Once Ecuador’s beans are in the hands of the premium chocolate companies, the master chocolatiers run the show, giving the bars their unique taste. The beans are first roasted and then cracked open, the hard, outer shells revealing the soft nibs that become the base for finished chocolate products. Because cacao beans contain too much cocoa butter to make a tasty chocolate bar, it is necessary to pulverize the nibs into a liquid, called chocolate liquor, and remove some of the fat, accomplished with a hydraulic press. The resulting substance is then mixed with sugar among other ingredients.
The mixture is ripened by keeping it warm for another twenty-four hours. Named for the equipment used to stir the mixture, the final two-stage step in the processing of cacao is called “conching” which modifies the chocolate’s texture and flavor still further. Heating the chocolate for a day or more removes undesirable compounds and moisture from the chocolate. After adding lecithin and more cocoa butter, the mixture is slowly cooled to retain its finished texture before pouring it into molds.
How the beans are fermented, dried, roasted and processed determines how much of the beans’ flavonols remain in the finished products, whether milk has been added or not. Some chocolate undergoes all of the processing steps in one chocolate factory, while some companies send on the almost finished product to smaller manufacturers that add more ingredients and flavoring before being sold as their brand.
Various entities, international and domestic, have been established to oversee quality. The Ecuador exporter association (ANECACAO) is concerned with the international reputation of Ecuador’s cacao and certifies its quality and composition before the beans leave the country.
The International Cacao Organization (ICCO) was established in 1973 to oversee adherence to the cacao agreements made under the auspices of the United Nations. It rates the exports of each country’s cacao crop. Countries that manufacturer chocolate bars establish their own names to describe what ingredients chocolate bars contain.
Though most of Ecuador’s cacao beans end up in the factories of large manufacturers, the artisan chocolate business is booming. In this rarified culinary realm, flavors are distinguished, not just by country, but also by region and even farm.