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How We Make Chocolate

Cacao beans in a freshly opened pod are covered by a moist sugary-sweet/tart matrix.  The bean itself is usually lavendar in cross section, and bitter to taste...not a hint of "chocolatyness".  There is absolutely no resemblance, by any measure, to the smooth, glossy, delicious chocolate bar they'll become.

By what magic are raw beans transformed into chocolate?

Worldwide, chocolate is produced from beans that are grown, harvested, fermented and dried in the equatorial regions.  The dried beans are then shipped to cooler/drier regions (ie: "German" chocolate) for roasting, winnowing, grinding, mixing (often with sugar, vanilla and cocoa butter), tempering and pouring.  This means the chocolate maker is dependent on the skill and dedication of the farmers in distant lands to ensure the dried beans were fermented properly and thoroughly dried...without molding.



In contrast, at HouLau, every step of the process is performed on site, at the Farm.  This gives us the unique ability to directly manage and adjust every step and is a distinct advantage when considering our goal is to make the "best chocolate in the world".


Each step in the process can go wrong...often in several different ways.  If you've read about the farm you're aware of some of the challenges of growing cacao trees to productive maturity.  The next step is the harvest.


Pods ripen about 6 months after flowering, resulting in two harvesting periods each year.  Several distinct harvest days occur during each period, depending on how many pods have ripened.  This results in about six to ten harvest days per year.

Pods are harvested when they show "pumpkin yellow" just under the surface of the skin when scratched.  It doesn't matter what color(s) the pod is, when ripe, they all show pumpkin yellow, and unripe pods will show green.  The ripe pods are cut from their base with a pruning knife, with care taken not to damage the tree as new pods will develop at the same location for future harvests.   


Harvest too early and the beans will produce chocolate without "character", too late, and the chocolate will be unacceptably bitter and astringent.  We examine the beans in each pod before they're added to the new batch.  Any over- or under-ripe pods/beans are composted.


Once harvested, we take all the pods to our solar-panel-roofed "porch" and literally "crack" them open using a variety of methods, including striking one pod against another or "whacking" with a short 2x2 stick.  The beans, covered by a yummy, tart, sugary-sweet coating or matrix are then stripped out of the pod into 5-gallon bucket(s) for fermentation.  For larger harvests, we use a larger plastic tub.



If you put sugary sweet, wet, organic material into a container and add the warm, moist, yeast-laden air of Kauai, you get...fermentation of course.  It's inevitable, and it's the next step in processing.

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Most people think of fermentation as the biological conversion of sugar into alcohol.  Fermentation of cacao beans begins there, but is so much more.  As the sugary matrix outside the bean is being converted to alcohol (and, ultimately, CO2 and water), a myriad of changes occur inside the bean behind the semi-permeable husk (testis) surrounding the cotyledon or "bean"..the part that becomes chocolate.

Our fermentation "recipe" is still evolving.  This is despite several years of experience, and because of several years of experience.  

Large plantations ferment beans in open boxes or in piles and there is sufficient mass (tons) to generate the heat needed to drive the fermentation to conclusion.  However, with the small mass of beans we typically have, additional heat and insulation from ambient temperatures is needed to ferment properly.  So, we put the bucket/tub of beans in an insulating chest freezer (unplugged) with a light-bulb heat source and thermostatic controller to periodically boost the temperature as the mass proceeds through several phases of fermentation.

The freezer box helps solve one problem (need for additional heat) but creates another..a dearth of oxygen.  Though the first stage of fermentation is anerobic (without oxygen), as noted above, later stages are aerobic (require oxygen).  Thus, excess fluid is drained off, the box lid cracked open, and the beans manually mixed periodially after the anaerobic phase.  This, inevitably drains heat from the bean mass, but, the additional oxygen, in concert with the necessary microbes, also generates heat.  Banana leaves are used to line the fermenting tub to provide a natural source of yeast and added insulation.  Similarly, as the pods are being opened after harvest, pieces of the pods are cut and mixed into the mass of newly harvested beans to inoculate the bean mass with yeast.

The "set" temperature is set at 95 deg F. to start; and the set temperature is increased over the next several days to a maximum of 122 deg.  This helps the "good" microbes to thrive and suppresses those that would destroy or "rot" the bean mass.

All this means that when we're fermenting, we'll stay on site 24/7 for the entire, planned, 7 days of fermentation.  During this time the beans are temperature-checked every few hours, with temperature adjustments and mixing done as needed, and are examined for aroma, color (inside and out), presence of "fissures", moisture, bitterness, astringency, sourness and most critically, flavor.


Several parameters are used to measure the progress of fermentation, including furrowing and browning of the beans in cut section, increased internal moisture, degree of bitterness and astringency (a sensation of dryness to taste) and development of a flavor unique to fermenting cacao beans.  When all the parameters are met, fermentation is complete and the beans are ready for drying.

When freshly harvested beans are cut in half, they show a relatively "dry" smooth, lavender appearance and are bitter and astringent to taste.  No hint of "chocolate" flavor is present.  By the end of fermentation, the sugary matrix is gone and the testis of the beans has turned brown.  The cut bean is moist or juicy, and deeply fissured.  It's now chocolate brown on the outside surface and, ideally, brown or tan deeper in.  The bitterness and astringency are far less evident.  Most importantly, the beans are now flavorful and offer a hint of the character of the chocolate they'll have when fully processed.  Nonetheless, though chocolate colored, there's still no hint of that chocolate-y flavor.



You would think with all the sunshine in Hawaii drying cacao

beans would be easy...

There's just a couple of problems...

First:  a freshly fermented cacao bean has lost the moist matrix and

the skin of the husk (testis) surrounding the bean is exposed, and

relatively easily dried.  A couple of days in the warm sun would do it...except..the testis is only partially permeable to water, meaning the juicy moisture surrounding the bean inside the husk dries at a much slower rate..requiring a minimum of two weeks to fully dry the beans.  Rarely is there a two-week window of sunny days of (relatively) low humidity.


Second:  even if the beans are protected from rain, evenings bring heavy dew that settles on everything outside, essentially reversing the drying that the sun produced and, leaving the beans at high risk of molding before they can fully dry.

Solution: enter the Chocolate Factory kitchen!!

Since studies have shown chocolate made from sun-dried beans have superior flavor, we now dry our fermented beans with a combination of sun exposure when possible and inside the air-conditioned and dehumidified kitchen when needed.  Though cooler and without direct sunlight, the low humidity and constant airflow inside the kitchen do a very efficient job of drying the beans.  The dried beans have a deep tan to mahogany colored testis.  This drying method is unique to our circumstance and would be very costly to duplicate on an industrial/worldwide scale due to the expense of building and running an indoor drying facility on each of thousands of small farms.  We believe this makes a significantly positive difference in the flavor quality of HouLau chocolate. 

Once dried, the beans are stored in net bags inside the kitchen until needed for roasting.


As with other steps in chocolate production, roasting is an art unto itself.  It's also a key step in bringing out the inherent flavor potential (fruity, nutty, earthy...chocolatey etc.) of the beans and a "last chance" to reduce the inherent bitterness and astringency of the resulting chocolate.  To say we have a "set" or "fixed" roasting "profile" would be disingenuous..partly because there is no "correct" roast for all beans.  The duration of roast and profile of temperature applied during that roast can be adjusted to enhance one or more qualities and altered to enhance other qualities.  It depends on the roaster's intent and preferences.


One element of roasting that many of our visitors find interesting is that, of a "nominal" 22 minute roast, the first 8-10 minutes is there to drive out the last remaining moisture by boiling it off.  Only after all the moisture is gone does the internal bean temperature rise above 212 F (boiling)...and only then, does true "roasting" begin.  You backyard barbecue kings (and queens) are familiar with this phenomenon in the form of barbecue "stall" or "plateau".  It's the same thing.


The flavor difference between a raw bean and a well roasted bean can be very dramatic..somewhat akin to the difference between a slice of "raw" cheddar cheese and a slice of cheese that's been fried to a crisp in a pan.

We use a commercial, tabletop, coffee roaster.  When completed, the husk has ballooned up, freed itself from the underlying bean and become brittle and easily removed (winnowed)...the next step.







Winnowing removes the thin, now brittle, husk from the underlying bean.  In the early days, we did this by hand, very slow, labor-intensive process.  For a price, machines are available to both crack the husk/bean pairing and, by air-flow process, separate the bean particles (nibs) from the pieces of husk...well worth the cost....and quite efficient.

The husk particles (with the inevitable sprinkling of

roasted cacao bean "dust" and fragments) can be

put into small bags and made into a tasty

"chocolatea"..or composted.

Unlike peanuts, roasted cacao beans are deeply fissured,

so, when cracked and winnowed, they break along

these natural fault lines into the fragments known as

nibs.  The nibs, now fully roasted, are, by definition,

100% (very dark) chocolate.

IF we've started with good beans, and successfully navigated all the pitfalls between harvest and roasting, the nibs will have a nutty consistency and will be flavorful and pleasant to taste or snack on.  This may seem counter-intuitive to many who have tasted nibs, either alone, or mixed with chocolate or other foods, since most commercial nibs are second-rate at best, have significant bitterness and/or astringency, and little by way of pleasant flavor.  It may also be a bit surprising to anyone who has decided they "don't like really dark chocolate".  At HouLau, we like to think it very likely that someone who doesn't like dark (70% or more) chocolate has just never tasted GOOD dark chocolate.

Is it chocolate yet?.  No...but soon.



Grinding of the roasted nibs is as close to magic as you'll ever see.

The nibs are poured into a grinder (in our case, a spice grinder

co-opted to make chocolate).  The grinder has a stainless steel

cylinder with a granite bottom and two free-wheeling granite

wheels.  As the cylinder rotates, the nibs are crushed between

the bottom of the cylinder and the wheels.

The magic begins as the heat from the crushing action begins to melt

the cocoa butter and the the nibs (the cocoa solids)are ground ever finer.  A wonderful aroma fills the air as the s eemingly dry nibs turn into a glistening, "chunky" emulsion of nibs and cocoa butter.

Soon the cocoa solids become so small as to leave the emulsion appearing smooth, like the chocolate in a chocolate fountain.  Grinding is continued until the size of the cocoa solids is so small as to be undetectable...nominally less than 22 microns (22 one-thousandths of a millimeter) one visitor said, we're making "dust" suspended in oil.  This usually takes about 24 hours.  Particle size is measured directly by dipping a toothpick into the flowing, chocolate-y mass and transferring a small spot of it between the anvil and spindle faces of a digital micrometer.  A bio-assay is also performed at this time..(we lick the chocolate off of the toothpick).

Still, though, it's not "CHOCOLATE".


On average, cocoa beans are half cocoa solids and half cocoa butter (or oil, or fat molecules).  It's the cocoa butter, when tempered (see below) that gives chocolate the glistening surface and "snap" when broken.

We make 70%, by weight, dark chocolate.  By definition, any part of the finished product that comes directly from a cacao bean counts.  We use 63% HouLau beans and, as is common, 7% additional, commercially available, organic cocoa butter..adding up to a total of 70%.  The remaining 30% is commercially available, pure, organic, granulated cane sugar.  We also add the contents of 1/2 of one of Sally's HouLau-grown vanilla beans to the mix.

The sugar, cocoa butter and vanilla can be added at any time during grinding, keeping in mind the need for all solids to be ground to <22 microns if the chocolate is to be smooth.  The cocoa butter (endogenous and additional) makes the chocolate creamy.

For a moment, let's go back to the "I don't like dark chocolate" thing again.  It's a fallacy to think dark chocolate has to be bitter or that chocolate has to be less than 70% cacao to have any sweetness or fruity flavor.  


We-who-make-chocolate need to taste as many different varieties of chocolate as possible.  How else can we know what's good and what isn't?  We've met the

challenge and can report there is NO correlation

between "sweet" or "fruity" taste and the presence of

30% sugar.  We've sampled many a "high end" 70%

bar that had zero fruit.  It's in the bean!  Once again,

like "garbage in:garbage out", if the beans you start

with don't have the potential for that particular

fruity sweetness, no amount of sugar will

reverse it.  On the flip side, we know of one, particular,

(Hawaiian-grown) chocolate, 70% bar that usually has an

almost overwhelming fruity flavor.

HouLau chocolate is characteristically sweet, fruity and

chocolate-y.  It's there in the beans, we just need to

"bring it out".


NOW  it's CHOCOLATE...ready to be tempered and

poured into molds!


Think of carbon.  Pure carbon is found in different

crystal forms.  One form is graphite..good for pencil

lead and lubrication..soft, easily rubbed off.  Another

common form of carbon is diamond..a very different

substance:  hard, transparent, and brilliant, refractive

and reflective

Cocoa butter also forms crystals..six different types

of them.  The one people are most aware of is the

whitish discoloration on a chocolate bar that was left

in the cupboard and forgotten.  That's Type VI. 

The discoloration isn't mold or "rot".  The bar is still

edible, it just doesn't have an appealing appearance

or texture.  We can ignore Type VI in tempering

because it takes weeks to months to form.  


As the number of the crystal type goes up, so does the temperature at which it melts...Type VI being the most

"stable", the last to melt as the temperature increases..AND the first to form as molten chocolate is cooled.

Tempering chocolate is the process of selectively encouraging crystal Type V.  It's simple in principle, complex in practice. 


Machines are available to facilitate tempering, but it can be done by hand.  A tempering machine typically has a heat source (light bulbs) and fans for cooling with an electronic thermostat and means of monitoring and setting the desired a moving basin that constantly stirs the chocolate.


The idea is to heat the chocolate past the melting point of all the crystals...108 F will do.  If you think for a moment, this is not much higher than body's just "warm".  After a short time, all the crystals are melted and the mass can then be cooled to a point below the 93-degree melting point of Type V and above the melting point of Type IV.  This enhances the formation of the desired Type V crystals and precludes the formation of Type IV (& III, & II, & I).  In this temperature range, Type V crystals will form naturally..but, due to the constant shearing movement of the chocolate in the tempering machine, large crystal formations will be broken up into smaller ones.  


In specific terms: we melt the chocolate (or pour the newly made, molten, chocolate from the grinder) into a tempering machine and ensure it's warm enough to have melted all the crystals.  If poured from the grinder, we give it a few minutes for the temperatures of chocolate and machine to equilibrate.  The process from this point forward varies depending on the type of tempering machine we're using..we have two.  For the sake of simplicity, we'll describe the less-automated version.

The set temperature is lowered to 90 degrees.  The temperature of the chocolate mass is monitored closely using an infrared-laser thermometer.  When the temperature reaches 97 degrees F a square of our previously-tempered chocolate is placed "behind" the baffle (see pic above) where it is bathed in a swirl of molten chocolate.  Though it doesn't melt, the mechanical action of the molten chocolate flowing across it's surface "picks up" Type V crystals and "seeds" the larger mass of chocolate that is in front of the baffle.  This seeding causes a chain reaction of crystal formation resulting in the mass coming "into temper", often within 10-20 minutes rather than the hour or two it would require if no seed is used.

The trick at this point is to have the chocolate mass warm enough to keep it from "freezing" too rapidly to allow it to be poured but cool enough that the "latent heat" released with crystalization doesn't destroy the temper after the chocolate is poured into a mold.

The degree of temper is assessed by dipping a kitchen knife into the molten mass and placing it on a tray to monitor how long it takes to barely begin to show dulling of it's surface.  Ideally, dulling at 3 minutes indicates the mass is "in temper" and ready to be poured.

Poorly tempered or untempered chocolate can appear amazingly beautiful..but it will not look like good chocolate.  Here's an example of chocolate that

was partially melted when the solar

electric system failed and it had to be

poured into a container "as is".  You

can see partially melted bar(s)

surrounded by swirls of poorly tempered


No can be re-tempered

any number of times.

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Pouring chocolate into molds.

There are machines for everything, even pouring chocolate into molds.  We do ours the old fashioned by one with a hand ladle.  The ladle is heated to match the temperature of the now-tempered chocolate mass and the molds are chilled in a wine cooler set at 56 degrees F.  The latter is an essential step that minimizes the chance of the latent heat taking the freshly poured chocolate out of temper.  For the same reason, once poured, each mold is placed back into the wine cooler.

The chilled bars, still in the molds, will attract condensation if removed from the wine cooler at 56 degrees, thus discoloring the otherwise beautifully glossy surface.  So..after pouring and cooling, the wine cooler is turned off and both it and the new bars are allowed to come to room temperature (74 degrees) overnight.

If we've gotten the planting, growing, harvesting, fermenting, drying, roasting, winnowing, grinding, and tempering right, the result is a shiny, deep-chocolate-colored bar of first rate chocolate that's pleasing to the eye, snaps when broken, smells "chocolate-y", melts smoothly, and tastes as good or better than any other chocolate you've ever tasted.

Try a bar.

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