INTRODUCTION TO SMALL-SCALE ARTISAN CHOCOLATE PRODUCTION

Artisanal chocolate producers are popping up all over the world and their bars differ wildly from the chocolate we know from most grocery store shelves. Quality over quantity is probably the easiest way to summarise the difference between industrially produced chocolate and small scale bean to bar producers.

The labels on small scale chocolate bars usually highlight the origin of the beans, contain very brief ingredients lists, and their products may shift with the seasons. With industrialised chocolate, consistent flavour all year is everything and you can lean on overpowering ingredients like vanilla, cream, caramel, etc.

Many of the artisan producers, however, rely instead on sensitively processing the high quality beans in order to bring the unique flavour profile out and make incredible chocolate.

In order to understand how important the beans are, this article will show each step in the chocolate-making process from the artisan’s perspective. Of course, making the chocolate is only a part of the equation. To do this, I spent some time with Moksha Chocolate. Moksha is the husband and wife team of Jennifer, a world traveller, and Michael Caines, a horticulturalists. Their business is based in Boulder, Colorado, in the United States.

Sourcing, growing methods, fermentation of the beans, and drying are extremely important steps that impact the flavour of the chocolate but this article will show the chocolate from the eyes of the producer. We will rip open a bag of cacao beans from Belize and watch them transform into a decadent bar of chocolate.

This burlap bag with “BELIZE”  stamped on the side was full of fermented and dried cacao beans.

Sorting

Since small-scale producers use so few beans compared to industrial producers, a few bad beans can have a huge impact on the finished product. Any beans that are broken, misshapen, or mouldy are thrown out prior to roasting.

You’ll occasionally find a stray coffee bean since these bags are used by small scale producers that commonly grow coffee at a slightly higher elevation. When a company processes mountains of cacao beans, a few stray coffee beans don’t mean much for the end product.

Roasting

Some small scale producers use coffee roasting machines, some use rotisserie ovens. At home chocolate makers can use a conventional oven as long as the beans are evenly roasted. This point is critical in the bean to bar process, so a quality oven is a must.

The roasting method varies from producer to producer. Some don’t roast at all and they create what is known as “virgin” chocolate, which highlights the natural flavours of the beans. Some roast extra dark to pull out darker coffee-like notes. Moksha lightly roasts to get the best of both worlds. During the roasting process, the room fills with the smell of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies.

The smell of roasting cacao filled the room!

Cracking

Cracking the beans separates the husk of the bean from the cacao nibs that are nestled inside. The cacao husks are a byproduct of the process but can be used for landscape mulch (keeps dogs away). The nibs are the little treasures we are after.

For this step, the roasted beans are crushed just enough to release the husk from the nibs but winnowing is where the separation occurs. At home, you could lightly roll the beans using a rolling pin or wine bottle to crack the beans.

These beans have cracked after being pulled out of the oven and you can barely see the nibs underneath.
In the middle, crushed cacao beans. To the left, husks. To the right, nibs

Winnowing

 Using a fan and vacuum system, the husks are much lighter than the nibs so the air takes the husks away from all of the nibs. At home, some hobbyists simply use a blow dryer on a low setting to blow the husks from the nibs. Ideally, you end up with pure nibs in one bin and husks in the other.

The husk collection box after winnowing
The nibs after winnowing

Refining

Nibs contain both cacao solids and cacao butter. The ratio of butter to solids varies with the varieties and origins. Some producers will pre-refine by running the nibs through a heavy-duty juicer to crush them. Many artisan producers have a melanger that crushes and smoothes the mixture over the course of 8-24 hours.

Conching mellows out the flavour of the nibs by folding oxygen into the cacao and increasing the heat and friction within the mixture. Conching spins the chocolate for hours or days until you like the flavour and texture of the mixture. This is the part of the bean to bar transformation that people love to see. A vortex of liquid chocolate reminds you of Willy Wonka’s factory.

This is also the step where sugar is incorporated. In Moksha’s dark chocolate bars, the only ingredients are cacao and sugar. The timing of sugar addiction plays a huge role in the final product. If you crush the nibs with sugar from the beginning, you will end up with a chocolate bar with a satin finish. If you add the sugar into the vortex of liquid chocolate, you will get sugar crystals throughout the bar. After adding sugar, the chocolate is done whenever you feel like it.

For inclusion bars, some will add milk for milk chocolate, some add fruit, nuts, spices, more nibs, or for Moksha’s milk chocolate bar, they add coconut milk powder, creating an incredible vegan option. Whenever the flavour has developed to what you want and the sweetness is dialled in, you are ready to temper.

The vortex of molten chocolate in the melanger

Tempering

 If you want a chocolate bar to last on the shelf for more than a few days, tempering is essential. Tempering gives the chocolate a beautiful shine and snap. If you were to take the chocolate straight out of the mixer, put it in a refrigerator, it would solidify and taste incredible and melt quickly in your mouth but it wouldn’t do well at room temp.

Bloom, which looks like freezer burn, would occur which is when fat or sugar migrates throughout the bar. The texture would be more of a dry crumbly bite rather than the melt in your mouth feel we are all after. The goal is to slowly cool the molten chocolate so you can prevent the uneven crystallization of the fats or sugars. You know you’ve tempered correctly when the chocolate is shiny with no streaks and melts slowly in your mouth.

 A neat feature that artisan producers talk about is how chocolate from different origins tempers differently due to varying levels of fat in the beans. A variety of cacao can also impact the fat content of the beans.

Michael tempering the chocolate using the table method (Photo by Brian McDougall)

Molding

This is exactly what it sounds like. Pouring the melted chocolate into a mold so it can solidify into the shape you want. Michael from Moksha spreads the chocolate evenly in the molds and then adds an inclusion like raspberries, blood oranges, pretzels, etc.

A dark chocolate bar from Belize beans with blood orange inclusion

Lastly, Moksha packages their chocolate bars and on the label, you can clearly see where the beans are from and the variety of cacao they are using. Bean to bar producers usually source great beans because the cacao is the primary flavor they are after. Moksha uses the Criollo variety of cacao from a farm in Peru where they source the beans directly. They own a share of the farm in Peru and are completely transparent with their process. Transparency is something we should value as much as the incredible taste of artisan chocolate.

A small sample of their artisan chocolate squares

Many thanks to the people at Moksha for assisting us with this article – please check out their website here.

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