Fortunately for us, there is a chocolate treat for every occasion, palate and budget. You can find it in stock at delis and gas stations, but do you know how it’s made?
Will Lydgate of Lydgate Farms on the island of Kauai continues a century-old tradition of small-scale, environmentally friendly and sustainable cocoa farming. Fifth-generation Hawaiian farmer’s award-winning, single-origin, branch-to-bar chocolate is created through a multi-step process that begins right at the farm.
1. Cultivation. Cocoa trees need warm, humid conditions to thrive, which limits the areas they can grow successfully in to 20 degrees above or below the equator, although they really thrive in a narrow latitude to less than 10 degrees from the equator. Plants also need protection from wind and sun and thrive in the understory of rainforests (think: Ivory Coast, Ecuador, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea). Hawaii, which sits at the northern edge of the cocoa-growing area, is the only state in the United States to commercially grow these tropical plants.
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2. Harvest. The cacao nibs are encased in eight-inch-long, football-shaped pods, which Lydgate and his team harvest by hand every 2 to 4 weeks throughout the year. Each pod contains approximately 20 to 50 cocoa beans. “Our trees produce about two to four pounds of dried cocoa every year,” Lydgate says. Putting that yield into perspective, about 500 cocoa beans are needed to make a pound of bittersweet chocolate.
3. Fermentation. Cacao nibs are inherently bitter and only sweeten after fermentation. To initiate this process, Lydgate collects approximately 40,000 pulp-covered moist cocoa nibs and packs them into a collection of two-by-two-foot untreated maple wood boxes. The pulpy mixture works its magic for seven days, first going through an anaerobic phase that converts the cocoa’s natural sugars into alcohol.
As the fermentation transitions into the aerobic phase, the cacao nibs heat up naturally, with temperatures reaching 126°F. At this point, the alcohol converts to vinegar-like acetic acid. Metabolic changes begin to develop the taste of the seeds, so Lydgate and his team carefully monitor the boxes during this phase, swirling and mixing the contents to add oxygen and enhance flavors.
“In addition to the deep and rich chocolate flavors, after fermentation we get fruity and floral notes, from banana to cherry to berry,” Lydgate shares.
4. Drying and roasting. After fermentation, the seeds are dried in the sun for further hardening. Roasting enhances the chocolate flavor of the seeds and reduces any remaining moisture content, helping to loosen the thin shell of the bean inside. After the roasting process is complete, Lydgate sends its dried and roasted cocoa beans to its friends at Manoa Chocolate on Oahu to complete the chocolate-making process, from winnowing to packaging.
5. Winnowing. The shells of the cocoa beans are removed and separated from the cocoa beans. Lydgate ensures that its cocoa shells are not simply thrown away as a by-product after this step. Instead, the farm reuses the shells in tea, chocolate extracts, cocktails and spirits. Leftover shells are composted and returned to the orchard, contributing to the ongoing life cycle of the farm.
The crushed cocoa beans that result from the winnowing process are called nibs and are packaged and sold or processed to create fine chocolate.
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6. Grinding. The nibs are ground into a fine, pasty liquid known as cocoa mass or cocoa liquor – it’s the essential building block for making the chocolate we all know and love.
7. Hardening. Fluctuations in temperature can cause chocolate to crystallize, dulling its appearance and giving it a crumbly texture. Tempering, a carefully controlled process of heating, cooling, and stirring chocolate, helps manage crystallization. Perfectly tempered chocolate has a brilliant shine and the crisp snap you hear when you break off a piece or take a bite.
8. Molding, packaging and sale. After tempering, Manoa creates Lydgate’s single-origin bars, packages them in biodegradable cellulose packaging, and ships them back to Kauai. Lydgate Farm chocolate is available on the farm, as well as in an extensive online store.