Beloved the world over as a luxurious treat with a storied history, chocolate is certainly something to celebrate, and something to savour. We’re big fans of all its many forms, and we bet you are, too.
It turns out that the process of making chocolate, from farm to bar, is almost as rich and complicated as a mouthful of this delectable dessert.
Here’s the whole story about how chocolate is made, with a closer look at the labour that goes into its contemporary cultivation.
How is chocolate made, and what is it made of?
Roughly speaking, you could say there are two principal stages in the process of making chocolate:
- Cacao farming, followed by the extraction of cocoa nibs from cacao beans.
- The manufacture of nibs and other ingredients into what we think of as chocolate.
Various types of chocolate contain different ingredients. According to a publication from Harvard University’s School of Public Health, dark chocolate contains these ingredients:
- Cocoa solids.
- Cocoa butter.
Milk chocolate, on the other hand, may also include milk powder.
Other ingredients you might find in your chocolate bar are butterfat, vegetable oil, vanilla, corn syrup, glucose, lecithin and flavourings, according to the same resource from Harvard School of Public Health.
What does the chocolate-making process entail?
The chocolate-making process entails farming and cultivation, fermentation, roasting, grinding the ingredients twice and tempering.
Let’s take a closer look at each step in the process.
Cacao trees grow in equatorial regions and are harvested by hand. A resource from Simon Fraser University notes that the ripe orange oblong pods are cut off the tree by workers who use machetes. Depending on the varietal, the pods may be different colours when they’re suitably ripe for harvesting.
After the pods are collected, they are split open and cacao beans are removed.
Once separated from their pods, the beans go through a fermentation process that takes about one week, during which the beans turn brown.
Essentially, fermentation is where cacao takes its first steps toward chocolate’s characteristic flavour. Though the beans themselves are not fermented, chemical processes ferment the pulp surrounding them, altering the quality of the beans irreversibly.
After the cacao pods are opened, two distinct phases follow.
The first is an anaerobic fermentation phase, which means fermentation without oxygen. During this phase, yeast and bacteria convert carbohydrates and other components of the pulp into lactic acid, ethanol and carbon dioxide. As this phase unfolds, the pulp begins to run off of the beans, along with citric acid, letting in more air and making the cacao less acidic.
Aerobic fermentation and roasting
Aerobic fermentation then begins, and workers “turn” the beans to distribute air and oxygen throughout the cacao. Bacteria then break down some of the cacao’s chemical components into acetic acid, which the oxygen breaks down further.
The whole aerobic fermentation process generates a great deal of heat, which, along with the introduction of ethanol and acetic acid, changes the overall consistency and flavour profile of the beans.
Then, after drying, cacao beans are roasted, and the nib is separated from its outer shell.
The first grind
Taking these nibs, which contain both cocoa solids and butter, chocolate manufacturing begins in earnest when the nibs are ground the first time into a substance known as chocolate liquor.
The chocolate liquor is then ground a second time, in a process known as conching, with extra ingredients – such as milk, flavourings or other cocoa ingredients – that will give the finished chocolate its distinctive character.
This is the last step on the way to developing the right flavour and texture – the final taste – that consumers will experience once the chocolate is finished. It’s what takes away the bitter edge and the higher acidity of unprocessed cocoa.
In addition to mixing chocolate liquor with additional ingredients, heat is an important element in the conching process. Especially for some milk chocolates, external heat is applied while the ingredients mix. Other times, the heat required for conching may be produced simply from the friction that’s generated as ingredients rub against each other and grind down.
Conching can take anywhere from a few hours to three full days, but most modern commercial processes fall on the shorter end of that spectrum.
Tempering and shaping
After conching, tempered chocolate is shaped and set to produce the desired chocolate product. The substance is heated and cooled as needed to provide the perfect finish and form. After all, it’s important to make sure that a glossy chocolate heart is distinct from the small chips you use for baking, right?
What is Fairtrade chocolate? How does chocolate production affect people?
Fairtrade chocolate, like any other kind, is made following the steps above, with the difference being that these chocolate bars are the result of cocoa that has been sourced from suppliers who were paid fairly and treated well.
Why is it necessary for us to clarify this point?
The cocoa industry relies on labour-intensive processes throughout its entire supply chain. From the local farms where cacao pods are harvested by hand to the intricate multistep manufacturing process, chocolate is a complicated business. Oftentimes, chocolate is manufactured in an entirely different country from where the cocoa it’s made from is produced, with the notable exception of some Latin American nations.
The economics underpinning chocolate production are also complicated and heavily tilted in favour of manufacturers and retailers, not cocoa producers. Without alternatives available, producers are essentially obligated to sell at prices that are set by a small number of international traders and manufacturers.
Additionally, conditions in cocoa-producing regions like West Africa can lead to large swings in pricing for the commodity as supply varies widely. Without the equipment or financial resources that would be required to store beans until prices rise again, producers are often driven to sell immediately, regardless of how much they can get for their crop.
Given these issues and the labour-intensive nature of chocolate production, combined with widespread poverty in cocoa-producing regions, a situation has emerged where child labour and other abuses have become all too common.
In high-poverty areas with limited economic diversity, families are sometimes compelled to accept hazardous working conditions for low pay and with few personal or environmental safeguards. Instead of leading to economic empowerment, these jobs are often underpaid, and producers can be left even more vulnerable, due to the unsafe conditions in which they’re required to work.
How do Fairtrade practices play a role in chocolate production?
The first thing to know about Fairtrade’s role in chocolate production, is that suppliers must be paid a fair Minimum Price for their goods and services.
Perhaps most importantly, confronting child labour is one of the core principles of Fairtrade. In order to be certified by our organisation, chocolate-producing companies and their members must address this issue. Child labour is strictly forbidden under the Fairtrade standards, and programmes on the ground in cocoa-producing regions help to alleviate this issue directly.
In addition, co-operatives on the ground are paid a Fairtrade Premium that they can invest in their businesses or communities as they see fit, helping to produce deeper, longer-lasting change for farmers, workers and their families.
Look for the Fairtrade Mark on your next chocolate bar
Once you know the story behind the popular products boasting our iconic blue and green label, you’ll taste the difference. If you want to satisfy your chocolate craving, find out where to buy Fairtrade cocoa and chocolate products today.