Growing and Harvesting the Beans
After cocoa trees are planted, it takes three to five years of care before the first yield is produced. The trees produce pods throughout the year, with large harvests typically occurring twice annually. When the crop is ready, farmers harvest the pods by cutting them from the trees and opening them to release the cocoa seeds inside. This process is done manually, as the use of machines may harm the plants and diminish the crop.
Once the seeds are collected, they are laid out in large trays and covered with banana leaves to ferment. Fermentation can take anywhere from three to nine days, during which time the seeds turn a dark brown and the flavor develops. Once the seeds are dry, they are packed into burlap sacks and transported to facilities where they are inspected by buyers, purchased, and shipped to factories.
Preparing the Cocoa
Once the beans have reached the processing facility, they are cleaned, inspected, and then sorted for quality control. Beans that pass inspection are roasted in large cylinders to improve their color and flavor. The length of time required for roasting depends on the specific type of bean used and the desired end result. When roasting is complete, the shell of the bean is removed using a winnowing machine, and the cocoa nibs are exposed.
Processors ground the cocoa nibs into a thick liquid called cocoa liquor, or chocolate liquor. The cocoa liquor is pressed to extract cocoa butter, which is later used to make chocolate. The solid cocoa left behind after pressing is pulverized into cocoa powder.
Making the Final Product
The cocoa butter and cocoa powder are combined with other ingredients, usually milk (for milk chocolate), vanilla, sugar, and emulsifying agents, and blended in giant mixers. The mixture then passes through a series of rollers to refine and smooth the mixture. This improves the texture of the finished product. Once this process is complete, the mixture is kneaded to further develop the texture and flavor. This is done by machines and is called conching.
The nearly finished chocolate is then tempered by passing through a heating, cooling, and reheating process to prevent discoloration and ensure the chocolate will melt properly. The final product is then poured into molds, or coated onto nuts or caramel, and cooled in a cooling chamber. Once cooled, the chocolate is removed from the molds, packaged, distributed, and sold to consumers.