Chocolate Making Classes

A few weekends ago, we invited over a few friends for an evening for fun, for education, and for a delicious sensory experience. After months of requests to learn more about our chocolate hobby, particularly after our friends spent hours listening to us gush about all the nerdy parts involved, we agreed to put on a chocolate-making class for a few of them!

Richard is particularly good at explaining very complicated engineering and scientific concepts to laypeople like me, so he was excited to show off his gear and teach our friends about the complexities of the process. I love to train people and get them to buy into a process, so I was excited to make our chocolate-making relevant and interesting to our friends with such diverse interests. The challenge was on and we were pumped!

Richard took charge of designing the class: the timing, the components, and the results. I played assistant/back-up resource on the day of. (Side note – it’s very important to divide the labor clearly when working with your spouse. We’re learning how to do that effectively, and this was an excellent example in action.)

Our friends, Julie, Eric, Alex, and Alex, arrived in the early evening, carrying bottles of wine and their favorite spices, which we encouraged them to bring as chocolate flavors. After a lesson on where cocoa beans come from, we taught them about sorting and they divided into teams: girls vs. boys. For the rest of the night, the girls tracked and made decisions about their batch while the boys did the same with their own batch.

They each roasted a batch, operated the winnower, and set their batches in the melanger within the first few hours. After 5-10 minutes of roasting, each group got to taste their beans and decide whether to continue or not. We like do things hands on!

using the winnower

using the winnower

smelling the cooling cacao beans

smelling the cooling cacao beans

We headed out to dinner to let the two batches grind and conche for a little while. Dinner took longer than expected, but that only meant more time in the Premier Wonder Grinder, so it was a blessing in disguise. We came back to the apartment to the delicious smell of grinding chocolate. While we added ground sugar and let it continue on in the melanger for a little while longer, we tasted a variety of other chocolates and drank our wine. What a delicious and relaxing way to make chocolate!

It was time to pull out the liquor! The girls and the boys tempered their separate batches and I must add that though it wasn’t technically a competition, the girls won this part of the process! Our temper turned out beautifully crisp and shiny, while the boys had some technical difficulties. The girls made a plain 72% batch and then a few squares of salted chocolate. The boys decided to make an 85% batch with chipotle flavoring. Both turned out delicious and each couple went home with almost a pound of chocolate.

Overall, the class was a huge success! That said, we learned a lot and have a few adjustments for our next chocolate making experience with friends:

  • Go to dinner for only 1 hour. Yes, the chocolate will be smoother with more time in the melanger, but this made the whole night last longer than expected.
  • Prepare a seed to make tempering easier. We know that sometimes the most frustrating part of making chocolate is having to start over again multiple times when we accidentally allow the temperature to get too high when tempering. To avoid that frustrating for new chocolate-makers, we’ll start with a seed of tempered chocolate, as recommended by the Chocolate Alchemist here.
  • Provide appetizers during the first couple of hours to offset the amount of cocoa beans being tasted. And provide bread or crackers during the chocolate tasting after dinner to eat in between tastes.

Would you be interested in a hands-on chocolate-making experience? Let us know!

Or do you have any tips to energize and spruce up a chocolate-making class? Leave your suggestions in the comments below!

Sorting Cocoa Beans

This step in making chocolate does not usually get a lot of attention. Perhaps that’s because it’s such a tedious, manual process in most cases. Perhaps it’s because until recently, it seemed uncontroversial.

Well, let me try to make this topic as exciting as possible for our readers. I promise it’ll involve threat of violence, betrayed trust, and the potential for incredible flavor variety… Here we go!

First, When does this even happen in the process? Sorting is the very first step in making chocolate for most bean-to-bar makers. It happens as soon as we pour the beans out onto a surface to visually inspect them before roasting. Ok, now let’s dive into the intrigue around sorting!

The case for sorting

Let’s say your adorable 5-year old niece, Peggy, (let’s include a frilly dress and pigtails in this image) opens the wrapping of a high quality bar of chocolate (assuming you give children expensive chocolate bars…) and as she brings the bar of chocolate toward her mouth, you notice that one corner of the bar is shiny, and before you can run over and rip it out of her hands, her teeth are sinking into a piece of glass.

Ok, maybe that was a bit dramatic, but you understand the danger and violence in this example? Sorting would eliminate the threat of dangerous foreign objects in the chocolate far before little Peggy tries to eat it. Besides foreign objects, like this one found (and thankfully sorted out) in a batch of beans Dick Taylor intended to roast, sorting can also remove other undesirable items that could be included in your bag of chocolate beans. This image on Dandelion’s blog provides a useful list. We have some friends who are also testing the flavor of the germ (a tiny stick-like part of the bean that supposedly contributes either a bitter or woodsy taste to the chocolate).

My biggest concern, and not one included on Dandelion’s list, is actually bugs. Think about where the cocoa beans are coming from. In most cases, they sat out in long wooden trenches, in a farmer’s backyard, for days. That’s right – outside, subjected to the elements and whatever other living things wanted to check them out. Specifically, there’s a species of small moths that love to live in fermented & dried cocoa beans. They burrow into the beans, eat the cocoa mass, build a web, and lay eggs inside the husk. Ew, right?! That’s right. It’s actually pretty easy to see the beans that have moths in them, since they have big holes along the side of the husk, where the moth crawled in (not to be confused with a tiny hole at the tip, which we learned means that the bean has partially germinated and is not nearly as gross).

Moth-infested bean

Moth-infested bean

Many people believe that sorting cocoa beans leaves only the best beans and therefore makes better chocolate. You can read more on Dandelion’s blog about a machine they’re considering to do this for them.

Ok, pretty good reasons to sort. Why would anyone NOT sort? Good question… let’s discuss.

The case against sorting

To put it bluntly, there are two reasons: sorting reduces some of the flavor variation and sorting means you don’t trust your supplier. Let’s start with the second. If you have a wonderful working relationship with your cocoa bean supplier, you would hope they would provide you with beans that would make the best chocolate possible. We learned from John Nanci, Chocolate Alchemist, when we visited him in Oregon, that he screens his suppliers carefully before selling beans to his customers. He believes that any beans he sells you shouldn’t need to be sorted. Maybe he’d recommend a cursory glance for any obvious foreign objects, but other than that, we should trust him on the rest of the beans. He writes more on his opinion on sorting here.

Ok, what about flavor? Here’s where I start to understand the case against heavily sorting. I will say that there’s no doubt we will continue to remove the foreign objects, coffee beans, and anything that could be dangerous to the health of the eventual consumers (see Peggy above). However, jury is still out on whether we’ll sort out the abnormalities in the batch of beans we receive. This is for two reasons.

First of all, the really bad stuff should get winnowed away. The flats, moth-infested beans, and large pieces of shell should fly away with the husks, so it’s possible that sorting them out would be a waste of time.

Secondly, the flavor variation loss is a legitimate concern. Who would want to deny our consumers the potential for such incredible flavor?! Those doubles that are clearly unevenly fermented, the cracked beans, the partially germinated beans… these all contribute to the overall flavor profile of the batch and therefore, are integral to the ultimate quality of the chocolate. I’ll take it one step further, to market analysis. A fellow chocolate-maker did A/B testing with a group of consumers on their preference between chocolate whose beans he had sorted and chocolate made from unsorted beans. Unanimously, the consumers preferred the unsorted chocolate.

Sorted beans

Sorted beans

The Root Chocolate Conclusion

So, what’s our conclusion? We haven’t decided yet. This goes on our list of ideas to try. Maybe we’ll hold onto all the doubles for a while and make a batch of just doubles! Maybe we’ll do two some A/B testing ourselves. We’ll keep you updated on our findings either way!