Welcome to the second of my ‘From Bean-to-Bar & Beyond’ blogs, all about really good quality craft chocolate. In this one I give you all the info about how craft chocolate making happens, as told to me by Conner Haines, owner of the UK-based Mayhawk company. And if you want to read my first blog instalment about ingredients in chocolate alongside this, you can find it here.
NB: The Mayhawk Chocolate company provided some source material for my ‘From Bean-to-Bar & Beyond’ series of articles, and kindly donated a competition prize. I’ve used them as an example only of how the best bean-to-bar companies make craft chocolate. All views are my own unless otherwise stated.
What is craft chocolate making and where did it start?
The first glimmers of the small-batch craft chocolate movement started in the early 2000s. In the USA and UK, ‘home-brew’ style online forums popped up, and the first commercial small-batch pioneers emerged. Globally, craft chocolate making made a real commercial start around 2011.
But what do the words ‘craft’ or ‘artisan’ mean when applied to chocolate?
What they should signify, above all, is chocolate that’s been made with the best natural ingredients. And I’ve written a whole separate article about the massive difference that the best ingredients make in craft chocolate.
Craft chocolate making is often described as ‘bean-to-bar’. Craft chocolate makers should use ethically-sourced raw materials, traditional techniques, and minimal processing. They will often be small producers making chocolate in small batches. I would expect them to have applied skill, care and craftsmanship to all stages of craft chocolate making. And they should have paid higher prices to growers for high-quality, single-origin, cocoa beans.
So ‘bean-to-bar’ producers carry out the whole complicated craft chocolate making process, starting with the cocoa beans. Indeed, they may even be ‘tree-to-bar’ producers, owning their own cocoa plantations.
And all this should result in chocolate that tastes amazing. It will be infinitely superior to – and healthier than – mass-produced chocolate made with inferior ingredients. It’s these factors that make just a little good quality chocolate go a long way. And for me, and many other chocolate-lovers, it’s all this that justifies craft chocolate’s often significantly higher price.
My visit to a small batch craft chocolate maker: Mayhawk Chocolate
I first discovered the craft chocolate making company, Mayhawk Chocolate, last year. I was visiting foodie mecca Abergavenny Food Festival, where Mayhawk had a stall. The care and attention to detail that Mayhawk had put into their chocolate was evident from the start. The samples I tried tasted stunningly good, and I was keen to buy a few different flavoured bars.
What really impressed me was learning that Mayhawk is a proper bean-to-bar chocolate maker. They use the best-quality ingredients to do everything themselves in-house. That’s even down to doing their own photography, design and printing for their very funky chocolate bar outer-wrappers. It was all that that first compelled me to mention them in my article about Abergavenny Food Festival 2017.
Following my enthusiastic ravings, I was then delighted to be invited to Mayhawk’s small factory in Lydney, Gloucestershire, England, UK. Here I met company owner Conner. He was massively generous with his time, showing me each stage of the intricate craft chocolate making process.
How is Craft Chocolate Made?
When you want to buy good quality chocolate, it’s important to understand that the craft chocolate making process has two key distinct elements.
And the second part is chocolatiering. This is what chocolatiers do. It involves using skill to design and add flavours to chocolate couverture (see below). So essentially chocolatiers make a shaped and flavoured finished chocolate product e.g. the filled chocolates you would buy from a chocolate counter.
So a bean-to-bar chocolate maker is also a chocolatier. But a chocolatier is not a chocolate maker.
Unfortunately, many companies purposefully blur the lines to give the impression of performing both processes, but actually just do chocolatiering. Such companies buy-in ready-made cocoa liquor or coverture which they process into chocolate bars, while neglecting to explain the chocolate’s original origin.
Best quality from companies that do both craft chocolate making & chocolatiering
For best quality control, a company will own as much of the whole chocolate making process from bean-to-bar as possible. Mayhawk, Duffy’s, and Chocolate Tree in the UK, are just a few examples of true bean-to-bar companies. And so is my absolute favourite, Pierre Marcolini, from Brussels. (As a tip to fellow Brits, he has his own shop, plus a concession in Selfridges, in London. My favourite chocolate in the whole world is his 78% Sambirano Madagascar bar, which has wonderful fruity notes!).
Internationally, other famous bean-to-bar brands include Amedei in Italy, and Madécasse and Xocolatl in the US. The grandaddy of them all, and perhaps the best well-known worldwide, is Valrhona in France. And I was delighted to discover the exquisite chocolate by Marou on a recent visit to Vietnam. If you live elsewhere and are looking for a great bean-to-bar producer in your own country, then this non-comprehensive list may put you on the right track.
The relatively few craft chocolate makers that are ‘tree-to-bar’ include UK company Willie’s Cacao, with plantations in Venezuela. And UK company Hotel Chocolat use cocoa beans from their St Lucian plantations for their Rabot 1745 bars.
So what’s involved in the two processes that bring you a bar of fabulous craft chocolate?
1. Craft Chocolate Making
Preparing the beans
The craft chocolate maker starts with hessian sacks of cocoa beans. The beans are hand-sifted to remove any foreign material like stones. They are then further hand-sifted on a tray to remove any that are too small or have germinated.
Conner at Mayhawk says this ‘underrated and tedious’ job is the necessary first-stage for making fine quality chocolate. In Mayhawk’s case, they recycle the discarded poor-quality beans as fertilizer on their farm site.
The sorted cocoa beans are then roasted. (That is, unless ‘raw’, or even ‘virgin‘, chocolate is being made from unroasted beans).
Natural tannins, acids and off-flavours can give chocolate an undesirable taste. Conner told me that roasting is the first and main process for removing them, so that no flavour-flaws remain. Roasting also starts the Malliard reaction in the beans. This gives finished chocolate a more caramelised flavour, which is missing in most ‘raw’ (i.e. unroasted) chocolate.
Cocoa beans can be roasted in a specialist commercial coffee roaster, or in a large convection oven. What’s important is to have consistent air flow around the beans to achieve an even roast. Different types of cocoa bean need different profiles of roasting time and temperature, depending on their specific moisture and acidity. Large fans then cool down the beans, removing residual heat so they don’t continue roasting beyond their profile time.
Cracking the Beans
The whole roasted beans then have to be ‘cracked’. A cracking machine breaks up the whole bean into smaller pieces (cocoa nibs), simultaneously tearing off the thin outer-shell.
Conner, and many of the pioneer chocolate makers, initially used a Champion Juicer for cracking beans. Mayhawk have now moved on from this, but Conner recommends it to anyone starting out in chocolate making.
Winnowing is the next step in the process. It separates the shattered bits of cocoa bean – the nibs – from the wispy outer-husks. At Mayhawk, the unwanted husks are then ploughed into the fields as a natural fertilizer.
Machines costing around £18,000 (US$25,000) in 2018 can winnow 30-50kg of beans an hour. But Conner is rightly proud of the winnowing machine he’s built himself and refined over time. Costing only a fraction of the price, it can winnow over 40kg an hour. Conner suggests a winnower is the first machine that you should home-build. That is, if you’re serious about starting out in craft chocolate making from cocoa beans, but on a budget.
Next, the clean, separated, cocoa nibs must be ground down to a size of below 40 microns. This will eventually result in chocolate that’s smooth on the tongue. Grinding is also the second stage during which fragile and volatile acids that give ‘off-flavours’ to chocolate can be removed.
Chocolate makers often grind roasted cocoa nibs using stone-grinders with granite wheels. The result is a liquid called ‘cocoa liquor’ or ‘chocolate liquor’. This liquor is what many chocolate manufacturers that are not true chocolate makers buy-in to make chocolate bars.
Mayhawk regard conching/refining as an essential step in fine chocolate production. When done properly, heated cocoa liquor is moved around, while hot air is moved over it. That removes the last of the chocolate’s unpleasant-tasting volatile acidic compounds, and refines its consistency.
Conner told me that some companies may miss out this step. Or they may leave conching to be done by their stone-grinding machines. But this means that subtle ‘character flaws’ in the chocolate will often remain, even in expensive bean-to-bar chocolate.
The result of all the processes above is chocolate liquor, with sugar added, which is called ‘couverture’. This finished chocolate is what chocolatiers buy to start their work.
A chocolate maker who’s performed the whole process to this point may also perform the function of a chocolatier. That is, the final processes that make chocolate bars, or chocolates sold on chocolate counters, in their final state for selling.
But the chocolatier may jump straight into the process at this point. They will either buy-in 100% cocoa liquor, or couverture which already includes sugar.
Conner told me, incidentally, that couverture is almost always industrially-made. The cheapest product can be very poor standard. In particular, he suggests avoiding anything produced from bulk-made Belgian chocolate, which he describes as ‘hideous, and terribly sourced and made’. In the UK, for instance, Belgian couverture is usually bought in bulk from trade-only cash and carries. Apparently it’s only redeeming features are that it is very cheap for chocolatiers (less than £6 a kilo), and doesn’t taste quite so bad once cream or sugar-syrup are added.
Conner advocates for discerning customers always to find out chocolate’s provenance before purchase, particularly if it’s being sold at a high price. He says that 9.9 times out of 10, sellers will not have made the chocolate themselves. But a good seller should be able to tell you what chocolate they’ve used, and where it comes from.
Tempering is the first step in the chocolatiering process. The point is to reformulate all the cocoa butter crystals in chocolate, to give it a truly shiny consistency and long-lasting format.
Tempering first involves reheating the chocolate to around 47oC to melt all the crystals. Then it’s brought back down to 27–31ºC, at which temperature the crystals will reform, and ‘grow’ in chains, only at the desired size (size V – five).
Size V crystals give a glossy firm snap, and chocolate which melts near body temperature. Left untempered, chocolate instead would have a mix of cocoa butter crystals of sizes I-IV. That would make it either too crumbly or too hard, and it would melt too easily.
Hand-tempering vs. machine-tempering
One of the first things many small batch chocolate makers do is buy an expensive tempering machine. Machines can do tempering at the push of a button, and staff don’t have to be skilled or trained.
But Mayhawk have always hand-tempered all their chocolate, even when they were starting up and making chocolate part-time in a kitchen.
Mayhawk’s breakthrough realisation early on was that it is over-reliance on machines that makes using emulsifiers etc. necessary in craft chocolate making. Therefore Mayhawk prefer hand-tempering, as it removes fully the need for any ingredients which unnecessarily thin-down chocolate consistency. These might include the emulsifier soya lecithin; (over-use of) cocoa butter; or substitute fats and hydrogenated oils.
Making chocolate this way allows Mayhawk to focus on purity and simplicity. And e.g. London-based chocolatier Paul A Young also sets the example of hand-tempering on a commercial scale.
Tempering machines need many hours to melt 30kg or so of chocolate, and they always need to be cleaned out between different flavour batches etc. But Conner told me that one skilled chocolate maker doing hand-tempering can efficiently out-perform even the best small/medium-sized commercial tempering machines. And that’s without any worry about cross-contamination of flavours.
For me, the hand-tempering process used by Mayhawk epitomises the skill and commitment they put into all the chocolate they make. I was delighted to get to watch in-person these tempering methods and skills in action.
Mayhawk keep the tempering room at around 14-17ºC – the temperature that chocolate likes best. Hand-tempering is completed by pouring most of a 9kg vat of heated chocolate onto a cold marble table top. It’s then moved about quickly with wide scrapers.
This combination of a cold table, plus movement, makes the chocolate cool down quickly to 27ºC. And that gets most of the cocoa crystals to be the optimum type and growth.
Finally, the tempered chocolate is scraped back into a waiting Bain Marie with the remaining (hotter) chocolate. This takes the heat of the tempered chocolate back up to a perfect 31ºC temperature. It’s then kept at this temperature while it’s weighed into chocolate moulds. The granite tables are then cleaned down, ready to go again.
So the whole hand-tempering process that I observed took fewer than 20 minutes! And after this, another completely different flavoured chocolate could have been hand-tempered. It clearly is a quicker, simpler and more skilled method than tempering with machines.
I was very excited that Conner then let me have a go at tempering myself! I didn’t find it tremendously easy with my ham-fisted paws – better suited to tapping at a computer than any sort of craftsmanship. But he kindly said he thought I’d picked it up well, and that the resulting chocolate had a good snap and shine. And I even have a bar of my very own hand-tempered sea-salt chocolate to prove it!
Mayhawk hand-package all their chocolate in packaging they design, curate or make. The only part of the packaging they do not produce in-house is the gold inner foils. Other companies vary on this – often they outsource the packaging side of the business.
Mayhawk say they produce their own outer-packages with a continual eye on environmental sustainability, and the desire to evoke an emotional reaction. Particularly when given as a gift, Mayhawk want the customer to experience initial warm feelings about their chocolate right from the packaging. I can certainly confirm that I did – including from the subtle and lovely surprise of the tasteful decoration on the inside of the outer-wrapper.
And for me, an emotional experience is exactly what good chocolate should be all about!