There’s no denying that chocolate is one of the world’s favorite foods.
Whether you prefer milk, dark, caramel or added hazelnuts, chocolate is enjoyed by millions of people every year. So much so that the global chocolate and confectionery production industry is currently worth $100 billion.
UNSW food microbiologist, Associate Professor Jian Zhao of the UNSW School of Chemical Engineering, said that despite advances in research and manufacturing, the basic production process of chocolate has remained in high part the same for thousands of years.
“Food technologists can experiment with different flavors and styles of chocolate, but when it comes to the very heart of how it’s produced, we continue to make chocolate the old-fashioned way because people like the taste – so why reinvent the wheel ?” he says.
“Cocoa trees are native to the Amazon region in Central and South America. Thousands of years ago, the indigenous Indian and Aztec peoples used to make a drink from the beans rather than eating them as we do now.
“We now have plantations in Indonesia, Nigeria, Ghana and even small ones in North Queensland here in Australia, but most cocoa beans still come from Ivory Coast.
“It’s a growing industry because everyone loves chocolate – it’s almost become a staple in every household’s pantry.”
From bean to block
Chocolate production begins with cocoa. Each cocoa tree can produce about 1,000 beans per year, which is usually enough to make one kilogram of chocolate.
Cocoa cultivation is known to be very labor intensive and require hard manual labor, with plantation workers cutting the pods by hand with machetes.
Once the pods are ripe, they are harvested, and the cocoa beans are removed and placed in a pile covered with large banana leaves. This is called the fermentation stage and allows the beans to break down, explains A/Prof. Zhao.
“The fermentation stage takes about five to eight days depending on the climate,” he says.
“During this process, the flesh of the cocoa beans breaks down and many flavoring compounds are produced. This part of the process has a huge impact on the taste of the final product.
“Once the beans are fermented, they are sun-dried for several days, packaged and shipped to chocolate makers around the world.”
At the manufacturing facility, the dried cocoa beans are first roasted, allowing the bean’s vibrant colors and flavor to fully develop. The beans are cracked open and the “nibs”, the small pieces of crushed cocoa beans, are extracted and ground to produce cocoa liquor.
Depending on the manufacturer’s formula, milk and sugar or more cocoa powder can then be added to achieve the desired taste.
“This is where chocolatiers get creative and what really sets them apart from each other,” says the acting professor. Zhao.
“While most of the production process is usually done in large industrial warehouses, some smaller manufacturers still do it manually – it’s a culinary art form.”
Old world meets new world
Teacher. Zhao says understanding the science of chocolate helped develop modern ways to improve consistency during the fermentation process.
“We know that cocoa pods are still harvested by hand and the beans are dried on banana leaves on the ground – they still do things the traditional way, so there is little control over things like the hygiene,” he said.
“We’re trying to figure out which microbes are important to get that chocolate flavor we all know and love so we can grow microbes in static cultures.
“We then use these static cultures to turn the fermentation process into a more controlled industrial process – that’s the goal.”
What’s your flavor?
Europe is the largest chocolate producer and exporter in the world, with a global market share of around 40% of industrial chocolate.
But who wins the crown of the best chocolate in the world? It depends who you ask.
Teacher. According to Zhao, although two brands of chocolate may source cocoa beans from the same plantation, there may be a significant difference in taste throughout the production process.
“One chocolatier can do it all manually and another can add different ratios of milk and sugar,” he says.
“Even if you get the same beans from the same plantation, that doesn’t mean you’ll get the same tasting block of chocolate in the end.
“It’s like wine. A bottle of red wine produced by different winemakers but from the same grapes will always taste different, even if it is the same type of wine.
“Some people will say Swiss chocolate is the best and some will say Belgian chocolate is superior, but it comes down to personal preference and taste buds.”