From its sacred role in ancient societies to its place in contemporary cultures, chocolate’s lasting impact spans centuries and civilizations. But there’s more to chocolate than the candy confections that line grocery store shelves. Curious about how raw cacao transform from a pod on a tree into dense, luscious chocolate? We chatted with Nashville chocolate maker Scott Witherow of Olive & Sinclair who walked us through the process.
Harvesting. “It’s crazy to think,” says Witherow, “but cacao comes from giant pods that grow along the trunks of trees.” Concentrated in deep tropical regions mostly within 20 degrees north or south of the equator, cacao grows from Ghana to the Dominican Republic. “Once the greenish pods turn orange, they’re ripe for harvest and are pretty much chopped off the tree with a machete.”
Fermentation. Not unlike wine grapes, cacao beans undergo a fermentation process that lends itself to the finished flavor of the chocolate. After the pods are removed from the tree, they’re hacked open and the beans inside removed for fermentation. “This is where the flavors really start to develop,” Witherow notes, “including lots of subtleties that we try and highlight is later steps.” Depending on the location and the batch size of cacao beans, fermentation can take place on everything from a banana leaf-lined ground to large wooden crates stacked atop of each other.
Drying. “After fermentation, the beans are spread out on massive screen tables and sun-dried for about a week,” says Witherow. “This helps the white pulpy coating on the beans leftover from fermentation wither away.” And drying also marks the final stage at origin before the beans get packaged up and shipped to the chocolatier.
Sorting. “Now our process begins,” says Witherow, who acquires the beans soon after they’re dried and hand-sorts through them at least four to five times. “Cacao is a natural product, and we’ve found everything from rocks and twigs to coins in the sacks,” he says. “It can be pretty interesting, but we definitely don’t want this stuff to end up in the chocolate.” And moldy beans? Definitely out. “One moldy bean is like a bad apple and can throw off the whole batch.”
Roasting. “Roasting is where each maker’s recipe starts,” Witherow says, “because it’s all hands-on at this point.” Utilizing a machine similar to a coffee roaster, Witherow slow-roasts the cacao beans in 75-pound batches, where the finished flavor of the chocolate really takes shape.
Shelling. After roasting, the outer shell (which accounts for 10 to15 percent of the roasted bean) is removed to get to the meaty cocoa nibs inside. “We use something that looks like a grain winnower,” says Witherow. “It gently cracks the beans and bitty vacuums remove the lighter weight shell leaving us with the nibs.” But don’t mistake the outer shells for garbage—instead of sending them off to the compost pile, Witherow partners with other local companies to use the discarded shells in their own cacao-inspired products, like Terrapin’s Semi-Byproduct Milk Chocolate Stout and Prichard’s Double Chocolate Bourbon.
Grinding. “Once we separate out the nibs, we grind them with a beautiful old stone mill brought over from Spain,” Witherow says. “It’s similar to an olive oil press and just pushes and rolls out the cocoa mass.” Next up? Conching.
Conching. “In my opinion, conching really finishes out the flavor development of chocolate,” says Witherow. A refining method that smoothes the somewhat gritty cocoa mass into the silken chocolate most people expect when they bite into a bar, conching is a process invented by Randolf Lindt, and it allows you to create chocolate particles even smaller than what the grinding process produces by compressing them under the friction of metal beads. It’s also during this stage that Witherow doses the chocolate with his signature touch—brown sugar. “As far as I know, we’re the only chocolate maker in the world to use brown sugar,” he says. “I think it was kind of a southern knee-jerk reaction, but we tasted people on everything from agave to turbinado, and the brown sugar chocolate won out every time.”
Tempering. With the chocolate almost complete, a quick process of heating and then cooling the chocolate adds the final touch in the production process. “We let machines do it for us,” Witherow says, “which ultimately results in shiny chocolate with nice snap and slow melt.”
Packaging. Witherow oversees every last detail, all the way down to the hand-wrapping and packaging of each bar. In fact, on occasion you might even spot his mom Reda helping spread the chocolate love at Olive & Sinclair.
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