Before reading this you might want to have read the first part of my guide to fine chocolate for beginners. It's not strictly necessary of course, but it is a good place to start if you are new to fine chocolate..
Read it? Good. Now lets take you to the next level. As you may have guessed yourself, the taste of a chocolate-bar is not only dependent on the declared ingredients on the back, but also very much on quality differences in both the cocoa-beans themselves, and even more so by the processing they are put through. So lets get into the chocolate production process from pod to bar to give you a understanding of how it all fits together, so that finally we can explain why some chocolates are so much better than others.
First a quick recap: Chocolate production begins with harvesting ripe cacao pods which are opened and emptied to extract the seeds and pulp. This mass is then fermented for up to a week until the pulp have disappeared, leaving only the seeds which are then dried for shipment to chocolate-makers around the world. There the beans are roasted and shelled to separate out the cocoa nibs, which can then finally be milled and refined into a liquid cocoa mass, the basis of all chocolate as we know it: cocoa-liquor.
Much of this liquor is then separated into cocoa-powder and cocoa-butter for further industrial use. Cocoa-powder is commonly used as an ingredient in baking or to make hot chocolate, while cocoa-butter is amongst other things used in cosmetics and medicines. Most importantly however, some of the cocoa-butter is added back into cocoa-liquor along with sugar and other ingredients, which after another couple of days of conching, tempering and moulding finally become the fabled chocolate bars that we all love so much.
Whew, that was quick. If you couldn't follow me through all of that then have a look at how chocolate is made for additional details. Now lets dig into the details to see how all of this combines to affect the final taste of a chocolate bar.
The cacao pods that chocolate is made from grows on the stem of a tropical tree called the Theobroma cacao. These trees originated in the Orinoco and Amazon basins of Mesoamerica where they were discovered by early humans, ancestors of the Maya. Over thousands of years the Mayans and their forefathers have cultivated the cacao-trees to their liking, thereby giving rise to the variety of cacao now named Criollo. This cultivation has turned the Criollo into a very vulnerable and low yield crop mainly available from plantations in Venezuela and Colombia, but one that is also highly aromatic and with little bitterness and astringency. It is therefore currently the most sought after cacao-variety for use in fine chocolate, and according to some it is the only variety that makes the cut. Note however, that true Criollo cacao hardly exist any more, as most Criollo cacaos nowadays are actually hybridizations between multiple other varieties and thus with similarly varying properties. Also different such hybridizations often grow intermingled on the same plantations, making the business of separating the harvest near impossible without a detailed genetic analysis of each individual tree.
Outside the true Criollos the grouping of cacaos are even more disputed, but it is commonly talked about 3-5 main varieties. Most wild cacaos of Mesoamerica, as well as most exported cacaos grown in the rest of the world, is considered to be of the Forestaro variety, which means it is a large and diverse group with varying properties. Forasteros are generally very hardy and most provide large crops, but is due to its commonly high bitterness and astringency considered to be inferior to other varieties of cacao.
An environmental disaster on the island of Trinidad in the 18th century led to the first intentional crossing of Criollos and Forestaros there to save the plantations. This cross became known as Trinitario from its origin, with its properties being halfway between its parent types. It has become increasingly popular and is now grown on many islands in the Caribbean and the Indian ocean, as well as in Papua-New-Guinea and Cameroon. Again calling it a single variety is somewhat misleading, as Trinitarios today are hybridized from different types of Forestaro and Criollo, and therefore has varying properties as well.
In addition to the big-three there are also multiple maverick cacaos that are not usually grouped along with them as they have very different properties. The most famous of these is Ecuadors 'Nacional' variety with its floral aroma. Some more information on the different varieties of cacao and their properties can be found in the history of chocolate from Richart chocolates.
Cacao preparation: Fermentation and roasting
After the ripened cacao pods have been harvested, they are opened and the contained seeds and a white pulp called mucilage are placed in wooden-bins or earth-pits and covered with banana-leaves. There they are left to ferment for up to a week depending on the type and quality of the pods. The heat from the sun causes fermentation, which creates flavour-precursors in the seeds and reduces their natural bitterness and astringency. After fermentation the seeds are dried in the sun or in wood-powered heaters to stabilize them into proper cocoa-beans to prepare them for storage and shipment to chocolate-makers around the world, bringing us to the beginning of the true chocolate making process. It is however critical during this process that the beans are not exposed to smoke from the heaters or other sources, as this will affect the taste and quality of the beans.
Upon arrival at a chocolatiers kitchen or in a factory, the next step is roasting the cacao beans, just like what is done with coffee-beans. This allows for removal of the bean shells to bring out the cocoa nibs or bean-meat from the chocolate, but most importantly the roasting fully develops the flavour-precursors from the fermentation process into the rich variety of aromas that is the staple of fine chocolate. It is the art of perfectly controlling the processes of fermentation and roasting that separates the taste of regular chocolates from the truly exquisite ones, and both are equally important to the quality of the end product.
Finally the roasted cacao nibs are crushed and milled into a fine powder and then further refined into a liquid cocoa mass, namely chocolate liquor, the base ingredient that all manufactured chocolate is made from. As mentioned in the recap some of this liquor is then separated through hydraulic presses into cocoa powder and cocoa butter, which allows for adjustment of their relative amounts when making chocolate bars as well as for use in other products.
Chocolate manufacture: Conching and tempering
Now with chocolate liquor and cocoa butter at hand we're finally ready to start making real chocolate, but to do that a few more ingredients are usually needed. The reason is that cacao as mentioned earlier is very bitter, easily confirmed by tasting a 100% cacao-content chocolate bar, which I must warn you is an acquired taste. I would suggest easing into it through sampling a variety of 70% and 85% bars first. Making these requires rounding off the bitter taste of raw chocolate a bit, so in addition to adding more cocoa-butter for extra smoothness, a bit of sugar and usually some vanilla is also added. To create the smoothness we expect from our chocolate this mix is then melted and stirred for up to several days in a machine named a Conch, in a process aptly named conching. This slowly transforms the rough mix into a perfectly smooth liquid chocolate which is actually ready to eat. The only thing now remaining is solidifying the liquid it into chocolate bars, but this too is easier said than done.
Chocolate solidifies through forming multiple types of fat-crystals, each with its own particular properties and melting point. Simply cooling the chocolate liquid straight to room temperature causes uncontrolled crystallization and a variation of fat-crystals, including some that make the chocolate very crumbly and that melts at room-temperature (Type I at 17°C and Type II at 21°C). Other crystals allow for somewhat firmer chocolate, but one that still melts in your hands (Type III at 26°C and Type IV at 28°C). These can often be found in cheap mass-produced chocolate since getting rid of them is both time-consuming and exact work.
Making fine chocolate involves creating as many Type V crystals as possible, because these have a melting point of 36°C and therefore melts in your mouth while still keeping firm and glossy at room temperature, and even in your hands to a degree. To achieve this the chocolate liquid must first be cooled to exactly 27°C to allow crystals of only type IV and V to form, before it is reheated to 31°C to break up the type IV crystals, leaving only the desired type V's. This process is called tempering and must be repeated several times until as much as possible of the cocoa-butter has crystallised into type V before the chocolate can be poured into the desired moulds and cooled entirely into the chocolate bars that you get from the store.
Variations in Taste
If every part of this process; from careful harvesting through controlled fermentation and roasting, to milling, conching and painstaking tempering; is performed with quality in mind, then you will likely end up with a high quality fine chocolate with a good snap, even colouring and a smooth texture.
The taste however will still vary immensely based on how all of the above processes are performed, and especially on the roasting of the beans, which becomes clearly evident by tasting similar chocolates from different manufacturers. For instance does Michel Cluizel usually create bars with a round fruity taste, while the products of Domori on the other hand often have a very burnt and raw feeling to them. The taste can even vary between bars of the same brand from a single manufacturer, especially between seasons, which is why many renown chocolatiers are not only creating origin-bars with beans from a single plantation, but also vintage-bars branded with the year of production, like these vintages from Valrhona.
The aromatic properties of cacao are said to surpass even those of wine-grapes, and certainly most other kinds of food in the world, so there are potentially hundreds of distinct aromas to be tasted even in a single bar of chocolate. Which of these aromas dominate and how they change during the tasting can vary greatly, much due to variations in any one of the steps described above, not to mention the various tastes and fillings that can be added. Therefore trying out various brands and makers, from the good to the bad, is the only way to discover and know these subtle differences for yourself. In doing so you will hopefully expand your chocolate horizons and in time become able to find your favourite styles, and perhaps even attempt to create one of your own. Based on this there is really only one simple advice to give: Eat more fine chocolate!
To learn more you can go and read the next part in my Fine Chocolate for Beginners series for some tips and pointers on makers, brands and bars to start out with!