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Cool Beans: How Chocolate And Coffee Get Made

Taza Chocolate
Cacao pods can grow anywhere on the tree, even on their trunks! They look like gourds. The beans are dried for about a week in the sun, and look a bit like almonds.

How is chocolate made? Why can't we eat chocolate all the time? Why is chocolate dangerous for dogs? Why do adults like coffee? In this episode, we tour Taza Chocolate in Somerville, Massachusetts to learn how chocolate goes from bean to bar. Then we visit a coffee roaster in Maine to learn about this parent-fuel that so many kids find gross! And we'll learn a little about Valentine's Day.

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"Chocolate actually comes from cocoa beans--which is no bean at all--they are seeds of the cacao trees," says Ayala Ben-Chaim of Taza Chocolate. Taza is a "bean-to-bar" chocolate maker. That means starting with raw cocoa beans and going all the way through the process to turn those beans into a chocolate bar you can buy in a store. (Some chocolatiers get chocolate that's already mostly made and they just add stuff to it and shape it.)

The tree that those cocoa beans come from is called the Theobroma cacao tree, which grows in warm tropical parts of the world--within 20 degrees of the equator. Taza Chocolate sources (buys) cocoa beans from farmers in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Belize and Bolivia.

It takes about five years from when it's planted for a cacao tree to produce cocoa pods. "Cocoa pods are a little bit funny to look at. They look like a gourd growing off of the tree, or like a lumpy tiny American football. The cocoa pods grow off of the branches of the tree like apples, but they also grow right off of the trunk of the tree," Ben-Chaim explains.

"How is chocolate made?" - Samarah, 8, Johnson, VT

"The next step in the process is fermentation. Fermentation is so important in chocolate making. And this is one of the things that is so surprising about chocolate making. We put all of these batches of wet-with-pulp cocoa beans into a wooden box. In this box, we stir this mix around and there's yeast in the atmosphere which likes to eat the sugar from the baba (the pulp found in a cacao pod). The yeast eats the sugar and fart out carbon dioxide. What all of this is doing is cooking the cocoa beans and making nicely flavored and nice-looking cocoa beans."

After the beans ferment, they spend a week drying in the sun on wooden planks. At this point they look like almonds. Next, they are packaged and shipped to wherever they'll be made into chocolate.

The first thing the chocolate maker will do is roast the beans at 200 degrees for about an hour, which gives them a nice toasted flavor.

"We also start to separate the thin outer shell that surrounds the inner part of the cocoa bean. Our next step is to separate that shell from the inner part of the bean, called the nib. We do this by winnowing the cocoa beans, using a machine," says Ben-Chaim.

"Nibs are a little bit nutty; they're pretty dry; they are a little bitter. We bring the cacao nibs down to grind them."

"At Taza Chocolates we use a traditional Mexican milling style using a molino - or mill - to grind the cocoa beans down," Ben-Chaim says, demonstrating. "Over time, those cocoa nibs will be turned into a cocoa liquor, which is smooth and chocolaty. Imagine a chocolate waterfall. It looks beautiful, it smells chocolaty and delicious and yet it is not very tasty because we're missing a really important ingredient, and that is sugar."

Sugar is added to the chocolate liquor, then the sweetened chocolate is ground again, and other ingredients are sometimes added, like spices or coffee or fruit.

At this point some chocolate makers will conche the chocolate, which blends and mixes the chocolate at a high temperature over many hours, which makes it smooth and creamy.

But Ben-Chaim says that, "At Taza Chocolate we don't conche the chocolate; we go straight to what all chocolate makers do, and that's called tempering the chocolate. Tempering is so important: it's increasing and decreasing the temperature of the chocolate between 87 degrees and 89 degrees Fahrenheit." Tempering the chocolate makes it glossy and brittle. Then the chocolate is poured into molds and cooled. Then it's wrapped up and ready to take home.

Also in this episode:  we visit 44 North Coffee  to learn more about the mysterious beverage that so many adults like to drink--coffee! There are some similarities between coffee and chocolate: they're both substances that start with a bean that gets roasted. And people often add milk and sugar to both substances, which can be quite bitter on their own. But handing a piece of chocolate to a child usually results in a delighted face, while coffee elicits quite the opposite reaction. So why do so many adults seem to take such pleasure in drinking coffee? Listen to the episode to hear more!

Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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