Making Chocolate in Peru: From Bean to Bar

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I went to Peru on an amazing trip a few weeks ago–endless mountains, beautiful views, hiking, and freshly made chocolate. Chocolate was considered a “food of the gods” across much of Central and South America–and we still love it today!

My dad is a hardcore chocolate lover so we scheduled a special class at a Chocolate Museum located in Cusco. Cocoa beans are harvested from a variety of locations; and Peru (and the Amazon) is home to a number of plantations. Not all chocolate is the same–the flavor of cocoa beans changes based on what the plants are growing near. Some chocolate has subtle hints of bitter coffee, whereas other have a more fruity undertone. It’s not always easy to tell, but comparing the two flavor profiles makes it very clear.

After the cocoa beans are harvested, they are fermented and then dried in the sun. This process can take anywhere between one to two weeks depending on how dry the environment is. After the beans are dried, they are roasted. We actually got to roast the beans ourselves during our class. The beans need high heat and slow stirring and you can hear a popping similar to popcorn popping as they get closer to being ready. Our teacher/guide got really into it and asked me to sing to the cocoa beans–to show my love for them. If you know me, you know I always refuse to sing in public. It is simply a no-go for me so I politely declined and felt like a complete spoilsport!

Fortunately, cocoa beans are not dependent on singing and were roasted all the same without the affection of my *lovely* voice.

(*= heavy sarcasm)

Here are the freshly roasted beans with cracked skins prepared for winnowing, which is the process of removing the fibrous husk from the cocoa bean.

After winnowing, you’re left with cocoa beans that look like this:

When you break these up, you are left with cocoa nibs! If you like extra dark chocolate (like me), you would love the tiny pieces that come when you break apart the beans.

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The next step is more intensive–grinding the cocoa beans by hand with mortar and pestle to create a smooth, creamy mixture without large chunks. This is when you can start to see how cocoa butter and cocoa powder can both come out of the same beans.

This is most of the way through the cocoa bean grinding process; you can see a smooth mixture start to form and it tastes incredibly rich (and bitter).

After grinding up our cocoa beans, we collectively made xocoatl, which translates as “bitter water.” We made ours with hot water, ground cocoa beans, honey, and a dash of cayenne pepper.

The mix was absolutely delicious and rich, but without the milky richness we often think of when we drink hot cocoa. The idea of mixing in milk with chocolate only came along in the 1700s in Europe.

We learned a lot during the class, but there was not much discussion around the importance of buying fair-trade, eco-friendly chocolate. Cocoa production often leads to deforestation as people chop down trees to make room for lucrative cocoa plantations.

“…a 7-ounce bar of milk chocolate produced from a cleared rainforest has the same carbon dioxide emissions as driving 3.2 miles in a car. Furthermore, a dark chocolate bar of the same size has the same emissions as driving 4.9 miles.” –Hello Giggles

While large companies like Hershey’s and Mars are seeing the perks of doing social good they have made numerous commitments to the environment and use of child laborers. Unfortunately a lot of this is just talk and no action.  With the price decline of cocoa during 2016-2017, a lot of efforts towards fair production took a hit. Farmers bear the brunt of the price dip and can easily end up operating at a loss. There are approximately 2.1 million child laborers working on cocoa plantations in West Africa–and this is after companies have committed to making changes.

One way to make sure you are choosing ethical options include looking for fair-trade labels as well as brands that are “bean to bar,” which means the brand or company is fully involved from the growing of the beans through to the final stages of manufacturing.

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Do you prefer dark or milk chocolate? Did you know how your chocolate was made before reading this?

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