Part 1: Cocoa? Where does this popular powder actually come from?
Over the last few months we have been providing you with regular updates about the progress on the construction site of our new solar-powered chocolate factory in rural Suhum, Ghana. As the construction is finally completed and we can hopefully start with the production of our chocolate bars, we would like to take the opportunity to launch a new mini-series.
Over the next few weeks we would like to show you exclusive insights into the relevant processes of chocolate production.
Currently, more than 70% of the cocoa traded worldwide comes from West Africa. Yet the cocoa fruit is actually not a native fruit of the West African flora. But how did it end up there and became one of the most important export goods? The cocoa tree has its origins in Central America, more precisely in today’s South Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. There it was already harvested by the Mayas and Aztecs and used as a powder in drinks. In 1528 the Spanish captain Hernando Cortez presented the bean to the Spanish royal family as a souvenir from his travels. As a result, the cocoa bean became increasingly popular in Europe from the 16th century onwards, which is why alternative growing areas were sought. Thus, in 1824, the Portuguese brought the cocoa fruit to Africa, where cultivation — initially in Gabon — produced excellent results.
From the 19th century onwards, cocoa was also cultivated in Ghana. Ghana lies in the so-called cocoa belt — an area that spans four continents and offers ideal conditions for cocoa cultivation. The plant requires high humidity and plenty of rain at temperatures as constant as possible between 25 and 30 Celsius. In addition, the cocoa tree is a shade tree and needs larger trees around it to provide shade. The West African country, together with the Ivory Coast, now produces more than two thirds of the cocoa beans grown worldwide. Of the approximately 800,000 Ghanaian’s registered as farmers or tenants, 460,000 are cocoa farmers. Ghana earns about 70 percent of its export earnings from cocoa farming.
Part 2: Cocoa liquid and cocoa butter
The production of the chocolate starts with cocoa liquid and cocoa butter blocks, which we get from our partner Chocomac. Chocomac takes over the pre-processing of the cocoa beans for us. The cocoa liquid and cocoa butter blocks go into two separate melters and are processed. Then the liquid and butter are put into the mixer. There, up to 800kg of ingredients can be mixed in the right proportion. The blender stands on a very large scale – so the ingredients, e.g. sugar, can be added in the right quantities according to weight.
Part 3: Two-roller mill to five-roller mill
From the blender, the chocolate mixture is transported via a conveyor belt further into the two-roller mill. The rollers in the two-roller mill run against each other and the chocolate mass is pressed through the rollers. From the two-roller mill it continues to the five-roller mill, where the mass is pressed upwards in a spiral between the rollers. The special thing about the five-roller mill is that the distance between the rollers becomes smaller and smaller towards the top, so that the mass finally has the correct particle size (17 microns, which is about 0.017 millimetres).
Part 4: Conching – how good chocolate gets its unique taste
The next part of our mini-series takes us to the process of conching. Imagine the following scenario: You bite into a piece of chocolate, you notice the intense aroma of the cocoa…and all of a sudden your facial features begin to contract. The chocolate tastes sour. What happened? In this case the chocolate was not conched properly or not conched at all.
But what is conching? Simply put, conching is the process in which the fermented cocoa – which is necessary to obtain a first-class product – is heated by various temperature shocks in a way that the undesirable parts of the flavors and acids are “sweated out” of the cocoa mass.
The conche (as the machine is called) of our new factory has a capacity of 3 tons. However, since our chocolate mixer can only produce 800kg of chocolate mass, several mixing cycles are performed before the conche can be filled.
Imagine our employees working all day to fill the conche and then, as the crowning glory of the day, start the conching process.
How long does this process usually take? That entirely depends on the type of chocolate to be produced! For example, our fairafric chocolate with milk takes six to seven hours, while our fairafric 80% dark chocolate is conched for up to 20 hours to achieve its unique taste!
Part 5: Chocolate recipe and the importance of fat content
As our post last week showed, the unique taste of our chocolate is created in the conche. It is a science of its own to adjust the perfect temperature, speed and duration. In the recipe of the chocolate it is precisely defined when the temperature must be lowered or raised. This procedure has such a great influence on the taste of the chocolate that two chocolate bars with the exact same ingredients but different conching processes can taste completely different. You may also have wondered why the conching process for dark chocolate takes so much longer than that for chocolate with milk? Because of the lower fat content of the chocolate mass with milk, the mass is not liquid. As a result, there is more surface area available for oxygen to combine with – it oxidises much better than the more liquid dark chocolate mass. However, our dark chocolate is also difficult to make because the maximum fat content that the chocolate mass can have in order to be effectively crushed in the five-roller mill is 32%. However, a higher percentage of cocoa butter is added to our 80% chocolate (54% fat content) than to other varieties, which means that the cocoa mass is unsuitable for the five-roller mill. Therefore we refine the cocoa butter in a hand mixer until the particle size is compatible with the rest of the mass and add it to the rest of the mass only in the conche.
Part 6: The impact of the roasting profile on the taste of the chocolate
We have already learned a lot about the conche in the last few weeks and to what extent it is related to the unique taste of our chocolate. Our new chocolate bars from the solar-powered chocolate factory are much softer and smoother in taste than the bars from our old factory. This is mainly due to the fact that Chocomac and Niche have different roasting profiles which affect the characteristic of the cocoa liquor. Niche uses a medium to high roasting profile, while Chocomac’s beans tend to be roasted at lower temperatures. Chocomac’s cocoa liquor has its own characteristics, which contribute to the creaminess of our chocolate. In addition, we conch the cocoa liquor a second time as soon as it arrives, so that it becomes even creamier and softer. Besides these different roasting profiles, our machines are newer and more efficient in processing the chocolate.
Part 7: The perfect temperature regulation of chocolate
It ist just after the coaching process, that our chocolate production splits into two cycles. One is chocolate with milk and the other one dark chocolate. There is only one production cycle up to the point of conching. We always first produce chocolate with a high cocoa content and then chocolate with a low cocoa content. This means our 80 % cocoa chocolate at the beginning, 70 % cocoa chocolate and finally 43 % cocoa chocolate with milk. Then the entire production circuit must be carefully cleaned, including the conche. After the conching, our chocolate is pumped into large heated tanks. From there, the chocolate mass is transferred to the temperer. During tempering, the chocolate is cooled down in a special temperature curve and, if necessary, reheated. As with conching, the right temperature depends on the type of chocolate. For this reason, dark chocolate must be tempered differently than chocolate with milk. Tempering affects the surface of the finished chocolate product: It creates a soft melting quality and makes the chocolate break beautifully. Like conching, tempering is a science in itself and has a great influence on the final product.
Part 8: The spiral and circular doser
The next stage in the journey of our chocolate is the ingredient mixer. Depending on the type of chocolate, fine ingredients such as salt are added by a so-called spiral dosage unit, and large ingredients such as nut pieces or nibs are added by a circular dosage unit. In a large container, the chocolate mass is mixed with the ingredients in the appropriate proportion. This step is skipped for flavours for which no further ingredients need to be added. These include our 43% cocoa chocolate with milk, the 70% cocoa dark chocolate and the 80% cocoa dark chocolate.
Part 9: The moulding – our chocolate is formed
After the long journey that our chocolate has already made, it is time for it to be moulded. From the ingredient mixer the chocolate is pumped into the pouring head. The pouring head has 11 cylinders, each of which sucks in the exact amount of chocolate mass for one bar. Precise calibration of the machine ensures that the chocolate mass is distributed as evenly as possible in the mould. The pouring head must also be at the correct temperature. If it is too cold, the chocolate will freeze, if it is too warm, the tempering was in vain and the chocolate will have streaks or dents.
Part 10: The bars are cooled
After the molding process, the chocolate-filled molds are transported to the cooling tower. Due to the adjustable temperature, the bars can cool down perfectly and slowly. Depending on the number of bars, the time needed for the molds to pass through the cooling tower varies. It can take from 30 minutes to 2 hours for the chocolate to cool.
Part 11: The last stations of our bars
After the bars have cooled, they are taken to be removed from the mold. Usually this is super easy as the chocolate is slightly condensed during cooling and thus falls out of the mold almost by itself. The last station of the journey of our chocolate is the packaging. Our chocolate is packed plastic-free with a Natureflex foil. Our unpackaged chocolate is of course not packaged, but packed in 10 kg containers for the journey to Germany. In our warehouse in Germany it is then packed in deposit buckets, or paper bags, depending on the quantity ordered. From the factory, the chocolate is loaded (almost) directly onto a container ship. To be able to guarantee a consistently high quality, the chocolate is brought to Europe in a refrigerated container at 16 degrees and 60% humidity. Since our Kickstarter campaign in 2018, we have been investing in offsetting projects to compensate for the transport emissions, but also for all other emissions that occur during the production of chocolate.