By Alice Medrich
Guittard Chocolate Company has been quietly making some of your favorite chocolate from—bean to bar—for 150 years. Follow a small batch of cocoa beans through the Guittard Factory to see how they craft raw beans into premium chocolate. The process is mechanized—but far from automatic. There is no main control panel to set and then walk away from. Throughout, and for each product, the process is varied; myriad decisions are made, tests taken, samples drawn for the daily tasting panel, and equipment adjusted—the intricate dance of art and science designed to develop the full potential of each bean variety or blend while maintaining the consistent quality, viscosity, color, and food safety that Guittard demands and customers expect.
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Dried cocoa beans—actually kidney bean-size seeds from the pod-like fruit—from countries such as Ghana, Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Peru, Ecuador, and Venezuela have already met Guittard’s high standards for quality by the time they arrive at the factory dock. Outside the factory—to prevent contamination inside—burlap sacks are slashed, and the beans are dumped into shaking sieves to remove dirt and debris before they are transferred to one of two tall roasters inside the factory. Roasting is an art; the goal is to develop and enhance flavors inherent to the specific beans. Temperature and time depend on bean variety. They are done when an operator tastes and approves them, not when the timer goes off.
Roasted beans are transferred to the winnower where they are slammed against a surface and shattered into pieces called nibs. Nibs are shaken hard in a succession of perforated trays. Their thin, brittle shells are loosened and sucked away by vacuums as clean nibs collect beneath the trays. Too much shell left on the nibs degrades flavor and can leave unsafe levels of lead and cadmium in the final product; overzealous winnowing wastes nibs (and money).
A series of grinding steps (details depend on the final product) transforms winnowed nibs into fluid chocolate. The first grinder produces a coarse paste, just as peanuts become crunchy peanut butter in your food processor. The paste goes next to a 100-year-old stone liquor mill: three enormous rough-surfaced stone disks (each maybe 8 feet in diameter and 1 foot thick) stacked in an open tank. The paste is thrice ground between the stones until liquified. The result is pure chocolate liquor—the same as unsweetened baking chocolate—the base of all chocolate products. It’s bitter but packed with flavor. The liquor may be mixed with sugar (for sweetened chocolate) and milk (for milk chocolate).
The chocolate is drawn between two smooth steel rollers with an infinitesimal gap between them. The rollers spin in the same direction, one faster than the other. The sheering action of their unmatched speeds refines and smooths the sugar particles, transforming the paste into delicate ruffled flakes. When sampling from the “before” side, enjoy grainy sugar in the bittersweet paste—before tasting the dreamy ethereal flakes on the other side. These melt like satin on the tongue.
Flakes from the refiner are conveyed upward into a conch—an enormous tank so tall that we must climb up and walk the catwalk above the factory floor to peer inside. Metal arms mix the thick chocolate for a dozen hours, more or less, depending on the chocolate being made. Conching develops flavor and smooths the mass by forcing microscopic particles to rub against each other for hours. The chocolate becomes more fluid and unwanted fragrances and flavors—volatiles—are driven off. One might lean over and catch whiffs of wine or vinegar, or cheesy or other fermented notes unwanted in the final product. Additional cocoa butter may be added in the last stage of conching.
From the conch, the chocolate goes to the tempering machine, where it’s heated, cooled, and reheated—and agitated constantly—so that the fat crystals in the cocoa butter set properly to ensure that finished chocolate bars, chips, or wafers are glossy, break with a crisp snap, and melt perfectly on the palate.
Tempered chocolate is deposited into bar molds—classic 10-pounders or the svelte 500-gram bars of the Etienne Collection—or deposited directly onto the conveyer belt to make billions of tiny kiss-shaped baking chips or flat baking wafers. After a slow trip through a long cooling tunnel, shiny bars are tipped from their molds, and wafers or chips tumble and clatter over the end of the belt into bins to be weighed and packaged.