We decided to make a quick stop in Mindo before heading to the Ecuadorian coast. Although this town in the cloud forest is known for bird watching, rafting, zip lining and many other nature oriented adventures, we made this stop motivated solely by beer and chocolate. Ecuador produces about 5% of the world’s total cacao, but nearly 70% of the world’s highest-quality cacao. An eco-hostal/restaurant in town, El Quetzal, produces it’s own chocolate from bean to bar, as well as ginger beer (7% abv) and (we read that they made) a chocolate stout, which makes sense being that they produce chocolate. Disappointingly, however, we later found out that the latter was untrue.
After a few strong ginger beers we met our chocolate tour guide, a twenty something ecology student from San Diego, CA. He started the tour by showing us the various products El Quetzal makes in house that were available for purchase; chocolate bars with varying percentages of cacao and ingredients such as ginger, chili, and sea salt, pure cacao powder, cacao nibs, ginger syrups, and chocolate paste. We then made our way through their expansive organic garden, which housed everything from coffee trees, squash, and kale to lemongrass, cilantro, and stevia, before heading to the chocolate production facility. The chocolatier doesn’t grow their own cacao as it is best grown within 20 degrees of the equatorial line at a lower elevation than Mindo, therefore they purchase dried cacao beans from Quito and the surrounding region.
Cacao beans grows in pods, which can mature to the size of a small football, and hold numerous (sometimes hundreds) of cacao beans. Both cocoa butter and cocoa nibs can be derived from the cocoa beans, which need to be separated before making chocolate. Once Quetzal receives the unroasted, dried cacao beans, they are roasted (similar to the coffee process), before enduring the following, month-long process:
Cracking–While roasting, the shell of the cocoa bean separates from the bean kernel and is removed in the first step of the cracking process. The beans are cracked (not crushed) by being passed through serrated cones. The cracked beans are now called cocoa nibs. As the shell is dry and lightweight, it can be winnowed from the cocoa nib. Winnowing is done by exposing the nibs to a current of air, so that the shells are blown free of the heavier nibs. The nibs contain approximately 53 percent cocoa butter, depending on the cacao species.
Grinding–The first grind of the beans is usually done in a milling or grinding machine. The nibs are ground or crushed to liquefy the cocoa butter and produce what is now called chocolate liquor or chocolate liquid. Different percentages of cocoa butter are removed or added to the chocolate liquor. Cocoa butter carries the flavor of the chocolate and produces a cooling effect on your tongue that you might notice when eating dark chocolate. Also, depending on the chocolate flavor desired, some or all of the following ingredients are added: sugar, lecithin, milk, cream powder, or milk crumb (used to produce a caramel-like taste in milk chocolate), and spices such as vanilla. The formula the chocolate manufacturer develops for combining specific ingredients with the chocolate liquor is what gives the chocolate its unique taste.
Conching–This process develops the flavor of the chocolate liquor, releasing some of the inherent bitterness that gives the resulting chocolate its smooth, melt-in-your-mouth quality. The conch machine has rollers or paddles that continuously knead the chocolate liquor and its ingredients over a period of hours or days depending on the flavor and texture desired by the manufacturer.
Tempering and Forming Chocolate–For the last two steps in the chocolate process, the conched chocolate mass is tempered (cooled) and molded into bars. At the end of the tour we were able to try candied ginger, 100% cacao liquid, and a chocolate brownie. Tasting the 100% pure cacao was like having a mouthful of peanut butter, but tasted very bitter. It forced us to realize just how much sugar is added to chocolate bars–especially those with under 70% cacao content (usually the cut-off point for being considered dark chocolate). The lower the percentages, the higher the amount of chocolate butter (Ex. 90% contains 90% raw chocolate and 10% chocolate butter). The butter is produced by placing tons of pressure on the chocolate paste until the fat or butter is squeezed out.
During the tour we met a pair of Norwegian guys and a girl from Sweden. We enjoyed their company and soon got to talking about politics, conspiracy theory, and solving the worlds problems over some ginger beers. Our tour guide invited us to participate in a drum circle later that night. We were equally as intrigued as the Scandinavians, so we grabbed dinner and a couple of tall boys at the corner store, before heading to the event. The drum circle was a melting pot of locals, ex-pats, wannabe hippies, and tourists excited to pound some drums and show off their freestyle dancing and capoeira skills in the middle of the street. At one point during the night Lisa was shoved out of the way so that two teenage girls could get their picture taken with Ryan (we failed to see what all the fuss was about).