Once upon a time there was a young video producer looking for the perfect story. She was interested in so many things: marathon running, travel, road trips, kite surfing, and cooking pasta. To name a few.
But then one fateful winter’s night, she clicked a link promising 12 ways to spruce up your hot chocolate. And she became mildly obsessed.
One chocolate fascination led to another, and before she knew it, the young producer was searching the internet for anything she could find to do with bean-to-bar chocolate making. She wanted to see it, smell it, experience the whole process of chocolate.
Much of what she found was simply not what she was looking for. And then the young producer knew what she must do.
Perhaps you’ve now discerned that the young producer is not, in fact, Kathryn Bigelow – or anyone else famous for that matter – but rather she is the same person writing this blog post. And she found her perfect story. The story of chocolate.
Imagine my excitement when I learned of a real bean-to-bar chocolate maker right in my hometown. The only one in Northern Virginia. About fifteen minutes’ drive from my house.
Two years ago I got to meet Ben Rasmussen of Potomac Chocolate, who was so kind as to let me invade his magical chocolate-making space and take lots of video about the whole process of making chocolate. I can’t speak for Ben, but I had a complete blast.
Now to the uninitiated, the idea of watching chocolate go from a tub of beans to chocolate – a fully formed beautiful bar – may seem very exciting. Let me tell you it’s even better than you are imagining.
First Ben showed me (and my friend Val, who came along to help me capture the whole experience) the raw cacao beans shipped to him from from various tropical regions, which have been dried and fermented.
After sorting the beans to get rid of any odd bits of fluff that don’t belong, the beans are roasted according to a finely tuned and careful formula of heat plus time equals perfection. This step is crucial for maximizing the innate flavor qualities of the particular variety of cocoa beans Ben uses.
And also to avoid burning them. That’s important.
So, if you ever get a chance to taste a freshly roasted cocoa bean – DO IT. Nutty and savory right out of the shell, still warm from the oven. It tastes nothing like chocolate, but the texture and depth of flavor are amazing! Even two years later, my heart rate is accelerating just thinking about it.
As fun and wonderful as that roasting stage is, we’re still far from a finished product. Next Ben sifts the beans through a hand-cranked winnowing apparatus, designed to separate the shells from the good stuff.
What we’re left with:
Nibs! Cacao nibs, that’s what they are – roasted beans broken up into little pieces.
Now the nibs go through a two-step process of grinding and conching. The grinding turns the nibby chunks into a thick paste. then another machine (called a melanger – pronounced meh-LON-jer) conches that paste for a couple days.
This step is important to make the chocolate taste like chocolate. Conching evens out the texture, liquefies the cocoa butter, making the chocolate smooth. The sugar is added at this stage as well. And it smells really, really good.
After the long conch in the melanger, the chocolate is a thick, gorgeous goop. This gets put into yet another machine (can you believe anyone would have done all this by hand back in the day?). Time for tempering!
And now it’s finally time for bars. This fine batch of chocolate goes into molds and is jiggled by a vibrating machine to work out any air bubbles.
From here the chocolate sets and gets packaged and shipped to happy boys and girls all over the world. Well. Yes, basically.
You may be wondering if this tastes as good as it looks.
Just look at Val’s face —->
We tasted two bars, both single-origin (the only kind Ben makes), small batch bean-to-bar chocolate. One was made of cocoa beans from Costa Rica, the other Peru. Both magnificent.
With just two ingredients: chocolate and sugar.
No added cocoa butter or powder or lecithin or stuff. Just whatever was in the cacao bean when it was born. And something to make it sweeter.
Even with the aid of modern machinery, this chocolate-making business is still a lot of hard work! Give yourself a chance to savor the luxury of something like this. Chocolate is such a glorious treat.