How To Make Chocolate

It’s easy to forget that chocolate is a fruit. It’s born on a tree and undergoes several steps that transform the bitter, astringent seed into the rich, flavorful bars that we know.

Let’s take a little time to ponder the botanical story of chocolate and retrace the journey from its tropical origin. The cacao tree (officially, Theobroma cacao; theobroma translates as “food of the gods”), was classified in 1753 by Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus. The most recent genetic research points to the upper Amazon rainforests of South America—near present-day Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru—as its origin. It grows only within a narrow latitudinal band, between 20˚N and 20˚S of the equator. From its origins in South and Central America, cacao cultivation now spans the circumference of the globe within its tropical range. West African countries, namely Ghana and the Ivory Coast, currently provide about 70 percent of the world’s cocoa supply.

The cacao tree is fairly small, commercially bred to grow roughly 9 to 16 feet high. Like grape vines, cacao must often reach six to seven years maturity before producing a full yield of fruit. Its fruit, the cacao pod, develops from flowers that blossom directly from the trunk and thicker branches of the tree, reaching maturity in five to six months (thus sometimes allowing for two harvests per year). Each individual bean is comprised of an outer shell, the germ, and the nib. Conveniently, one pod’s worth of beans produces a 100-gram bar of chocolate

Cultivated cacao beans have traditionally been classified as one of four varieties—the Criollo, Forastero, Trinitario (a hybrid of the previous two), and, more recently, the Nacional. The Forastero dominates world production, accounting for nearly 95 percent of the cacao grown (often referred to as “bulk” cocoa, as opposed to “fine” or “flavor” cocoa, which are generally represented by the Criollo and Trinitario types). New research, however, suggests that with the amount of cross-pollination, hybridization, mutation, and recombination that occurs in cacao fields, it’s rare and increasingly difficult to find any pure forms.

Recent efforts, such as the Heirloom Cacao Preservation initiative, seek to identify and preserve the genetic legacy of prized beans (which they correlate with specific flavors) all over the world. In the last decade scientists have expanded the long-standing simplistic chocolate taxonomy to ten or more genetic clusters, including Amelonado, Contamana, Curaray, Purús, Nanay, Iquitos, Marañon, Guiana, and Beniano. Additionally, there exist dozens of cultivar subspecies and hybrids, which include the previously mentioned Trinitario, the highly prized Porcelana (a variety of Criollo whose beans are white), and “industrial” bred varieties with names like CCN51, developed for higher yields and resistance to disease.

My current hope is to unlearn everything I thought I knew and really try to understand how to tailor my process to the inherent qualities that lie within a specific bean. While we can make some broad objective measurements on what makes a chocolate “good,” I also like the idea that when it comes to origin and varietal, there is no good/bad chocolate, just different chocolate. I like certain profiles (like the fruity banana flavors typical in Peruvian cacao), but I don’t have a favorite.

Among varieties and origins, even the basic composition of the beans may differ. For example, Ecuadorian beans often contain less fat, or cocoa butter, than those grown in the Dominican Republic. Depending on whom you ask, some chocolate-makers will tell you that genetics and terroir account for as much as half of chocolate’s flavor, though there remain several processing steps and opportunities to alter or destroy those inherent characteristics.

How To Make Chocolate

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