The name Acalli (ah-CALL-ee) means “canoe” in Nahuatl, the same language that gave us the word “chocolate.”
The Acalli Chocolate team are chocolate makers, meaning they work from bean to bar. While their home is in New Orleans, cacao is by nature a tropical plant, and they source the cacao through direct relationships with farmers in South America. Acalli chose a canoe for their logo to represent those things about chocolate that they love most: its way of connecting people in distant places, its elegant simplicity, and the promise of adventure and discovery in every new bar. Great chocolate is a collaborative effort between cacao growers and chocolate makers, and in that spirit, Acalli Chocolate's goal is to make bars that faithfully represent the work their partners do at origin in South America. The flavors in their chocolate are not just the result of careful roasting and conching; they also represent careful attention during cultivation, harvest, and especially fermentation and drying.
Learn about cacao's journey from tropical fruit to artisan chocolate bar by following the descriptions for every step of the way below.
Cacao is the fruit of a tropical tree, Theobroma cacao. The array of flavors in cacao begins with a confluence of genetics, climate, and land. The farmers Acalli Chocolate works with are artisanal small producers who ensure that these things come together just right. Originally a rainforest plant, cacao grows best in lush bottomlands, shaded by other trees. Because of its preference for shade, farmers often inter-crop cacao with bananas, mangos, and other tropical fruits, as well as native forest cover. Cacao orchards can be incredibly biodiverse.
Cacao fruit (pods) begin as pollinated flowers on the tree’s trunk and branches. Flowers might grow throughout the year or seasonally, depending on environmental factors and the type of cacao. It takes 5 or 6 months for a pod to mature. Farmers cut mature pods from the trees and often bring them to a central processing station, where the outer portion of the fruit is removed, revealing a cob-like arrangement of seeds surrounded by a sweet pulp.
Ferment and Dry
Cacao seeds are loaded into wooden bins or covered in banana leaves to ferment, typically for 3 to 6 days. Yeasts convert the pulp’s sugars into alcohol, which is then oxidized into acids. The fermentation process develops important flavor precursors in cacao, and it’s a sensitive business: if the cacao doesn’t ferment long enough, it can taste bitter and dry the mouth; too long, and it risks developing off-flavors. Once fermented, cacao is spread out on patios to dry in the sun. When its moisture content falls to between 7 and 8%, it is ready for tasting and export. After fermentation, the cacao’s seeds are no longer viable (able to germinate), and are often referred to as “beans.”
Acalli visits farms, mills, fermentation facilities, and cooperative headquarters to meet with cacao producers and expert tasters. Building relationships at origin with people who share their commitment to great chocolate, sustainability, and respect at all levels of the supply chain is a key tenet of Acalli's business model. They approach these relationships from the premise that they are not just buying a raw material. Great cacao is already a value-added specialty product by the time it leaves the drying patio. That’s why Acalli identifies the communities and cooperatives they work with by name: without the work they do, Acalli could not do theirs. Great chocolate is a collaborative effort.
Once Acalli determines which lots of cacao they're interested in and agreed on a price with the producers, shipment is arranged with a third party importer. By truck, container ship, and truck again, the cacao makes its way from the producers’ facility to Acalli's chocolate workshop in New Orleans.
Prior to roasting, Acalli sorts through the cacao to remove damaged beans and anything else that doesn’t belong in chocolate (like bits of string from the jute bags).
Roasting converts the flavor precursors developed during fermentation and drying into chemicals that give chocolate its varied and desirable flavors. Roasting also lessens the acidity that develops during fermentation. Cacao beans benefit from roasting at low temperatures. Roasting methods vary, but some combination of convection heat and stirring is often used. They roast their cacao in a converted rotisserie oven, with a perforated, stainless steel drum that turns the beans slowly so they roast evenly. Acalli tunes each roast to the beans in that batch: roasting too little can result in sour, astringent chocolate, while roasting too long can yield chocolate that tastes overcooked and bitter. Once cacao has been roasted, it is often referred to as “cocoa.”
Crack and Winnow
Cocoa beans have an exterior shell, or husk, which loosens during roasting and comes off more easily. The winnower uses a steel cracker to break the beans into pieces (called “nibs”) and a vacuum to remove the bits of husk, leaving only the nibs behind.
Stone-Grind and Conche
Acalli loads freshly winnowed nibs into a machine called a melanger, which crushes the nibs between stone wheels and a stone base. Cocoa beans are made up of about 50-55% cocoa butter, so the warmth and pressure generated by the wheels turns the nibs first into a thick paste, and then into a liquid. This paste or liquid is referred to as “liquor.” They add sugar to the liquor (and milk powder for a milk chocolate batch), and the stone wheels reduce the size of both cocoa and sugar particles, while coating them with cocoa butter. Eventually, the particles become too small for the tongue to feel. This process is referred to as “refining.” Conching - which overlaps with and extends beyond the phase of particle reduction, produces flavor changes and further coats particles with cocoa butter. Sometimes, slightly heating the chocolate during conching can encourage negative flavors to “burn off” more quickly, and positive flavors to develop. Together, refining and conching can take 1-3 days.
Temper and Mold
The cocoa butter in chocolate can crystallize in six different ways, and if liquid chocolate is left to firm up on its own, it is likely to crystallize in the “wrong” one. That means chocolate that melts too readily, crumbles rather than snaps when broken, looks matte rather than shiny, and has grey marks or a hazy appearance. Because the six types of cocoa butter crystals melt at different temperatures, it is possible to encourage the “right” crystals to form: heating the chocolate until all crystals melt, cooling it to so the right crystals (and some of the wrong ones) form, and heating it again, until the wrong ones melt and only the right crystals remain. This process is called “tempering” chocolate, and can be done on a stone slab or by machine. Once Acalli chocolate is tempered, they mold it into bars, and then wrap.
Some chocolate benefits from “resting” for a period of weeks before it is eaten, for final flavor development. Acalli sells each batch when they feel the flavor is just right. So when you buy a bar, it’s ready to eat right away!
Carol would love for the average consumer to know how much work goes into chocolate before it is chocolate at all. She also hopes that by highlighting the communities and cooperatives Acalli works with and showcasing the flavors in their cacao, she can bring a little more recognition home to cacao growers themselves.
2015 Good Food Awards Winner
El Platanal (Chulucanas, Peru) 70% Dark Chocolate
The Good Food Awards celebrate the kind of food we all want to eat: tasty, authentic and responsibly produced. They grant awards to outstanding American food producers and the farmers who provide their ingredients. These recipients push their industries towards craftsmanship and sustainability while enhancing our agricultural landscape and building strong communities. Chosen from 1,500+ entrants in 2015, Good Food Award winners lead the way towards a tasty, authentic and responsible food system. These companies are creating vibrant, delicious, sustainable local food economies.