by Nick Argires
While in the Dominican Republic, I had the opportunity to visit a family owned cocoa farm in Yamasá that walks guests through the steps from harvest to final product. Until this point, I really had no idea what exactly goes into making chocolate, or that the Dominican Republic is the number one exporter of organic cocoa in the world. So much learning. All of the learning. From start to finish, the process reminds me of a mix between coffee roasting and making sourdough bread. It’s a craft, one that takes time, patience, and can vary greatly in technique from person to person. Cocoa has a few basic steps: Harvesting, fermenting, drying, roasting, and milling. Once those steps are done, the cocoa can be processed into a variety of products — but we made hot chocolate with ours.
The cocoa beans come from pods that grow on trees. They take about seven months to ripen, come in three different colors (green, purple, and yellow), and taste surprisingly delicious right out of the pods. Perfect on a warm day, the beans are milky, with a citrusy candy vibe to them. They make the perfect little snack! They’re like the Jolly Ranchers of Yamasá.
Fermenting is where the craft really begins. It’s the most important phase in the process because it’s where the cocoa gets all of its rich flavor. Like a great sourdough bread, the time and temperature of the fermenting process is what makes a cocoa bean’s flavors bold, complex, and completely different from farm to farm. These beans were fermented for five days in wooden bins called “sweatboxes.” They’re turned and shuffled with shovels to make sure they have the proper amount of oxygen to continue the fermentation. Switched from one sweatbox to another, the correct flow of oxygen has to be let around the beans. Too much, and the beans will over-ferment and spoil, too little oxygen and the beans won’t reach their full potential of flavor. The heat that omits from the fermentation process is crazy, getting up to 120 degrees on the first day. You can feel it radiating and suddenly you know why they’re called sweatboxes.
After the fermentation process, the beans sun-dry for about a week. The wet beans slowly begin to take form, shedding their milky white fermented coating and taking on their classic dark-brown characteristic. After about a week, the exterior is dry and brown and the interior of the bean becomes a deep, dark purple — ready to be roasted.
This particular boutique farmer uses only wood fire to roast all of their beans. This is done in huge metal roasters, similar to coffee beans and with a similar process of turning and rotating for an even roast. For the tour, they used a pot to roast the beans in small batches so we could get a closer look and so it was as fresh as possible.
Right from the roaster, they began to mill the beans into a fine paste. At that point the paste can be used to make products like cocoa butter, cocoa bars, or in this case hot chocolate. You can notice the fats floating at the top of the cup from the oils in the cocoa bean. A similar look to coffee that was made with a french press. Fat = flavor = happy times.
You can learn more about the Chocolate and Clay Tour at Tequia Experience.
For more, follow along on Instagram at @kitchenandcook.