Potomac Chocolate owner Ben Rasmussen says he's probably the smallest chocolatier who is actually making and selling chocolate. He works out of two back rooms in his house, and has created much of his own equipment. He gave Patch a tour of his equipment and the chocolate making process.
One room is for sorting and roasting the cacao beans and one room is for the liquid chocolate phase. Rasmussen often works with Costa Rican beans , particularly the Upala variety. When sorting the beans, he discards foreign materials, small beans, cracked beans, and clusters of beans, until he's built up enough for a roast.
Rasmussen doesn't have a cacao bean roaster, so he's rigged a convection oven with a removable rotating drum made from a lobster steamer basket. It can roast about 15 pounds. He used to use sheet pans to roast his beans, but dealt with extreme temperature swings during the roasting process. It takes about 35 to 45 minutes to roast a batch of beans, depending on what type of beans and how many beans are being roasted.
After the beans are roasted, Rasmussen cools them immediately in a fry basket set on top of a a fan.
"With coffee, it's paramount it be cooled right after roasting," he said. "With chocolate, less so. I like to do it to be very exact."
Rasmussen's winnower was created from a juicer, PVC pipes and other materials. It takes off the husks, leaving the nibs to be liquified into chocolate. A cacao bean is made up of husk, nib, and germ. Nibs are the "meat" of the bean.
Refining and Conching
The nibs are poured into the mélanger, which refines and conches the chocolate as the nibs are liquified. A set of rollers spin in a bowl, and the cacao particles in the liquified chocolate and mixed evenly with the added sugar particles, and coated in cocoa butter.
"There's no real hardware for small chocolate makers, so it's not really a mélanger," Rasmussen said. "It's an Indian lentil grinder."
Refining and conching takes a few days. The refining takes approximately 12 to 24 hours, and the length of conching depends on how mellow the maker wants the chocolate. Further conching makes the chocolate mellower. Rasmussen prefers a slightly bolder "kick" to his chocolate.
The chocolate is melted in a restaurant food warmer. The only difference between a restaurant food warmer and a chocolate melter is that the word "chocolate" isn't printed on the warmer. That's the word that makes equipment more expensive, Rasmussen said.
The tempering process is what gives the chocolate its snap, and what lets it "melt in your mouth," Rasmussen said. It brings up the temperature to get rid of any and all crystals, and then "jumpstarts" the creation of the correct crystalization process.
Incorrectly tempered chocolate "blooms," or shows white patches of crystalized cocoa butter.
Next, the chocolate is poured into plastic molds, which sit on top of a vibrating machine. Rasmussen's machine is a dental vibrating machine. His dad was a dentist and used such machines to get the bubbles out of dental molds. Rasmussen uses it to get the bubbles out of his chocolate.
After molding, Rasmussen cools the bars in a closed cooling cabinet, made from plywood and shelves, and a window air conditioning unit at one end.
"You want the chocolate to set at a pretty quick, relatively consistent pace, or it will bloom," he said.
After cooling, the chocolate is ready to be wrapped and shipped.
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