On my last trip to Hamburg, I had the chance to visit the famous chocolate museum in the impressive German port city. As an avid chocolate-addict, this was the perfect place for me to spend a rainy afternoon and deepen my knowledge about this exotic, yet commonly known and most popular food.
During a 90-minute guided tour, I learned about the process of how cacao beans turn into a chocolate bar, from harvesting the cacao fruits to packaging the finished bar. The impressive exhibition takes the visitors on a sensational and interactive tour through the tropical rain forests. We smelled and tasted chocolate throughout the many production steps and even made our own chocolate bars.
On the supermarket shelves, a chocolate bar sadly doesn’t appear nearly as exotic as it actually is. We tend to forget that its key ingredient, the cacao bean, is coming a long way from growing on a tropical tree to melting tenderly in our mouth.
The cacao tree grows along the 20th degree of the Northern and Southern latitude along the equator, stretching from North Australia over Southeast Asia and Africa to South America. In 2014, Ghana and the Ivory Coast produced 70% of the total world supply of cacao beans and remain the strongest suppliers until today.
The fruits thrive in tropical, constantly moist climate and can get as tall as 15 meters. On most plantations, however, they only grow a few meters, thus allowing the farmers to pick the fruits with machetes without having to rely on any machinery. Due to their weight and size, the fruits grow directly at the tree trunks, containing around 60-80 beans per fruit. The larger fruits can grow up to 30 meters and contain up to 100 beans. Once harvested, the beans are being extracted from the fruit and dried in between large banana leaves. During this fermentation process, they heat up to 55°C and lose the majority of their moisture, going from 60% down to 8%.
The beans are then dried a second time before being prepared for ship transport. Nitrogen ampoules protect the beans from parasites, insects and other harmful animals in the shipping containers, where the cacao beans, carefully packed in gunnysacks, depart on a 4-6 weeks journey until they reach the German harbor in Bremen. Once they arrive, a first quality check defines whether they meet the criteria to be further processed. 100 grams of each charge are being tested and while the color remains irrelevant for the quality of the beans, texture and look decide their destiny. If the sample contains mold, the whole charge is being destroyed (in this case: burned), which reflects the strict food quality criteria in Germany. The bare beans now contain 37% cacao butter and 20% cacao shell and can be sold as raw cacao nibs and raw cacao powder.
In the further process, the cacao beans are being roasted, which allows their aroma to unfold properly. However, they still look nothing like the chocolate bar we are familiar with. After the roasting, the beans are being peeled and grounded and are now ready for what is also referred to as the “birth place of chocolate” – the mélangeur. This is a traditional machine made of granite rolls, which combines the grounded cacao beans with sugar. Granite is the perfect material for this process, as it is very hard and prevents the chocolate from being distorted by impurities.
The mélangeur still in use in the museum dates back to the 1930s and is a highly durable and efficient machine, as it has been running constantly for 50 years, during which time it has only been cleaned 30 times. Afterwards, the chocolate is being dried and powdered in the mill, now coming already very close to what we recognize as conventional chocolate or cacao powder. Finally, the chocolate undergoes the supreme discipline of chocolate production: the conche. Its name derives from the Spanish name for shell, la concha, since the machine is reminiscent of a sea shell, moving smoothly and making the chocolate meltingly soft. 45°C hot water and artificial oxygen release all bitter aromas from the chocolate, which is now at the peak of its quality. The conching takes up to 72 hours and in total, it takes roughly 100 hours from roasting raw cacao beans to packaging a finished chocolate bar.
Upon the finished tour, we received our own hand-made chocolate bars sprinkled with a variety of toppings. After all the tasting of raw, roasted, rolled and conched chocolate, I proud myself to be at least a little bit of a chocolate connoisseur, and highly recommend a visit to the Chocoversum in Hamburg.
If you want to learn more about the museum and chocolate production, just visit the museum’s website at www.chocoversum.de/en/.