Have you ever wondered how is chocolate made? For a majority of chocolate lovers, it is “made” by the big confectionery companies like Nestle, Hershey, Mars etc. For some chocolate connoisseurs, it is made by the neighbourhood chocolate boutique, specializing in chocolate making for the last gazillion years.

But where does chocolate actually come from? What is the source of the “chocolate” taste of a chocolate bar?

Most bars of chocolate have 3 main ingredients – cocoa (the most important, expensive and the chocolate tasting ingredient), milk solids and sugar (or sweetener). Since it is cocoa that provides chocolate its taste, let us explore from where does cocoa come.

Cocoa Beans – The Origin of Chocolate

 Cocoa Pods on a Cocoa Tree
Cocoa Pods on a Cocoa Tree

Well, it all starts from the humble cocoa tree. It has a very apt scientific name – Theobroma Cacao. Theobroma is derived from the Greek of “food of the Gods”. Most of the cocoa of the world grows within 10 degrees north and south of the equator. The biggest producing regions of cocoa in the world are West Africa, South East Asia and South America.

Cocoa is a plantation crop and most cocoa plantations of the world are smallholder with average size between 2-3 hectares. The planter herself is responsible for all the post harvest handling of the cocoa.

Cocoa tree produces cocoa fruit, from where cocoa comes. The pod of the cocoa fruit is rugby ball shaped and 15 to 25 centimeters long. Cocoa pods can be maroon/purple colour or bright yellow when ripe, depending on the variety of the cocoa. One tree has a productive life of around 30-35 years and it can produce as many as 2,000-2,500 viable pods every year. These cocoa pods grow from the tree trunk and its main branches.

When the pods are mature, they are harvested. The planter breaks open the pods and collects the mucilage and the seeds of the fruit in heaps. It is these seeds that will go on to form cocoa and further, chocolate.

These heaps of cocoa seeds are covered, usually, with banana leaves and allowed to ferment. The sweet mucilage covering the seeds helps in the fermentation process as its sugars break down to form acetic acid and other substances that flow away. Cocoa seeds are called cocoa beans after the fermentation is complete. It is the fermentation process that develops the chocolate taste in the cocoa beans.

After the fermentation is complete, the cocoa beans are dried and foreign matter is removed. A cocoa bean is about the size and shape of an almond and roughly weighs 1 gram (give or take). In most countries, the dried and fermented cocoa beans are packed in jute bags and sent to ports for export or to factories for processing.

An interesting fact about the cocoa trade is that most of the cocoa produced is exported – either as beans or intermediate products. The reason for that is that most cocoa producing countries are themselves not big consumers of chocolate and cocoa products (except for Brazil). As mentioned earlier, most cocoa grows in the tropics. But most chocolate and cocoa products are consumed in Europe and North America.

Dried and Fermented Cocoa Beans
Dried and Fermented Cocoa Beans

Roasting and Grinding Cocoa Beans – First Steps to Making Chocolate

Ok, coming back to the story about cocoa. Dried and fermented cocoa beans go through many processes because they start resembling one of the most loved snack in the world – chocolate.

Once the cocoa beans reach the processing factory, they are cleaned. This step removes foreign objects like twigs, stones, strings and anything and everything that can accompany an agricultural product.

After this step, the beans are roasted. This process dries out the bean and makes the removal of shell a lot easier. Cocoa shells constitute 12-14% of the weight of a bean. The roasting also imparts darkens the already brown colour of the cocoa.

 Roasted cocoa beans and shells
Roasted and shelled cocoa beans and shells

The shelled and roasted cocoa beans are now called cocoa nibs. These cocoa nibs are ground into a thick paste called cocoa liqour. From here, the chocolate making process differs depending upon what kind of chocolate is being made. Most chocolate makers use cocoa liqour to make their chocolate. They may add some cocoa butter (more about cocoa butter in the following paragraphs) and ingredients like milk and sugar to make the final chocolate. Many chocolate makers mix cocoa liqour and butter from different origin countries to produce their “recipe” of chocolate.

Chocolate melanger to mix cocoa liqour, cocoa butter and make choaolate
Chocolate melanger to mix cocoa liqour, cocoa butter and make chocolate

Cocoa liqour is about 50% fat by weight. Cocoa liqour can be pressed to extract this fat which is called cocoa butter. It is the cocoa butter that gives the chocolate its creamy texture. Cocoa butter is expensive and sometimes, chocolate makers replace it with vegetable fats to reduce costs.

Once cocoa butter is extracted, the leftover is called cocoa cake. It is milled and ground to make cocoa powder that is used as an ingredient in less expensive chocolates, drinks, biscuits, ice creams etc

So the next time you bite into that delicious bar of chocolate, do think about the cocoa tree, thousands of miles away, from where its journey began.

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