Bean to Bar: Fermentation and Drying

We are looking at a few key steps in the process of getting cacao beans from this (gooey fleshy beans) to this.

The task of converting beans to chocolate is a process shrouded in secrecy. Chocolate factories are notoriously secretive and careful about letting outsiders into their process at all. There are a few exceptions to this; Scharffen Berger in Berkeley offers free tours of their factory, which are fascinating.

The basic steps, though, of making chocolate are commonly known, and we're going to explore a few of the most important. First up: fermentation. Did you know that cacao beans should be fermented? The photos above, from Tava, an Australian cocoa company committed to organic and ethical farming, show some of the steps in the key fermentation process.

When cocoa beans - those white fleshy lumps - come out of the carefully split cocoa pod, they must be fermented in heaps. Their own warmth and usually the warmth of the sun too helps the beans to ferment. The fermentation kills the bean itself and then causes chemical reactions that bring out the flavor of the beans.

This process is delicate and takes skill; the pods must be carefully removed from the tree, and then carefully cut open. If the beans are damaged they can rot.

As they ferment they are turned or raked to allow even heating and fermentation. Then they are spread out to dry. This stops the fermentation and solidifies the bean into the hard, nutlike cocoa bean that is more familiar than the tropical fruit above.

This process generally takes at least a week, although some small growers are experimenting with two-week fermentation to see what kind of flavors can emerge from a longer fermentation period.