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Smell that cacao - our tour starts now!
Me and Alan McClure at the beginning of the chocolate factory tour.
How much chocolate can you make from this pile of cacao?
Each bag is about 150 pounds and makes approximately 100 pounds of chocolate, maybe a little more. We have 16 bags here or 32 batches, 1600 pounds of chocolate.
This is cacao as it comes in. You’ll see that on some of these beans, the shells have started to come off or they’re broken or they’re double beans. Or sometimes, there is external mold on it.
There are problems with just using all of this material in chocolate. The double beans weren’t able to be dried properly because they were stuck together. The ones that are broken, there are potential mold issues internally because they’ve been broken apart. If I see mold, I know that inside it doesn’t taste quite right, so I don’t want to use that. Also, little shriveled beans are not going to taste right.
Other things that get thrown out are flat beans, germinated beans. The germ, or radical, is really hard and it pokes through the end in order to start growing a little sapling. Once cacao starts to germinate, the internal chemistry starts changing, just like with any seed. Again, it just doesn’t taste quite right after the fact. So, I remove germinated beans.
Really, what I want going into my chocolate are beans that are virtually perfect. I can’t cut open every single one and still roast them properly and it would take way too much time. If I could, I would, because you can tell things by looking inside too, to see if it was fermented and dried properly.
Do you manually sort through all these beans?
Exactly. By hand.
Here’s the cleaning station. A couple scoops go out on a screen . Everything that’s small falls right through - everything else is spread out and picked out manually. It gets rejected and the rejects are in those bags over there. So, all the cacao that gets cleaned goes into here.
Do other chocolate companies go through a similar process of hand sorting the cacao?
I don’t know what the other smaller companies are doing. I know some of what they do. Steve De Vries, he does stuff by hand, too. But the larger companies, do have machines that do it and what the machines do is they sift things automatically, so it gets rid of the small material, but then all of the large material stays on the top. They have vacuums that suck off leaves, feathers, or little pieces of rope. They have magnets to get rid of nails or anything like that and destoners to remove anything that’s much more dense than a cacao bean.. But, they still end up with germinated beans, cracked beans, double beans, anything like that that I get rid of.
It could theoretically be possible to have, like they do with cars, a very expensive mechanized system that has cameras and the cameras are trained somehow, programmed, to be able to figure out if each bean looks right and then have a little robotic hand come in here and pull it out. I doubt it’s going to happen because there are an awful lot of beans that go through one of those systems - millions and millions a day for those large companies. Whereas, I’m making one to two batches of chocolate a week.
These bags over here, these are rejected cacao.
Rejected beans just gets used as fertilizer. I actually haven’t gotten rid of my reject beans. I don’t exactly know what I’m going to do with them. I’ve actually tried contacting a local farmer to pick them up and compost them and he says he will.
This is cacao that I bought back in 2005-2006 when I was still trying to figure out all the different origins and what they tasted like. I was making little test batches. This is more recent sample that I’ve gotten--just the other day, it's from Vanuatu, right near Papua New Guinea.
This [points to another sample bag] is from Hawaii - basically the only place in the U.S. where you can grow cacao. There’s not much of a scent any more since it has been sitting open, but when I first opened it, it really reminded me of like a floral, honey aroma. It smelled really good. There’s other stuff, Cuyagua, which is in Venezuela, one of the places I’ve visited. This is from Chiapas, southern Mexico. Most of what I get is junk—in fact, almost all of it.
Why are some beans so much better than others?
There are all kinds of differences and reasons for them and it’s really difficult to wrap your mind around the complexity that is cacao quality. To give you an idea, there are not really such things as varieties of cacao. There are clones, which is the closest things we have to varieties, which have been indexed and planted by certain scientific organizations like CIRAD or a center in Trinidad for example.
We’re still in the middle-ages in cacao. You’ve had people seriously thinking about wine for a very long time and growing it right in their backyard. Whereas right here, it’s totally different. It’s a raw product, It’s from another country, most of the time. It’s a relatively recent event that people are thinking about excellent quality and chocolate in the same sentence. So, it’s moving in the right direction. But, we’re probably hundreds of years from where grapes are right now, which is kind of infuriating for chocolate-makers, because we wish we could just pick up the phone and ask for excellent cacao grown under such and such conditions and fermented and dried in a specific way. At this point, it’s not really happening, and we have to be very involved.
There are a few companies trying to do some interesting things and move quality forward. Domori in Italy, they have a relationship with a company called Cacao San Jose which has an estate in Venezuela. They are trying to grow certain clones and make chocolate only out of those clones. They’re doing it at a relatively small scale at this point, thought the company is fairly big compared to Patric Chocolate. Who knows, hopefully that type of thing will catch on. But, there are also drawbacks to doing something like that and those drawbacks are diseases because we still don’t understand cacao diseases. You have diseases that will go through certain countries and can wipe out their cacao populations. So, all of the farmers that were growing cacao, are not growing cacao anymore.
Then you have terroir, the land itself, the climate right there, the microorganisms in that particular place. Because once you’ve harvested the cacao, then you need to ferment it. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Lambic. It’s a Belgian style of beer. Everything that ferments the wort is right there in that particular brewery - on the walls, in the vats, on the floor, in the air. Every brewery has slightly different microorganisms. If you move out of that area to another area, then the microorganisms are even more different, and so on and so forth. In Madagascar, part of what gives the cacao this quality is in large part the yeast and the bacteria that are right there. You take the same cacao genetically to another place, process it the same exact way, it will not taste the same. That’s one of the exciting things, also, about cacao - that there’s so much that is left to be understood regarding the interaction of cacao and microorganisms—the fermentation.
So on one hand, it seems like a depressing thing - we don’t understand anything, no one knows anything, we’re in the stone ages. On the other hand, there’s so much still left to learn that you can be hopeful that things are going to get better for sure because people are getting better at understanding the complexity of cacao.
You can photograph this because, ask my wife, I am an authoritarian when it comes to hand washing. I’m always on everyone’s case, “Did you wash your hands?” I try to be nice about it. Nothing is ever 100% perfect, but you want it to be clean.
This is room number two. This is where we roast the cacao. It’s just a commercial gas heated convection oven. Nothing especially chocolatey about it, but it roasts well, so it’s what I use.
You’ll see all the thermometers numbered. Each tray of cacao gets a thermometer during the roast and then every five minutes, I write down the temperature and then I plug that into Excel so I get a roasting curve. I know exactly what every roast is like in terms of numbers but also I can compare the roasting curve of two different batches. If there’s a slightly different flavor, I want to understand exactly where that slightly different flavor is coming from, then I compare the two. I can see, “Okay, this one got up to heat much more quickly than the other one did.” That allows me during the next roast to know, say, in the beginning I need to be a little more careful and keep things a little cooler or if I want it getting up to heat more quickly, etc., etc.
How long does it roast for?
Generally, 40-50 minutes, in that range. Typically between 230 and 270 degrees is a pretty good range, but different chocolate makers use different times and temperatures
When the cacao comes out of there, I crack it and sift it to separate different sizes of material. This is another very manual part of the process. I’m extremely excited to be getting a new machine for this soon because this is the biggest pain in the ass in the whole place and I don’t mind saying so. When I first designed my cracker/sifter setup, I knew it would work, I knew it would be time-consuming, but I didn’t know it would be as time-consuming as it ended up being. I just knew I wanted to get in here and make chocolate and I didn’t have $50,000 to spend on a refurbished, vintage winnower, let alone the hundreds of thousands to spend on a new, fairly small but still gigantic winnower, probably not the space either.
What I did was I used these little crackers which are used for whole-grain malt, for beer-making. In fact, the company’s called Crankandstein. Initially, it was made for cracking barley, but I had them do a custom one that was adjustable so I could make the gaps larger and smaller and crack the cacao and hand-sift it.
There are three different sizes of screens. Everything is screened through them. The large stuff is re-cracked. It takes hours to go through just one batch and that’s only separating the cacao into three different sizes.
Then, it has to be winnowed using a machine, which I also built. It’s functional, though extremely slow also. Again, I wanted to get in and make chocolate, but I didn’t have the money for an expensive machine so I built this thing.
When you have the cacao, you have the internal part and the external part. The external part is what you just saw, I call it the shell, though it is actually the seed coat. It’s kind of light. The internal part is heavier and denser, it's called the nib.
It’s like mixing rocks and feathers together and then trying to separate them again. The easiest way to separate rocks and feathers is air. That’s what the winnower does. Air blows up and the vacuum sucks that through, the shell moves up and the nibs fall straight through into a bucket below.
You’ll see different sizes of nibs. So you see the stuff on top is small and the stuff around is a little bit larger. The stuff at the very bottom is larger still. So those are the three different sizes that have been winnowed. You’ll see a little piece of shell here and there, but basically it has all been removed. It really starts smelling like chocolate at this point. During roasting, it kind of starts but a lot of the volatile acids are coming off the roast too, so you smell a heavy vinegar smell during the roast, actually.
It does take pretty much all day long to do both of these [cracking and winnowing] for one batch of chocolate. Whereas, with an automatic winnower for that amount of cacao, we’re talking an hour - max.
The next step is the refiner. It has two large granite rollers and a thick granite base. It’s a 600 pound machine, or something like that. I turn these infrared heaters on then, and I start adding nibs to it. Then, the heat and the friction through crushing just turn the nib into a liquid.
Once all the nibs are added, it's nice and liquidy and not very viscous and I start adding the sugar. So for my 70% chocolate, 30% of the weight of the chocolate is going to be the sugar and 70% is the nib. This grinding/refining/conching process takes about fours days. The particles sizes of the cacao and sugar are gradually reduced and the flavor and texture improve and refine as well. Without this part of the process, the texture of the chocolate would be granular and almost gritty.
After four days, when the chocolate’s done, it gets molded into ten to twelve pound blocks. I take those blocks out to another room where they’re aged.
You’ll notice that the blocks look odd. When you take molten chocolate and you put it in a container and you let it solidify of its own volition, let’s say, this is what happens. It looks like this. What that is, is that in each of these circles, there’s a crystal that forms in the center and it builds outward. So every one of those is actually a huge crystalline piece of chocolate and what happens is, you’ll get some really interesting patterns and colors. But, as soon as you melt that back down again, it’s just normal liquid chocolate.
What you see here is simply cocoa butter, the way natural cocoa butter crystallizes when left to its own devices. Its not mold, it’s not a disease. I had someone in here once where I explained all of this to her and then she said, “But is it okay to eat?” I said, “It’s just like water turning into ice.” It’s still okay to drink the water after the ice is melted. It’s just like that. So, this chocolate after it's done being aged, I melt it back down and then it's molded into bars, the crystallization is controlled and so what you get is a nice shiny looking bar instead of this. This would be crumbly, like you can kind of crumble it apart and it looks like little marbles.
Do these blocks taste the same as the bars?
It doesn’t melt the same in your mouth. Because the way chocolate melts impacts the flavor of the chocolate, it doesn’t taste quite the same, but it has the same chemical compounds in it that tempered chocolate has. It actually takes a little longer for this to melt in your mouth and it melts less evenly, but once you melt it back down and temper it, then it melts the right way.
This is the tempering machine. It's the most expensive piece of machinery in here. . This is how it came, just like this; I didn’t have to make any modifications. After the chocolate’s aged, then it comes back in here and gets melted down in this machine.
I just put in some aged blocks to melt down, as you can see. That’s about 120 pounds of chocolate in there. You would need considerably more than 120 pounds to submerge yourself!
Do you ever just dip your finger in there?
I try not to.
The next step is that the melted chocolate gets deposited into these molds here.
When you have molds, you can’t deposit warm chocolate in cold molds or you have shock which causes a bad appearance. What happens is that the surface of the bar looks all squirrelly and there are lines you can kind of see where the chocolate first touched the mold and started crystallizing right away. So, what you have to do is heat it up.
I have a heat gun hooked up to a temperature controller. I dial up the temperature and it turns the heat gun on and off for whatever temperature. You also can’t heat them too much or else it will take the chocolate completely out of temper and melt all the crystals and you end up with a whole other set of problems. There’s a very fine line that’s perfect.
After I deposit the chocolate into a mold, I throw it on this, which is a great machine. It’s a vibrating table. Chocolate is a weird thing. It has different properties of viscosity to it. There’s actually something called a yield value where even very warm chocolate will sometimes tend not to spread out unless you sort of tap what it’s in. If you just gently tap it, it’ll just sort of spread out.
This kind of takes that same principle. You can deposit chocolate right down the middle of the mold and put the mold on a tray , and it’s not really spreading out that easily, but as soon as you put it on the vibrating table , it just spreads it right out and any of the bubbles that get caught in the corner, they kind of get worked out. That’s the way that works.
The next step is cooling. I built my own cooling cabinets. Box fans blow air through filters from either side to cool the bars. Have you ever turned off the lights and shined a flashlight through a dark room and seen all the stuff that’s floating through it? Even with this filtration system and great cleanliness, that stuff’s all over the place. I don’t want that getting on my bars. So what this does is create positive pressure in here and as the air blows across the bars, the only place for it to go is out, so as I bring bars in, I put them in. It’s a great system and inexpensive.
What large companies use are cooling tunnels that are like 60 feet long and maybe $200,000 or more t. There is one company making cooling cabinets that hold two-thirds what this one holds and they are $2,500. You can imagine this did not cost me $2,500 to build. But again, it works.
These are our wrapped bars that I just wrapped yesterday. So you can see, they are pretty uniform, they’re pretty even. It’s very hard with foil to get things to look like that. It’s easy to make them look all crinkly. That’s sort of the problem with having someone wrap the bars because they can look pretty bad and you don’t want someone paying six dollars for a bar, seeing this box, “Oh that looks nice,” and they open it up and it’s like this golden turd coming out.
Do you print the boxes yourself too? Or do you have that done somewhere else?
They’re stamped. The backs and fronts are stamped by hand here.
As I grow, I’m going to have the stamped part printed onto the box, for sure. I have the designs all ready. I knew when I was starting out, “Okay, I’m going to have different products but I don’t know exactly what those will be. I know what one will be so I can get those boxes printed and get others printed as we go along and spend a lot more money. Or get one sort of more generic box and hand stamp it as we go along, and save a lot of money." For a start-up, I went with saving the money.
So you’re just stamping this right here?
Right. Exactly. Then the little sticker there that says 70%, and then the stamps on the back. The 67% also needs a sticker on the back. It’s a little more involved because the ingredients have cocoa butter, too, whereas the 70% doesn’t. But again, the cocoa butter I press right here. This isn’t unique because Shawn Askinosie does that, too. But it is quite rare. Most people just buy their cocoa butter. It’s just another part of the issue of the consistency. If you’re pressing your own cocoa butter, you understand it.
From the start of your process from that bag of beans to the end, how long does it take you?
Cleaning’s done in one day, roasting the next, and winnowing on the third day. I could, theoretically, do all three of those in one day but it would be a very long day and I wouldn’t be able to do it by myself. I’ve got so many other things I have to take care of. I have people placing orders, I have orders I have to ship out, I’m dealing with vendors, I’m ordering new things, and I have to deal with that. And there’s accounting that I have to do also, so I really don’t have the time to do all that in one day so it’s split up over three days. Then, the refining is started on another day and goes for four days.
In a normal week, refining is started on Monday. Monday and Tuesday I would mold bars (if need be, Wednesday also). Wednesday, the cacao’s cleaned (not by me, though, if I’m molding bars). Thursday, I roast. I always do the roasting and so far, I always do the molding, Friday is winnowing and I’m also emptying the refiner to blocks. Those blocks get aged. That’s kind of how the week breaks down. And then the dishes - every day, there’s dishes or something.
If you could interview one person about food, who would it be?
That’s a tough one. I respect a lot of people. I love Jeffrey Steingarten's writing. Have you read anything by him? I think he’s a brilliant food writer. He has a strong personality so I’m not sure I’d get very far in an interview with him.
There’s a guy that just died, where’s the book? Bartley, he just died. The amount of knowledge that went to the grave with this guy - it’s actually pretty sad. What he was working on was so detailed and terse, this book right here. People weren’t really taking his research and adding on to it. It was sort of like, “This guy’s doing that and we’ll let him do his thing.” But, it’s just genius stuff. But I guess I can’t interview that person either. So, I don’t know. That’s a tough question. I don’t know if that’s a very good answer. There are so many people I’d love to talk to.
That’s the thing, so many of the people who were groundbreaking in terms of writing about chocolate, they’re dead.Would you want to write about chocolate some day?
I’m always writing on the blog. I haven’t been publishing a lot lately because I’ve been working on a really long piece that, taking your advice, I’ll just split up into like 20 different segments; about the beginning of fermentation. Where does fermentation even come from? Because people assume that the Maya invented fermentation and, often, even academics will say that the Maya fermented. But even in academic papers, I’ve never seen anything that proves that point. And on top of that, the one thing that we know for sure about the Maya is that they used cacao as money.
If you are not an academic and you’re a chocolate maker and you have your hands in cacao, you’ll know that unfermented cacao is very hard, is not brittle at all. You could easily carry that around everywhere. But fermented and dried cacao is very brittle and if you really wanted to carry around cacao as currency, would it make more sense to carry around something that broke easily whenever you just move or something very solid and not easily broken? So, that’s one of the things that I’m writing about now.
Hopefully, I’ll look back over my blog at some point and say, “Wow, if I could pull all this together, that would equal a book.” Then I’ll say, “Why don’t I do that?” So that’s kind of my goal at this point. I’m not focusing on writing the book, I’m focusing writing strong pieces for the blog that I can later pull together into something interesting for chocolate makers or chocolate lovers or whatever. Hopefully the market will continue to expand for fine chocolate and you’ll get people that are the same types of people that are crazy about home brewing, they’ll be crazy about home chocolate making.