We felt like we'd won the golden ticket when we were invited to go on a behind-the-scenes tour of Taza Chocolate in Somerville, Massachusetts. You didn't have to ask us twice!
Taza has been producing stone-ground, organic chocolates out of their three-room factory space since 2006, and their chocolate-making process has some distinct differences from those used to produce most fine European-style chocolates. Take a look!
1. Buying Beans: This is co-founder Alex Whitmore explaining how Taza has formed direct-trade relationships with cacao growers in the Dominican Republic and producers throughout South America for their other ingredients. These relationships are the cornerstone of Taza's process and philosophy as a company. Not only does this give Taza much more control over the quality of their beans, but it also ensures that the entire process is sustainable and ethical.
The beans are harvested, fermented, and dried right at the farms. They are then hermetically sealed in bags like those in this picture, and shipped directly to the Taza factory in Somerville. These bags are specially designed for Taza to keep the beans as fresh as possible and prevent them from absorbing moisture. They're also 100% recyclable.
2. Roasting: Once at the factory, beans go into this large roaster where they're slowly baked at a maximum of 236° for 38-45 minutes. This is a relatively light roast as compared to other chocolate producers, and the end result will be chocolate that tastes brighter and fruitier with more of the original flavors intact.
3. Winnowing: From there, the cacao beans go through a winnowing machine. This separates the bean into the outer husk, the cocoa nib, and the germ. Only the coca nib is used to make chocolate. Roasted cacao beans go into the machine on the left and run through a series of screens to break them apart. The shells drop into the wooden bin you see in front of the machine.
4. Chocolate Shells: The cracked shells smell like fudgy brownies! They will typically get used by landscaping companies for mulch and ground cover, or they're sold to local tea companies to use in chocolate-flavored teas.
5. Making the Chocolate Liqueur: The cocoa nibs are ground into chocolate "liqueur," much like grinding peanuts into peanut butter. The nibs get poured into the top of the machine where the woman is standing, and then you can see the ground liqueur flowing out the bottom onto the conveyor belt.
We tasted some of this freshly ground chocolate - WOW! It's incredibly acidic and bitter, but with a definite fruitiness. Other ingredients like cinnamon, vanilla, and chili powder also get added at this point in the process.
6. Stone-Ground: One of the things that makes Taza chocolates unique is that they follow Mexican chocolate-making traditions and use stone mills for the grinding process. The stones are made of Mexican granite and get "dressed" with a very precise patterns of grooves. Stones with different patterns are used when grinding certain ingredients into the chocolate or to achieve a specific texture in final bar form.
7. Tempering: Taza also doesn't conch their beans as most other producers do. Because they skip this refining step, Taza chocolate has a uniquely textured mouthfeel and retains much brighter natural cocoa flavors. After the chocolate is ground, it gets tempered to make sure it solidifies into bar form with a specific crystalline structure. This is what gives chocolate its snap when you break off a piece and its smooth melting quality on your tongue.
8. and 9. Molding: The tempered chocolate gets portioned into molds.
10. The Final Step: The molded chocolate rest briefly on a vibrating platform. This settles the chocolate and helps eliminate air bubbles. From here, the chocolate goes into a cooling chamber where it solidifies into bars.
11. Finished Chocolate: Finished chocolate waiting to be wrapped and packaged. Now we definitely felt like we were in Willy Wonka's factory!
12. and 13. The wrapping station. Every bar of Taza chocolate is wrapped and packaged by hand. Everyone takes a turn here! The labels are printed by Albertine Press, an independent letter-press shop that shares space in the same building as Taza.
14. A Selection of Taza Chocolates. We each took home a bar of chocolate that had been ground and molded that very day and were really amazed at how different fresh chocolate tasted! The flavors were incredibly vivid, with a lot of that fruitiness we first tasted in the liqueur. We were told that the flavor mellows out and becomes more typically chocolate-y within a few days. Ours didn't last that long, though...
Taza Chocolate has definitely been gaining presence in New England and elsewhere in the country over the past few years. In Massachusetts, you can find their chocolate at Formaggio Kitchen, City Feed and Supply, and Whole Foods. To find their chocolate outside the state, check their website for information.
Also, if you're in the Boston area tomorrow, May 2, stop by Taza Chocolate for your own behind-the-scenes tour! They will be hosting an open house from 10am to 6pm on location in Somerville (561 Windsor Street).
We had a fantastic time learning about chocolate-making at Taza, and we're really in awe of their entire bean-to-bar process. A big thank you to Alex, Larry, Aaron, and all the other folks at Taza Chocolate!
• Find them: Taza Chocolate - for more information on their company history, chocolate-making methods, and national selling locations
• What's the Deal with Fair Trade?
• And another chocolate factory tour: Escapes: Scharffen Berger Factory Tour
(Images: Emma Christensen for the Kitchn)