Category Archives: Production

Tim, Janet, Kevin, And The Chocolate Factory

On entering the small Creo Chocolate factory in Portland, Oregon, the first thing you smell is chocolate, and the first thing you hear is a custom-built winnowing machine next to the door, just across from an elegant front counter where you can buy rich sipping chocolate and elegant bars that were produced in the very same room.

Janet and Tim Straub started Creo Chocolate with their son Kevin in 2014, but their story began years before, when the Straub family spent half a year touring the United States in an RV, visiting factories across the country to learn how things were made. That passion for creation and learning is what set them on the path to establishing their own educational factory. Today, Creo sells chocolate bars at several local shops in addition to their own storefont in the small central-city factory. Their passions are twofold: making good chocolate, and teaching people about it. That’s why, several days a week, you can sign up for a class or free factory tour.

 Samuel and Anna, the farmers that supply beans for Creo Chocolate, make test batches in their kitchen before shipping the beans. They roast beans in a clay pot on the stove, shell them by rolling the beans between their palms, and process them with a hand-cranked grinder. The result is coarse, but it’s still chocolate!

 

When we took the tour, Janet showed us a barrel of beans and pulp fresh from Ecuador so we could smell the acid-and-alcohol tang of fermenting cacao—something you normally find on the farm, not in the factory. Our next stop was the roasting ovens, where beans go in on trays and come out darker, more flavorful, and ready to crack.

Much of Creo’s technology is simple and/or DIY: the bean cracker, which splits the shell from the nib, is powered by a cordless drill. From there, the mixture of nibs and shells is carried up to a small custom-built winnower artfully placed in the window, where it blows the cacao through a series of transparent tubes to separate out shell fragments and drops them into a bin in the basement—some local gardeners use them for mulch.

After a few minutes of shouting over the winnower’s fan noise, we headed for a cramped back room to look at the refining and conching machines. When they started, the Straubs ran several of the little “Wonder Grinders” favored by home chocolatiers that can handle several pound batches. Since then they’ve upgraded to bigger, higher-capacity machines that conch faster and relegated the little grinders to making test batches. After about two days of conching, the chocolate is smooth and ready to be formed into large blocks that will age in cupboards behind the counter for at least a month.

Once aged, blocks of chocolate go to the tempering machine, which carefully heats, cools, and reheats them to establish the desired crystalline structure. Then, with the push of a button, molten chocolate pours from the nozzle into molds. The molds are hard plastic, sturdy enough to be slapped against the counter to eliminate air bubbles before they slide into the fridge to cool and harden.   Creo’s process is the same one used by chocolate factories around the world for the past century, though each has their own minor variations. Valrhona, famous French maker of fine chocolate, operates ancient equipment in a sterile, climate-controlled environment to eliminate contaminants and produce chocolate that showcases the flavor of the bean without sacrificing consistency. Guittard Chocolate of San Francisco sometimes skips the molding and hardening steps, sending tanker trucks of liquid chocolate to the nearby See’s Candy Factory, according to Elyce Zahn of Cocotutti, another chocolate company in the same part of town.

Some of these factories are bean-to-bar companies like Creo, who source their cacao from specific growers, visiting Africa and South America to find top-notch beans and establish ties with farmers. Others, mostly larger companies like Valrhona and Felchin, focus on producing bulk chocolate that they sell to bakers and chocolatiers instead of selling bars directly to consumers. Industrial chocolate makers may vertically integrate the process—from bean-buying stations in equatorial countries to globe-spanning production and sales operations—but they can’t be as selective about their beans, and end up favoring consistency over quality.

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Chocolate as commodity

Chocolate is many things to many people—comfort food, cash crop, confection—but to commodity brokers it’s just another thing to trade.

Until the early 2000s, commodity traders in Chicago and New York relied on open outcry, shouting their orders across the floor of the exchange. Now they, like the London exchange, have gone electronic, with brokers sitting quietly at their desks and making trades via computer.

Commodity futures markets allow the industry to be more resilient in the face of bad growing seasons or wars like the recent ones in western Africa. The downside to the futures market is that speculators—like deep-pocketed hedge funds with no interest in the cacao itself—can cause unexpected price fluctuations that drive down the value of growers’ beans while forcing chocolatiers to buy at high prices. The London market alone appears to trade 26 million tons of cacao every year, but it’s really just the same three million tons of beans being swapped back and forth as the market fluctuates.

Drying

Once fermented, cacao beans have to be dried so they won’t rot during transport or storage. Sun-drying is favored for best flavor and is the simplest option for small-scale growers. It requires bringing the beans under cover at night, or any time it might rain, making it labor-intensive at larger scales. Heated air-dryers are more consistent than the sun, but exposure to smoke will alter the flavor of the beans, as will drying too fast.

Sun-drying can also have disadvantages for consumers. Kevin Straub of Creo Chocolate saw beans spread along Ecuadorean roadsides and sidewalks to dry, and Mort Rosenblum encountered the same thing in Africa. The beans get dry, but they might also get a light coating of motor oil. Even if the beans aren’t dried on the road, animals may have access to the beans while they’re drying as well, and can track feces onto them. For this reason, chocolate makers like Creo Chocolate are strict about separating raw and roasted beans: roasting doubles as disinfection, and nobody wants to cross-contaminate.

Once the beans are dry, they can be shipped—under carefully controlled conditions, of course. Excess moisture will cause the beans to rot, and they can pick up scents and flavors from their surroundings. At least one chocolate maker has beans shipped in special bags implanted with tracking chips, so he can monitor them from his desk in Switzerland.

Fermentation

black and white illustration of a wooden box containing cacao
CACAO BEANS AND PULP IN A FERMENTATION BOX.

The pods are discarded on site, and the beans and pulp are brought back from the field for fermentation. Small farms often ferment cacao in piles, covered with banana leaves. Larger operations often use wood or cement boxes. Fermenting cacao is the first step in producing chocolate’s complex flavor, and the chemistry of the fermentation process is as complex as the chocolate itself. The actual fermentation has little to do with cocoa beans, which are shielded from bacteria by their shells. The yeast and bacteria actually feed off the sugars in the white, gooey pulp, turning them into alcohols and acidic compounds. Some of these fermentation byproducts can pass through the shell into the bean, contributing to it’s bitter taste. Another factor in developing the bean’s flavor is the heat generated by fermentation—usually around 130°F—which kills the bean and encourages enzymes that convert some of the bean’s fat into sugars. Fermentation is one of the most important determinants of a bean’s flavor.

Fermentation can take anywhere from three days to a full week. Too long, and the beans will rot. Too short, and they don’t develop much flavor. That doesn’t stop some growers from skipping the step entirely, especially those that sell to industrial chocolate makers like Hershey and Nestlé, whose formulas are tailored to deliver consistent chocolate regardless of the beans’ quality.

Growing forests of future deliciousness

Establishing a healthy and productive chocolate plantation is like starting a vineyard: it takes careful consideration and long-term planning. A grower has to consider soil and climate, select suitable trees, establish a canopy of taller shade trees to protect the cacao saplings, and cultivate layers of rotting leaves and empty pods on the ground as habitat for the midges that pollinate Theobroma cacao.

In addition to its particular climate requirements, cacao is susceptible to a variety of diseases and pests. Fungal infections, hungry monkeys, and other factors can destroy over 40% of the crop in the eight months between flowering and harvest.

Different trees produce vastly different amounts and types of cacao. Forastero, the high-yield cacao that goes into 90% of all chocolate, can produce hundreds of football-sized pods. It lacks the depth of flavor, however, that is found in Criollo cacao, a favorite of the Aztecs that produces less than half as much fruit. Criollo is prized today by artisanal bean-to-bar manufacturers and companies like Valrhona and Amedi that cater to makers of fancy chocolate truffles. However, Criollo still only accounts for about 1% of the chocolate sold worldwide. The third and newest variety is Trinitario, a hardy hybrid that balances moderate yield with good flavor and goes into about 10% of chocolate.

illustrated black and white sectional views of a cacao pod
VIEWS OF A CACAO POD.

 

It’s not entirely accurate to say that modern Criollo is the same cacao enjoyed by Aztec nobles. Plants hybridize and mutate, changing slightly with each generation. Chocolate maker Steve De Vries speaks in terms of Criollo-ness, evaluating cacao based on its similarity to a hypothetical ideal.

 

Cacao pods are cut off the tree with a machete, drop to the ground, and are then harvested. For a few weeks after harvest they retain their brilliant colors and fruity pulp, but usually pods are opened almost immediately. The farmers Creo Chocolate works with open pods in the field and empty the pulp and beans into buckets so the pods can be left on the ground as midge habitat. Opening the pods has to be done carefully, because the beans themselves are delicate. A broken bean won’t be protected by its shell from the bacteria that consume the pulp during fermentation, and could spoil the whole batch.

Cookbook Style Guide – Handy References

We’re sharing the style guide and checklist we developed for this cookbook in the hopes that it will be useful for other people too.

The kitchen checklist (ODT & PDF) is to make sure you have all the relevant information when you’re done developing/testing the recipe.  The formatting checklist (ODT & PDF) covers some of the same items to be really sure the recipes are consistent and accurate; and adds a bunch of formatting & styling.  Some of it is based on the Microcosm style guide and other parts are from The Recipe Writer’s Handbook.

The recipe formatting checklist is a heavily used treasure trove of a resource that we referenced several times for each recipe in the book.