The Power of the Pod

Chocolate. The alluring, deep brown foreign delicacy, ever-tempting weak hearts near cash registers. This complex concoction that we toss into the bags of eager trick-or-treaters shares little resemblance to the pulp-encased seeds of the cacao plant (Coe and Coe). It was not by luck or fortune that cacao became one of the most ubiquitous goods on the planet. Rather, across four millennia, the sweet, savory bars and cups we consume daily came from detailed process; this process of turning seed into succulence was and still is painstaking, precise and most importantly, profitable. In order to truly appreciate something as simple and fragile as the Kit-Kat, a detailed overview of the production of chocolate is essential.

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Kit-Kat, modern day manna from Heaven.

Once the cacao pods are taken from their respective trees, the pods are opened and the production of chocolate begins. Regardless of the level of technology, fermentation, along with the three other principle steps to produce cacao “nibs”, is always first. The white fruit pulp—known as baba—that encapsulates the beans plays an important role in cacao production (Presilla). The beans themselves are commonly placed in three areas around the world: leaf mats, trays or simple boxes. During the first day, the baba starts to ferment, liquefy, and drain away as the temperate of the pulp-seed mass rises (Presilla). Using a more scientific lens, the pH of the mass goes down, causing the acidity of the fermented baba to kill the embryo within the bean (Coe and Coe). Through the death of the embryo comes the birth of a multiple of flavors, ranging from astringent to bitter. In its entirety, the fermentation process heats the mass of beans to up 122 degrees Fahrenheit for multiple days depending on the variety of cacao (Coe and Coe).

mars-patent-for-processing-unfermented-cocoa-beans

Fermented cacao beans on leaf mat. 

Following fermentation, the cacao beans are then placed on sun baked mats and left to dry for around a week. In order to ensure every side of the beans have their fill of sunlight, cacao farmers turn the beans with a wooden rake several times (Presilla). As the sun sets, the beans are moved into shelter, protecting them from the environment. By then end of the week, nature has taken its course, leaving behind darkened beans half their original weight (Coe and Coe). Thus, sun drying is generally recognized as producing better and more economical results, yet it may not be possible due to climate. If the beans are dried through flame or forced air, the beans can develop harsher flavors due to exposure to smoke or gas. Once again, the stakes are high; if the process is too slow, mold and bacilli can ruin the flavor. If dried too fast, the biological processes accelerate, resulting in acidic tasting cacao. Once all is well, workers cut into the beans, ensuring that each one is perfectly dried to ensure the undertones of chocolate flavor are in place (Coe and Coe).

After the drying period, the cacao beans are collected and roasted. In modern times, technology allows the beans to treated in giant roasters that precisely heat the beans in a controlled environment (Presilla). In the past, fire was the primary mode to roast the beans, adding another level of difficulty in protecting the flavor of the bean from external pollutants.

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Woman grinding cacao nibs.

The final step of the process is winnowing. Winnowing involves taking the now brittle beans and detaching them from the hulls. Specifically, whether by hand or machine, the “shells” of the beans are peeled off and, in and growing rare practice, sold to make cheap cocoa that even the jolly Irish called “miserables.” (Presilla) The remaining fragments of beans, or “nibs”, are grounded down by high-speed mills into “cacao liquor,” a combination of cacao butter and solids (Presilla). However, indigenous certainly did not have access to such technology; rather, traditional indigenous chocolate making involved grinding cacao nibs by hand on a metate.

The resulting brown gritty mass is akin to clay; both are the foundation of the unique, admired end product. So how is the Kit-Kat formed? First, familiar and modern ingredients, such as sugar, vanilla, and powdered milk are added to the cacao liquor, resulting in a dark paste. This sticky paste slides down conveyor belts, and is refined to a powderlike form through steel rollers. The powered substance is then fed to a conce, a machine that kneads the cacao back into a mellowed mass. The resulting mass is warmed in storage tanks, then at any moment piped into a tempering machine and poured into chocolate bar molds that are then cooled. (Presilla) From sunlight to cold steel, the chocolate is dressed in solemn red wrapping and eventually plopped in your local CVS.

Citations

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Fermented Cacao Beans. Digital image. Confectionary News. N.p., 12 Sept. 2014. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.
Kit-Kat. Digital image. Wikipedia.org. N.p., 28 Feb. 2005. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.

Woman Grinding Cacao Nibs. Digital image. Hungry Cravings. N.p., 28 Feb. 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

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