In Costa Rica, we did a tour to learn how chocolate is made. Did you know the main ingredient in chocolate comes from a fruit? Did you know part of the process of making chocolate involves natural yeasts and bacteria? We learned several surprising things about chocolate – and of course enjoyed tasting some things as we went.
Jamie created the video above for her blog that shows the basic process. In her video, you can see the cacao fruit – it’s about the shape and size of a football (or a papaya), and it has seeds inside about the size of grapes (the picture below shows the inside of a cacao fruit). We tasted the outside of a seed – you can’t swallow them, but there’s a fruit pulp around them that tastes tropical – kind of like a mango.
Cacao is grown in tropical regions (that is, areas close to the equator), such as here in Costa Rica.
After the fruit pods are harvested, what happens next?
1. The wet, pulpy seeds are fermented – basically, left alone in a warm place. It’s similar to the process of fermenting milk to make yogurt. The natural yeasts and bacteria interact with the cacao beans, typically for four to seven days.
2. Then, the seeds are dried. Here in Costa Rica, they’re dried in the sun.
3. Next, the beans are roasted — just like toasting them in the oven.
4. Then the beans are cracked and de-shelled. Here is a short video (from Jamie’s video) of the machine that separates the shells from the beans.
The shells, which are lighter, are blown away from the heavier beans. After this process, the shells are discarded (and often recycled into mulch for gardens), leaving only the cacao beans, or “nibs.” Here is a photo of the machine that separates the shells from the beans with a lot of blown air.
5. After that, the remaining cacao nibs are ground. Before cacao became a commercial product, they were ground by hand. Now, grinders like the one in the photo above are used. The heat created by the friction from grinding melts the chocolate, creating a smooth liquid.
6. To make chocolate, ingredients such as sugar, milk and vanilla are added. Some chocolate bars show a percentage (like 88 percent or 65 percent). The larger numbers mean that more cacao is added. An 88 percent dark chocolate bar would have more cacao, and a stronger, more bitter chocolate taste. Many dark chocolate bars are about 65 percent cacao. Milk chocolate has a lower percentage of cacao – around 30 percent – and includes milk, vanilla and generally a higher sugar content.
Later, we did some more research, and talked about “fair trade” chocolate. Fair trade is a system that makes sure that farmers are paid a fair amount of money for their cacao beans. It also helps to make sure workers are treated fairly — on some farms, children do a lot of the work, instead of going to school, and fair trade systems work to prevent that.
We also found out that chocolate is a very water-intensive product — meaning it takes a lot of water to produce. Every manufacturer uses a different process and recipe, but it can take 190 gallons of water to make just one chocolate bar.
So we’re going to make sure we look for fair trade chocolates. And we’ll savor our chocolates and enjoy them in moderation, now that we know a little more about what it takes to make it. (It also gives us a good reason not to waste a single bite.)
- These are a few countries where cacao is grown: Costa Rica, Ghana and Indonesia. Find them on a map or globe. Do these countries have anything in common?
- What is the difference between dark chocolate and milk chocolate?
- What is fermentation?
- Here are pictures of the wrapper from a chocolate bar made where we took our tour.
Find a commercially-made candy bar. Can you find cacao (or cocoa) as an ingredient? What other ingredients are added?
Here’s a link to the place where we took our chocolate tour, Café Cabure. There’s a lot of other good information on their website.