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How Chocolate Is Made: From Farm to Chocolate Bar

May 12th, 2023

There is a distinct lack of oompa-loompas in the real world, unfortunately.  It begs the question, then — how is chocolate made?

Here’s the process that a cocoa bean goes through to get from farm to store shelf!

How cocoa gets from cacao farm to chocolate bar

Harvesting the pods

Cacao trees grow in humid, rainy regions that have fairly uniform temperatures year-round. Countries like Ghana, Indonesia, Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria are some of the largest cacao growers, but the tree can be cultivated in many tropical nations within 20° north and south of the equator.

Chocolate starts its life as a bean inside of a pod on the cacao tree, snuggled in layers of white flesh alongside up to 60 other such beans. 

A mature cacao tree can produce around 70 of these pods each year, each measuring up to 14 inches long and growing straight from the bark of the tree. It’s precisely because of the way they grow that the ripe cacao pods need to be harvested by hand, as any damage to the bark of the tree could prevent future pod production.

Once the pods have been harvested from the trees, farmers cut open the pod and scoop the flesh-covered beans out of the husk, which gets discarded or sent to a compost heap. 

Fermenting the beans

Like many bean-based products (like coffee, for instance!), freshly-harvested beans need to be fermented before they can be dried and roasted.

In this case, cacao beans are fermented in large piles or closed boxes where natural yeasts begin to feed on the fleshy pulp encasing the beans. The yeast eats away at the sugars in the pulp and converts the pulp into alcohol, which drains away and leaves the hard beans behind.

Side note: this alcoholic byproduct is called cacao liquor and it is so… so… good.

Drying the beans

Fun fact: chocolate beans are considered cacao beans before fermentation and cocoa beans after fermentation! It just goes to show that we all wake up a different person after sitting in a vat of alcoholic chocolate, amirite?

Heh, anyways.

Fermentation produces a lot of moisture in the cocoa beans, which isn’t super great for making chocolate. Thus, the beans need to be dried and the moisture removed before they can move on to roasting. 

Whether the beans are dried out in the sun, in sheds, over a wood fire or in an oven, cocoa beans are considered adequately dried when their moisture content reaches around 6-7%. Coffee beans also go through this process, by the way, though they are dried to about 11%.

It’s here that dry cocoa beans say farewell to their farms and are bagged for transportation to a chocolate manufacturer who, depending on who they are, will convert the beans into chocolate products using their own closely-guarded recipe!

Roasting the beans

Like we said, each chocolate manufacturer will use their own special process from this point on, but nearly all of them use the same basic steps: roasting, winnowing, grinding, tempering, molding and wrapping.

First off is the roasting process, which accomplishes a few tasks simultaneously. First, the high temperatures (anywhere between 250°to 350° Fahrenheight) kill off any bacteria that may have hitched a ride during the transportation process. Second, it cracks the thin husk surrounding the bean and makes it easier to remove. Third, and most importantly, it releases any lingering moisture and helps chemically develop the bean’s unique flavor. 

Boom, roasted!

Winnowing the husks

Once roasted to the manufacturer’s liking, the beans head over to an air tunnel or pass over an air current to get rid of the lighter husks that were cracked during the roasting process. The husks, though thin, aren’t suitable for eating and can be used as mulch or compost instead. 

Grinding and mixing the cocoa beans

Now the fun starts! 

Roasted and winnowed cocoa beans head to a grinder known as a mélangeur (the French word for “mixer”) where they are ground to a paste. This chunky chocolate liquor, as it's called, is made up of the cocoa solids and the liquefied cocoa butter that is present in each bean.

This chocolate liquor heads to another grinder called a roll refiner, which allows manufacturers to customize the final grind size for the chocolate and to add any other ingredients such as milk powder, sugar, nuts and flavorings. It’s here that the manufacturer can also choose how much cocoa butter to remove from the chocolate liquor, determining the cocoa content and the relative darkness of the final product. More cocoa butter means a darker, stronger chocolate, while less creates a sweeter and more silky taste. 

Tempering the chocolate

You may have come across this term in a cookbook or on a baking show where chocolate is involved, and it’s why chocolate can stay solid even in warm, moist temperatures.

Tempering is the process by which chocolate is heated to a certain temperature and cooled to a certain temperature in order to stabilize the cocoa butter crystals within. It also gives the chocolate that shiny, glossy look (also from the cocoa butter) even when the chocolate is cool and solid. 

Molding the chocolate and wrapping it up

Once tempered correctly, the chocolate heads to a mold to be shaped and hardened into its final form. The cooled, molded chocolate is wrapped, sealed and packaged to the manufacturer’s liking, then it’s sent off to storefronts and distributors all over the world!

Eventually, that little chocolate bar ends up in the hands of an average joe-schmoe like you or me, where we gift it, munch on it, bake with it or create our own little concoctions with it to our heart’s content. 

Each bite of chocolate we take is the result of a long, hands-on process that started thousands of miles away in a place we’ve probably never even heard of. There are a lot of steps that go into making your favorite treat, and now you know them all — from bean to bar and everything in-between.


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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/AlexanderStein

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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