We collaborate closely with our partners in Belize to import premium organic cacao
Cacao comes from the cacao tree, theobroma cacao, which only grows within 20 degrees latitude of the equator. The blossoms of the cacao tree are tiny flowers on the trunk and branches, which are pollinated by midges. Cacao trees will begin producing cacao within 3-5 years, and can produce for many decades if properly shaded on an agro-forestry farm.
Ripe cacao pods are harvested from the cacao trees and gathered in a big pile. With a trained machete blow, each pod is split open, revealing the white pulp and raw cacao beans inside. The pulp and cacao beans are scooped into a bucket – this is called “wet cacao” – and is purchased from the farmer for fermentation and drying.
The wet cacao is transferred to wooden fermentation boxes within 24 hours. The cacao is typically fermented for six days, with rotation after two, four, and five days. Rotation strategically introduces air into the ferment, and ensures that the top and bottom of the box ferments evenly. The acids from the fermentation fracture the cacao beans and are essential for developing flavor.
The cacao is raked out evenly on a large surface to dry for a day or two in direct sun. The heat from drying stops the fermentation process. Afterwards, the cacao is dried another 6-8 days on covered solar drying platforms. The final weight of the fermented, dried cacao is approximately 37% of the weight of the wet cacao.
VISUAL INSPECTION AND EXPORT
All cacao beans that we make chocolate with are visually inspected, both in Belize and again at our factory. We remove any unwanted debris and any cacao beans that are visually defective (flat, moldy, broken, etc.).
The cacao beans are graded according to quality, and filled into 120 pound burlap sacks. Once enough cacao has accumulated to fill a container, it can be shipped to chocolate makers in the US and Europe.
Firefly Chocolate is the only
bean to bar maker in Sonoma County
Roasting brings out the unique flavors in the cacao bean, and drives off the remaining water content. Traditionally, roasting is done in small batches on a clay or steel comal over an open fire, requiring tremendous skill and attention to produce an even roast. At our factory we place our cacao on perforated trays in a commercial convection oven to roast our cacao consistently from batch to batch.
The cacao bean is encased in a paper thin husk which can be removed by hand. This produces the beautiful whole cacao beans you can see on our website's header. Most common though is a two part process, called cracking and winnowing. Cracking shatters the cacao beans into a mixture of broken husk and nibs.
We feed the mixture of cracked cacao beans and husk into a turbulent airstream to separate out the lighter husk from the heavier nib. This is called winnowing. As small scale winnowers for cacao are still hard to come by, we've designed and built our own. By the end of this step, we have freshly made cacao nibs (left) and cacao husk (right), which we compost.
Running the cacao nibs once through our pre-grinder transforms them from a solid to a liquid state. The friction from the grinding producing just enough heat to cause the fat in the cacao bean to liquify, creating a coarse liquid cacao paste, called cacao liquor. Pre-grinding shortens the time required in our stone grinders.
In this step we add coconut palm sugar to make an 85% dark chocolate. Our stone grinders reduce the particle size of the cacao nibs and coconut sugar, until the particles are so small they are no longer detectable by the human tongue. This grinding process can take anywhere from 12 - 48 hours. The chocolate is kept liquid just through the friction of the grinding process and no extra heat is added.
Conching is all about flavor development and alchemy. By precisely controlling the temperature, agitation rate, and airflow above the chocolate, we bring the chocolate to its final flavor. Firefly Chocolate is unique among small chocolate makers in having a dedicated conche, allowing us improved ability to make delicious chocolate!
Chocolate can have numerous crystalline structures present in its solid state - this is why a chocolate bar that has molten does not re-solidify the same way. The tempering process is used to seed and select the crystal that gives our molded bars a nice "snap and shine" to them once hardened. Tempering is accomplished by heating and cooling the chocolate to carefully chosen temperature; to learn more, view this graph showing the chocolate tempering curve.
We meter the tempered chocolate into polycarbonate molds, and place the molds briefly on a vibrating table to remove any air bubbles. Because this step happens in a climate controlled room, we pre-warm the molds to just below the temperature of the chocolate for best results. Then we cool our bars to 60F so that they solidify. The chocolate contracts slightly as it cools, so after about fifteen minutes of cooling, we simply flip the molds, and the chocolate bars fall out.