all of it's goodness on your tongue while it melts.
All told, chocolate is a testament to human ingenuity. And, regardless of your beliefs, it's magical that one specific crystal type of the fat just happens to have properties that make chocolate an amazing food to experience!