In my previous post, I described the first steps in making chocolate, and mentioned how I talked my way into a factory tour for the following day.
Orlando made good on his promise to arrange a factory tour during our second day at Chocal. After Bruce and I worked for awhile at separating cocoa beans, Orlando escorted us to the machines off the back patio where we met up with one of the ladies. As she explained (in Spanish) the chocolate-making process and showed us the machines, Orlando translated as I attempted to record the information on my digital recorder. As I sit here trying to listen to Orlando’s translation, the background noise of the loud machinery is making it very difficult to hear him! Note to self: Purchase ear plugs for the workers, because they aren’t using any, and they are going to lose their hearing!
Picking up where we left off previously, the next step in the chocolate-making process is for those cocoa nibs to be ground up in a grinding machine to liquefy the cocoa butter and produce what is now called chocolate liquor or chocolate liquid.
Next, the chocolate liquor goes through a second refining process to further reduce the particle size of the cocoa mass. Cocoa nibs contain approximately 53 percent cocoa butter (depending on the cacao species); so, it is during this second refining process that the percentage is either increased or decreased, depending on the desired finished product. For chocolate bars, cocoa butter needs to be added, so the chocolate liquor is transferred to another machine where it will be combined with additional cocoa butter and other ingredients. This process is described below. For cocoa powder, the cocoa butter content must be reduced. At Chocal, they use a syringe to remove as much as possible. Next, the chocolate liquor is pressed to remove more of the cocoa butter. Baking soda is added to the remaining cocoa and the “press cake” is cooled, pulverized, and sifted to form cocoa powder.
“Press cake” is also used to form cocoa balls for hot cocoa drinks. This is what the ladies are making in the photo later in this post (and in the photos in my last post).
To produce eating chocolate, extra cocoa butter is added to the chocolate liquor in a mixing machine, along with sugar and other ingredients, depending on the type of chocolate being made at the time. In all, cocoa butter accounts for about 25 percent of the weight of most chocolate bars.
For milk chocolate, milk powder is used at Chocal, whereas fresh milk is used at Cadbury. (If you have seen a Cadbury Milk Chocolate label, you will notice the logo showing that a “glass-and-a-half” of milk goes into each block.
After the chocolate is mixed, it is transferred to another machine to refine it. Next the chocolate goes into a conching machine. Conching is a kneading process that develops the flavor of the chocolate, releases some of the bitterness, and gives the resulting chocolate a smooth texture. In general, the longer chocolate is conched, the smoother the texture will be. It can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Chocal conches their chocolate for just a few hours; however, the entire mixing process takes a full day between the three machines.
After the chocolate is conched, it must be tempered before it gets poured into chocolate bar molds. Friction during the conching process naturally heats up the chocolate. That liquid is then brought down to temperature using a marble table that remains cold due to the air conditioning in the room. The women spread the chocolate on the table using metal spatulas, mix the chocolate around, and fold it inwards to cool the chocolate quickly.
Tempering is a stabilizing process that helps keep the chocolate crystals from clumping together, which would give the chocolate a grainy texture. It also gives the chocolate a smooth, glossy appearance and prevents the cocoa butter from separating out. If done correctly, the chocolate bar will shine on the outside and make a snapping sound when broken in half.
Once the chocolate is tempered, it is poured into molds. The women at Chocal do this by hand and tap the molds to remove any remaining air bubbles.
Finally, the chocolate is cooled and then removed from the molds for packing.
It was fantastic getting to see how the entire chocolate-making process is done, from bean to bar. The machines were so much smaller and different than the ones I had seen in the large, modern factories; so, at times, it was a bit confusing trying to figure out which machine was doing what. Some of it got lost in translation, and much of it just got lost due to not being able to hear! I’m still not exactly clear on which of these machines do which job, but I figured it out for the most part:
At the conclusion of the tour, we returned to our group to assist with packaging the chocolate. After we finished, the others made their chocolate purchases while Bruce and I went to see what the ladies were up to on the patio. This time, when we said, “Hasta manana!” they believed us and flashed us big smiles. We would be returning the next day for one last time.
When we arrived for our final day at Chocal, the woman in the photo above (with the green blouse) ran up to me and gave me a big hug! Our tour guide, Nidia, did as well. We were pleased they were happy to see us once again.
After we completed our work inside, Bruce and I joined the ladies while our group hit the gift shop. Instead of making cocoa balls, the ladies were sorting beans, so I joined in. My new friend opened up a fresh cacao pod and shared the beans with me. Although the beans are very bitter, the pulp is sweet and delicious! The idea is to suck on the beans, and then spit it out without biting into the bean itself. Yum!
While we were working, some local farmers stopped by to sell their beautiful vegetables. Nidia ran back to call out to the others, and some of the ladies ran up to make a purchase.
The time came to say “Adios!” and “No, no manana” to the women, give them hugs, and make our way to the bus for our final ride back down the mountain from Altamira. As I gazed out the bus window during the bus ride, I knew I wanted to return. Bruce did, too, and the wheels in our minds started turning… (More details will follow in a future post.)
In my next post, I’ll show you around RePapel, a women’s co-op that recycles paper and makes beautiful stationary and jewelry for sale.
Meanwhile, here are additional photos shot at and around Chocal: