Chocolate: From bean to bar and beyond

Chocolate has a long, and at times torrid, history — but just how has it changed? How have our tastes evolved and what is being done to make trade ‘fair’? We take a look at the world’s favourite confectionery, from bean to bar and beyond

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Christopher Columbus’s lack of interest in the bitter, brown ‘almonds’ he stumbled upon in the New World has to go down as one of culinary history’s great missed opportunities. Had the Italian explorer realised the transformative effect of fermenting, drying and roasting these cacao beans, generations of schoolchildren would’ve grown up crediting him with ‘discovering’ not just America, but chocolate too.

As it was, it took the Spanish adventurer Hernán Cortés, and the priests travelling with him, to recognise the true value of the bean and bring it back to Europe. From there it conquered the world. The Spanish took it to their colonies in the Philippines, the Dutch to Indonesia, the French to Madagascar, while British control of the cacao industry stretched from Trinidad to Sri Lanka; the Portuguese, meanwhile, introduced it to the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, off West Africa. Today, Ghana and the Ivory Coast are the main commercial producers of cocoa (the powder processed from the cacao bean), responsible for around two-thirds of the world’s supply.

It’s believed the cacao tree was first cultivated in the Amazonian jungle several thousand years ago. Found between 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the Equator, the evergreen’s white flowers and seed pods remarkably sprout directly from the trunk and branches. Archaeological evidence suggests the Mayans consumed cocoa as a drink, as did the Aztecs, who called theirs chocolātl (from which, via Spanish, the word ‘chocolate’ was born).

The bean was valuable currency for the Aztecs, and in Europe, chocolate became a drink of the privileged classes. Filtering down in the 17th century from the courts of monarchs and noblemen, it spawned its own culture, centred around the chocolate and coffee houses that had sprung up across the continent. Hotbeds of political debate, by the late-18th century these smoky, wood-panelled gentlemen’s clubs had started to earn a reputation, particularly in London, as dens of iniquity and political machination.

Then the Industrial Revolution swept all of this away, transforming chocolate from a luxury item — handmade for the wealthy few to sip from dainty cups and saucers — into bars pounded into shape by steam-powered factory mills to be eaten by the masses. This was the age when the legendary European confectionary brands emerged: Menier in France, Suchard in Switzerland, van Houten in the Netherlands. In England, the Quakers — among them Rowntree and Terry’s of York, Bristol-based Fry, and Cadbury in Birmingham — dominated the chocolate market, keen to promote the sweet brown stuff as a substitute for the demon drink.

By the late-20th century, chocolate had become an industry dominated by multinational corporations, and the public’s preference for filled chocolates over solid bars was putting the art of chocolate making at risk.

How it’s done

And it really is a fine art. With more than a dozen steps involved from bean to bar, the scope for error is large. Firstly, the pods have to be hand-harvested by machete, and split to uncover up to 40 tightly packed beans, coated in a sweet pulp. These are then spread out and covered to allow various chemical reactions to take place; the pulp disappears, the beans darken and the fermentation lessens the bitterness (a chocolate expert can easily taste incorrect fermentation). They’re then dried in the open air until they lose about half their weight, before they’re graded, loaded into sacks and shipped out for manufacturing.

At this point, the beans are roasted. Temperature management is critical — over-roasted beans will be bitter, under-roasted green. They’re then shelled and winnowed to remove the husks and reveal the nest of cocoa nibs (shards of roasted bean) inside. The nibs are ground to a liquid paste, which releases the cocoa butter, some of which will be extracted to sell to the cosmetics industry.

To make a bar, the chocolate is then conched (put through a special machine to break down the particles) or milled — sometimes for days. The longer the process, the silkier and more refined the chocolate, although some producers prefer the bolder expression of a short conch. During this time, other ingredients, such as sugar, milk and vanilla, may be added. The final stage of production, whether the end product is a bar or a block of couverture for coating a filled chocolate, is tempering. The purpose is to control the crystallisation of the fats in the cocoa butter; to make a chocolate that has a bright sheen and a good snap, the chocolate needs to be melted and cooled to ensure the crystals form correctly. It’s an elaborate process; as one producer told me: “Have you seen how few people are making chocolate from the bean, compared to artisan coffee roasters? Look at the risks. You’d be mad to do it.”

Yet, a growing number are — a new generation of artisan companies that have sprung as a counterpoint to the huge conglomerates that dominate the industry. One of these is Dormouse Chocolates, an award-winning start-up founded by Isobel Carse that specialises in high-end bean-to-bar chocolate. After learning her trade at Hotel Chocolat, Isobel began dabbling with a bag of beans at home. She roasted them in the oven, crushed them with a rolling pin and blew off the husks with her hairdryer. Her business has since expanded to occupy a space in Manchester’s Old Granada Studios complex.

This is just one example of how, in just 20 years, the chocolate scene has been transformed. After a vogue for filled chocolates, bars are back. And flavour is in.

The challenges

The chocolatier’s art may have come a long way since the Aztecs were drinking chocolātl, yet the industry that makes the raw material is stuck in the dark ages. An estimated two million children work in cocoa production in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, most toiling in hazardous conditions. Farmers here in West Africa — many of whom earn less than 40p a day — have little choice but to employ their children, since they usually don’t make enough money to send them to school, or to employ adult labourers.

There are, however, steps being taken in the right direction. NGOs, cocoa and chocolate companies and government have begun working together to tackle child labour and improve conditions and pay for cocoa farmers. One of the longest-standing projects is Divine Chocolate, a Fairtrade company that’s 44% owned by local farmers.

Communications director Charlotte Borger is cautiously optimistic: “When people are very poor there’s no magic wand, but when programmes are farmer-driven, with proper education about the dangers and the need for children to be in school, as well as reliable payment and investment in communities, farmers work together to eliminate the problem at the grassroots level.”

Around a third of the four million tonnes of cacao produced in the world each year is Fairtrade- or Rainforest Alliance/UTZ-certified. Fairtrade has its critics, however. Some say it doesn’t go far enough, while others claim the burden of red tape is unrealistic for many smaller producers. Sainsbury’s, a Fairtrade pioneer, recently began phasing in its own ‘fairly traded’ label and other retailers could well follow its lead. Many producers are already committed to paying growers a premium for better beans, whether or not they aim for the Fairtrade label.

Historically, cacao has been transformed into chocolate far from its origin. Once the cacao has been exported away from where it’s grown, it’s the manufacturers who add value, and keep the profit. Today, however, a handful of ‘tree-to-bar’ producers are doing every stage of the processing within the region or country of origin, ensuring the farmers retain a larger share of the profits. Those include the Grenada Chocolate Company, Chocolat Madagascar, Marou and Belvie (both in Vietnam), and Montecristi and Pacari (both in Ecuador). As Neil Kelsall, director of Chocolat Madagascar, notes, “The only way to reduce poverty is to export value-added products.” And we, as consumers, can play our part by questioning producers on their methods and policies.


Choco-story, Belgium

A Bruges museum dedicated to chocolate, from historic texts to local recipes and statues. Refuel with a spiced hot chocolate at the museum’s Choco-Jungle Bar.

The Chocolate Boutique Hotel, UK

This themed Bournemouth bolthole holds tastings as well as ‘chocolate sleepovers’.

ChocolART, Germany

Held in Tübingen, this annual celebration of all things chocolate includes tastings, workshops, theatre and art. 5-10 December.

Sarah Jane Evans is the author of Chocolate Unwrapped.

Pick up a copy of the December 2017 issue of National Geographic Food (UK) on sale now.