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We harvest cacao on a rolling schedule, with the most focused period tending to be between March and May each year.
Each tree produces anywhere between 15-40 pods depending on its age or varietal, but not all ripen at once. It is a several month process whereby we only pick pods at their optimal ripeness, so the fruit inside is packed with flavor. We hand crack each pod to reveal the 30-40 beans inside.
The seeds are surrounded in the pod by a white fibrous flesh that is sweet, tart and delicious, although nothing like the flavor of the chocolate the seed will eventually become.
Probably the most critical step in creating exceptional chocolate, fermentation will determine how the beans ultimately taste. You cannot make great chocolate from sub-par materials, so we work exceptionally hard to make sure that we have successful fermentation.
The goal is to both stop the beans' natural maturation, to preserve the natural acidity and flavors, and to foster flavor precursors that will be catalyzed later during roasting. After 4-7 days, often reaching temperatures of 120 degrees F, the fruit has mostly fermented away, and the seeds are ready to dry.
We sun-dry our fermented beans for a week or more. Drying makes sure that the natural moisture content in the bean is reduced to a level where we can safely store the beans. This is not a process that can be rushed, for beans that are not dried completely can result in mold, mildew and rot. We also want the moisture content to decrease slowly so that critical cacao nuances within the bean are not lost.
Drying is an extension of the fermentation of the cacao, and is best imagined as part of the overall curing process, rather than a separate and discreet event.
Steady and controlled temperatures are essential in getting an even roast. Throughout the roasting processes, which can last 25-45 minutes depending on the temperature, mass, and desired effect, we constantly taste the raw beans. This is where a chocolate maker's palate comes into play. It can't be taught, only learned over time, and you always will have personal preferences in what amount of roast will be delivered.
This is the process of splitting off the hard thin outer shell of the roasted bean, leaving pure dark brown cacao beans, referred to as nibs when broken. Our winnower uses three separate metal screens to sift out any remnants of shell--and we compost the cocoa shells back into the orchard. You often see this for sale at nurseries called "cocoa hull mulch". The nibs are smooth, dark and slightly oily and smell of pure chocolate.
We use a large stone grinder to turn the roasted beans into what is called liquor. Not to be confused with alcoholic liquor, this heavy viscous liquid is pure unsweetened chocolate. Nothing is added to get to liquid state, it is simply the natural fats within cacao that become heated by the grinder's friction, reaching temperatures of about 115 degrees F. After a day or so, we will add the cane sugar, and continue to refine the chocolate for several more days. During this process the chocolate and sugar solids are crushed and rounded, and we constantly taste for the right texture and flavors.
After the chocolate has reached our desired particle size, we continue to agitate (and sometimes heat) the mass for a period of time to dial in the precise blend of flavor we're after. A good conching phase can bring flavors into focus and elimiminate off notes that may still be lingering.
Once it's out of the conche, we like to age our chocolate for up to a couple of months. It's an extremely unscientific observation, but it seems to us that as our chocolate rests, the flavors settle together and mellow. Intriguing notes will develop, while some of the more volatile aspects will fade. Similar to aging a wine, it seems clear that time plays a part in chocolate's development, intensity and flavor.
The next-to-last stage is to form the chocolate into bars. Through a process of raising and lowering the temperature of the chocolate, some molecular magic takes place. Ladder-like chains are encouraged to develop in the cocoa fats, resulting in bright shiny chocolate that will also snap upon breaking. After about an hour, the chocolate is ready to be poured into our molds; it will then harden quickly after a few minutes in a cooling cabinet.
Naturally, this is the last stage of preparing our bars. We do this all by hand using thick foil. Not only is foil a good choice for protecting the chocolate from the elements, it also makes it possible to reseal, should you not finish an entire bar in one sitting. (We rarely end up rewrapping.)