This post isn’t really a recipe. Rather, it’s a reflection on chocolate. Probably the best thing in the world. Happiness in a bar. Or a cup. Or…and it goes on.
I’m using Mast Brothers as a profile to share one of the most dramatic transformations in the food world. From cacao pod to chocolate, welcome to chocolate town!
The Mast Brothers, two brothers from Iowa, were among the first to bring “bean to bar” to America. The United States has a pretty bad rep for chocolate quality, and they sought to change that in accordance with the heightened consumer demand for fresh, quality ingredients. They invested all the money they had to bring cacao (cacao is cocoa before being refined) beans from farmers in Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Belize, and the Dominican Republic to America in order to make premium chocolate. Most chocolatiers source already processed chocolate and do what they wish to it by adding all sorts of different creams, fats, and other inclusions. While these are absolutely delicious, the Mast bros. wanted to showcase chocolate in a different way: using only the cocoa nibs from the beans and sugar to sweeten. Such a simple recipe allows you to really taste cocoa in a way you never have before. You start to pick out all sorts of different flavor notes in the chocolate, and you can actually taste different things in bars from different countries.
Mast Brothers has become very visible in the past year as having the best chocolate around according to Jared Leto and Beyoncé. But despite the rise in demand, they continue to do business as usual including hand-sorting and frequent tasting during the process. They very generously let me tag along and learn the tools of the trade for a few days.
The chocolate process starts long before the beans are picked up by the Iowan brothers. Cacao pods are large fruits that grow in tropical environments and can be as large as your head. They also range in color from yellow/orange to purple. Once the pods are harvested, the beans and the pulp from within the pods are removed. The beans are roughly separated from the pulp and left to ferment in the sun for up to 7 days. Fermentation is important because it kills the seed within the cacao beans so that it stops developing. Fermentation is one of two very important steps in chocolate flavor. In this stage, yeasts and bacteria present in the beans produce acid and breakdown parts of the beans leading to chocolate flavor precursors. Basically this means that the bean becomes less bitter and slightly tangy. This doesn’t mean that the beans taste like chocolate. They are still very bitter and taste nothing like what you and I think of as chocolate. When fermentation is finished, the beans are dried and then bagged; now they are ready to be transported!
Once the beans arrive in the very beautiful “factory” that the Mast Brothers have created, they are hand-sorted to get rid of any rocks, bark, or less-favorable beans. Then, the beans are spread out on roasting sheets and roasted in the oven. Roasting is the second step of the flavor-developing process. It is in this step that precursors react forming the cocoa flavor. Maillard Browning plays a role here in flavor development as well!
Now the cocoa beans are ready to be winnowed! Winnowing is simply the act of removing the husk from the “meat” of the bean called the nib. The Mast brothers have their own way of doing this. After a few trips to home improvement stores, they built a machine that crushes the cocoa beans and separates the nibs from the husks with a heavy-duty fan. Cocoa beans are fed into the machine scoop by scoop. Industrial machines have a similar set up, but on a much larger scale.
Now the nibs are ready to be ground! This is my favorite part of the process because you can visibly see the coarse nibs turn into liquid gold. The nibs are loaded into stainless steel containers that have large stone grinders. The grinders go to town on the cocoa nibs to try to turn them from gritty to silky. Once the nibs have been grinding for a while, sugar is added according to the bar (Mast Brothers bars have much less sugar than most commercial bars). After about two days of grinding, the chocolate is ready! It is poured into large molds and stored until needed. If there is another inclusion like the Mast Brothers bar with Stumptown coffee, this is also the time for the flavors in the chocolate to become a little friendlier with each other and marry. Letting flavors harmonize mellows out the flavor and creates a better chocolate bar.
The chocolate is then melted down and molded into bars. Package them in the fun Mast Brothers paper, and you’ve got yourself a winner!
Chocolate is a complex food that goes through many steps to get to where it is on the grocery store shelf. It’s also instant happiness, so enjoy it whichever way you like!
Photo credit to Design Diversions and Barry Callebaut for the cacao pod and brothers images.