What better way to spend the day before Valentine’s Day then touring a chocolate factory? No, we didn’t see a chocolate river or a single Oompa-loompa. Nor did we see a single red-foil heart-shaped box. On the plus side, we could eat as much chocolate as we could manage, and I daresay it was better than most of the typical Valentine fare out there!
Taza Chocolate is one of only 18 bean-to-bar chocolate makers in the US and they happen to be located right in my backyard – Somerville, MA. Once upon a time, the area was a candy mecca – NECCO, Schrafts, and Brach all made there home here. Once, the smell of melting sugar, roasting nuts, and thousands of pounds of chocolate perfumed the air. (If you’re interested in learning more about the hey-day of candy making in Boston, I highly recommend Steve Almond’s book Candyfreak. It covers other old-timey candy as well, but Steve’s a local boy, too, and appropriate time is given to our glory days.) However, it’s been quite some time since those glory days, so it’s exciting to see Taza bringing it back and in such a sustainable and exciting way.
You see, bean-to-bar means that Taza makes their chocolate in a very different way than most chocolate makers (yes, redundant-sounding, but they are NOT chocolatiers – they make chocolate, not chocolate confections). Most chocolate makers buy chocolate mass – cacao beans that have been crushed into a paste – and make their chocolate from that. The problem Taza had with this method is that the steps to get TO chocolate mass, namely fermentation, roasting, and the actual crushing, have a lot to do with how the final product tastes. Overdo any of those steps and the product loses quite a bit of the flavors that make chocolate great. So Taza buys beans directly from a cooperative in the Dominican Republic (offering he farmers more money than if they purchased from a middle man!), and they do the whole process themselves.
The harvesting and fermentation part all takes place in the Dominican, but the tour starts with an example of what the cacao pod looks like:
along with a pretty thorough description of the harvesting and fermentation process. Basically, chocolate is made from the seeds of the big old fruit above, but in order for them to taste right they need to cure by being heaped together and fermenting. You see, the seeds are covered in a sweet pulp, called baba (literally, spit or drool in Spanish). When this pulp is allowed to ferment on the beans, it creates acids that cause enzymatic changes in the beans – this creates the chocolate flavor we all know and love! Now the beans can be shipped to America, to be processed into tasty chocolate, and we could finally move out of the anteroom/hallway into which we were squeezed, and into a room where the magic happens!
Before we could move on to see Taza’s bean-roasting room, we had to don hair nets. Hilarity ensued:
I was wearing a hat, which proved…challenging:
C’est la guerre – the things I do to bring you all the inside scoop on the exciting world of chocolate!
That’s a cacao bean, prior to roasting. It doesn’t look like much, and quite frankly, it’s not, yet. While much of the flavor comes from fermentation, the rest comes from the roasting. Here’s the giant roasting machine:
Basically, this is a gigantic convection oven. Taza gives their beans a light roast – enough to caramelize the sugars in the beans, without creating bitter, burnt flavors. From here the beans are put into a winnowing machine:
This machine shakes and sorts the beans, removing the husks and shells and generally breaking down into what are called “nibs” – the final step before being turned into what we know as chocolate. Taza’s winnowing machine holds the distinction of being brought into the factory by hand. Considering that it weighs close to a ton this is no mean feat!
We were invited to sample both unadorned and chocolate covered nibs:
Plain nibs have all of the fruity tones of finished chocolate, but without added sugar they are what some might dub unpleasantly bitter.
Once the nibs are obtained, we’re finally ready to make some chocolate! To be fair, on the tour this was NOT the room we saw next, due to simple logistics. But I’d rather do it in proper order, because that’s how my brain works. SO! The nibs are taken to grinders, called molinos, to finally be made into the chocolate mass essential to making a bar of chocolate you could eat and reasonably enjoy (although secretly I quite like the bitter nibs).
Inside of these machines are stone wheels that grind the nibs together with sugar into a paste.
(this is a poured stone sample, but it gives you the gist.) Currently, only one of Taza’s founders has the ability to cut the stones properly so that they line up and grind the chocolate instead of creating friction and burning it. We got the sense that he would very much like to teach someone else to do this task, though to be fair that could just be our tour guide’s interpretation of things.
Once ground in the molino, the chocolate mass moves though pipes in the ceiling
to either another set of stones, this time rollers:
or to the giant holding tanks you see to the right of them. To keep the chocolate moving through the pipes, the room is kept at a balmy 90°+. Since the stone rollers can slip and damage the chocolate, a lucky Taza worker spends six hours a day baby sitting this process! It’s like working in a chocolate-scented sauna, I guess.
Finally, it travels to another room, to be wrapped. Taza does this BY HAND, apparently employing a team of women known as “the ladies” who do this with astonishing speed using a hand-made contraption:
The taste of Taza’s chocolate is remarkably complex, proving that the great amount of care and gentle handling they put into it pays off. It’s also a bit gritty, thanks to the stone grinding, but I personally find this extremely enjoyable. Since I tend to like the flavors like salt and pepper, which would have a bit of crunch anyway, it’s not a big deal, anyway.
The tour is immensely informative and filled with ample opportunities for free chocolate! If you happen to be in the Somerville area, I highly recommend it. If not, check out Taza’s site for a more complete version of their process, and for heaven’s sake, order some of their chocolate! The flavors they offer are complex and compelling, and you’re supporting a small business that works hard to be sustainable and responsible – a win-win, in my book.