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Chocolate From Bean to You

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The unique taste of chocolate delights the palate of people the world over. Where does chocolate come from, and how is it produced? Come with us as we travel through the history of chocolate.

BOTANISTS say that wild cacao trees likely grew in the Amazon and Orinoco valleys of South America thousands of years ago. The Maya may have been the first to cultivate cacao (also called cocoa), which they took with them when they migrated to the Yucatán. The Aztec royalty thrived on the bitter chocolate drink concocted by mixing ground cacao beans with fermented corn or wine, which was then served in golden cups. It is said that the Aztec Emperor Montezuma drank more than 50 cups of chocolate a day.

Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) was much more interested in the golden cups than the liquid inside, although he did note that the Aztecs used cacao beans as money. He wasted no time in establishing cacao plantations. These plantations of “brown gold” paid off, and Spain essentially controlled the cacao bean market into the 18th century.

The Spaniards took the beans to Haiti, Trinidad, and the West African island of Bioko. One pod of beans was taken from that island to mainland Africa, and now a cacao trade flourishes in four West African nations.
Chocolate in Europe

In the 16th century, Cortés introduced the chocolate drink of the Aztecs to the Spanish court. The ladies of the Spanish royalty secretly sipped their spiced and sometimes peppered beverage, keeping it to themselves. In time, the drink was introduced to the upper echelons of European society.

Europeans were enamored with the novel taste and also the supposed healing properties of chocolate. In 1763 the brewers of British beer and ale felt so threatened by the soaring popularity of chocolate that they called for legislation to restrict its manufacture. Fierce competition in the chocolate trade led some to add starches to make the chocolate go further. To intensify the color of the chocolate, the English even added a bit of brick dust! The demand for better and tastier chocolate kept growing.

The industrial revolution introduced mechanization into the manufacturing process of chocolate. When the steam engine began to be used to power chocolate mills, chocolate went from being hand-ground to machine-ground. Chocolate experienced an even greater change in 1828 when the Dutch chemist Coenraad van Houten learned how to separate the cocoa powder and butter from the paste of the ground cacao beans. As a result, innovators later created the precise combination of chocolate liquor (a thick dark paste), cocoa butter, and sugar to produce solid “eating chocolate.”

In the latter half of the 1800’s, the Swiss developed a process that further refined chocolate. In this process, known as conching, the paste of ground beans is passed between porcelain disks for many hours, creating a silky chocolate that melts on the tongue. Connoisseurs claim that the best chocolate is conched for no less than 72 hours.

Many clever entrepreneurs, such as Hershey, Kohler, Lindt, Nestlé, Peter, Suchard, and Tobler—names you may recognize from chocolate boxes today—made significant contributions to the chocolate industry, either by inventing more efficient machinery or by refining chocolate recipes.

A cacao tree
The Source of Chocolate

The tropical cacao tree grows best within 20 degrees north or south of the equator. It thrives in a shady and humid climate. The trees produce flowers and fruit all year long. The fruit of the cacao tree, a melonlike pod, grows directly from the trunk and lower branches.
A machete and pods

What happens on cacao plantations at harvesttime? The ripe pods are cut from the tree using machetes or bamboo poles fitted with sharp knives. The pods are split open to reveal between 20 and 50 beans embedded in a white bittersweet pulp. The beans are then scooped out of the husk by hand. During harvesttime, harvesters often work from dawn till dusk splitting the pods and scooping out the beans. The beans are then covered and left for several days. It is during this stage that the pulp ferments and chemical reactions turn the cacao beans chocolate brown. Next, the beans are dried, either by spreading them out in the hot sun or using hot-air blowers. Drying preserves them for shipping and storage.

There are basically two types of cacao beans, the Forastero and the Criollo. The Forastero is the standard, or base, bean, which makes up the greater part of the world’s production. The main cultivation areas are in West Africa, Brazil, and Southeast Asia. The Criollo is the flavor bean. It is cultivated on a much smaller scale in Central America, Ecuador, and Venezuela. It adds the nutty or floral nuances to chocolate.
Dried cacao beans

After the drying process, the cacao beans are ready to be packed into sacks and shipped to chocolate manufacturers around the world, mainly in Europe and North America. About two handfuls of these dried cacao beans will make one pound of chocolate candy. It is difficult to imagine that the bitter seeds of the cacao fruit can be transformed into the delicate confections that we find in a box of chocolates, but the process has essentially not changed for centuries.
The Making of Chocolate

Upon arrival at the factory, the beans are cleaned and sorted. In much the same way as coffee beans are roasted to bring out their best flavor, the cacao beans are now roasted to bring out the full chocolate aroma. The beans are then cracked open. The dark brown particles inside, the nibs, are the basis for all cocoa and chocolate.

The nibs are ground to produce a thick dark paste, called chocolate liquor. When hardened, it is sold as baking chocolate. The liquor is then subjected to high pressure—the process that Van Houten invented—and cocoa butter is extracted, leaving a residue of cocoa powder. If extra cocoa butter is added to chocolate liquor, the tasty blend is on its way to becoming the eating chocolate that we are familiar with. Conching and other refining processes work together to produce the type of chocolate that consumers prefer today.
White, milk, and dark chocolate

So the next time you enjoy the rich, velvety flavor of chocolate, take a moment to think about the long journey it has made from the bitter bean growing in the Tropics to the appealing chocolate confection before you.

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