From bean to bar, here's the journey of chocolate making

Saturday April 13 2024

With my eyes wide open, I watch as Shadrach Kabenge raises the stainless-steel bowl in his hand sky high and pours molten chocolate on a sand-coloured marble table. Its temperature, 42°C. The liquid trickles steadily into a perfect circle, the size of a large pizza. He then motions me to join him behind the glass shield bar. I do exactly what I saw him do a few minutes ago.

An angled spatula in hand, I spread out the molten chocolate from one end to another, ruining the perfect circle. It feels like applying peanut butter on a giant slice of wholegrain bread. My calm heart mingles with joy and my mouth longs for a lick. With shaky hand motions, I gather part of the liquid chocolate, lift my hand up and watch as it drips from my spatula onto table-top.

My inner child, buried deep under the weight of adulting comes out to play. I do this again and again and again, becoming more theatrical, before using a chocolate tempering melting spatula to bring the liquid back to the middle. It’s an amazing feeling, this one. But I’m going ahead of myself.

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I’m at Moonbean Chocolate factory in Kampala, Uganda, which produces chocolate from local cacao trees. Established in 2019, it’s known for its high-quality chocolate bars featuring distinct flavours such as gooseberry and ginger, chilli and cinnamon, salt and nibs and its plain dark chocolate bars of 60 per cent, 72 per cent and 86 per cent chocolate.

For Kabenge, a cacao bean’s journey to chocolate is a very easy story to tell. Afterall, this has been his job for the last seven years. My two-hour immersive bean-to-bar chocolate making experience begins under a life-size model of a cacao tree where he explains its features and how to tell if one is ready for harvesting.


Global prices

“Have you ever tasted a fresh pod?” the chocolate maker poses and cuts one open revealing cacao beans gingerly wrapped in a thick white blanket of pulp known as mucilage. I pick a bean and suck on it. It tastes nothing like chocolate and more like a mango fruit. I’m surprised but that’s how nature designed it," says Kabenge.

The next stop is a garden full of cacao trees. Under a huge banana tree planted to provide shade for the trees, Kabenge describes the first stages of chocolate making – training of farmers, harvesting and fermentation, and the challenges farmers face from drought to diseases which affect the global prices of cacao. Cacao trees take three years to mature and produce fruit for 100 years.

Fermentation is done to stop germination of the fruit and kickstart the development of the chocolate flavour. Why Moonbean Chocolate?

“We normally source our beans from Bundibugyo District, west of the Rwenzori Mountains. These mountains second name is ‘Mountains of the moon’. So, from the Mountains of the Moon, we pick beans to make chocolate. Hence Moonbean Chocolate,” the 28-year-old elaborates.

We explore the space further and soon we’re in the small kitchen (processing room) where the magic happens. The healthy, undamaged, dried and perfectly fermented beans that enter this room live out their life’s purpose of becoming part of the 500 chocolate bars Moonbean produces each month.

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Inside the kitchen, whose background music is the whirring sound of machines hard at work, I take in a deep breath of the chocolate laden air, pick a teaspoon and dip it into one of the machines to taste the end product — chocolate liquor. On my tongue, the velvety smooth liquid has a delicate mix of sugar and chocolate with the latter being slightly more.

“You’re right,” Kabenge responds to my taste description. “This is a 60 per cent dark chocolate batch.”

I’m super proud of myself.

Cacao beans pass through several stages on their journey to chocolate. I’m fascinated by the creativity and time it takes, especially when Mr. Kabenge says there’s stage that takes more than 30 hours! The company sells all the by-products of this process. The nibs, husks and the most expensive part of the cacao bean – cocoa butter – popular in the beauty industry for making body lotion.

But we don’t just peek into the kitchen to watch the grinding and the mixing of beans, and do a taste test. Back at our first stop, we take the beans journey.

From a basket of cacao beans, I select healthy, undamaged, dried and perfectly fermented beans and roast them over a stove on medium-low heat. Roasting draws out the chocolate-y aroma which I begin to smell two minutes in. Ten minutes later, the beans are ready, cool and soft enough to shell with my hands.

In a grinder made from granite stone, I grind the shelled beans until they release oil. This grinding is an arm workout. The chocolate-y aroma intensifies and so does the singing in my heart.

“Did you know that chocolate was once referred to as a “drink of the gods”,” asks the 28-year-old manager who stumbled upon chocolate making by chance in 2017. He mixes the ground beans with hot water, chilli, cinnamon and a dash of honey. One can use hot milk too. I think this drink of the gods is an acquired taste. However, the chilli does add a nice kick to it.

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Short on time, Mr. Kadenge speeds up the 30 hours the next step requires (refining and conching) by bringing us the end result – untempered chocolate at 42°C – which he pours on the sand-coloured marble tabletop for tempering. This method of tempering chocolate is called tabling. What’s more lavish than working with a pool of liquid chocolate. We all try out table tempering. Tabling is very therapeutic to a chocolate maker, captivating to an observer.

A great chocolate bar has three S’s – shine, stability and snap when broken. These s's are acquired through tempering chocolate.
I’m curious to find out how one can tell apart a genuine chocolate bar. The answer is straightforward.

“Study the ingredients on the package. Chocolate is big on the use of simple ingredients. Dark chocolate is made up of two ingredients – cocoa mass and sugar. Milk chocolate is made up of three – Cocoa mass, sugar and milk powder. White chocolate is made up of cocoa butter, sugar and milk powder.”

Finally, it’s time to create our own chocolate flavours. With the tempered chocolate as a base, I curate the chocolate to my own taste which will be cooled and packaged. I mix ginger and cinnamon to make a spicy chocolate. I imagine a chocolate that tastes like pina colada and mix coconut and pineapple and I also make salty chocolate, which turns out to be my favourite.

Holding my packaged 12 handcrafted chocolate pieces I ask, “How should I store them?”

Store them at room temperature, he advises.

Is there a right way to eat chocolate? “Yes. Break a piece, put it on your tongue and let it melt and enjoy. Don’t chew or bite it,” he cautions as biting leads to dental problems.

This was an eye-opening experience. I left with five excuses to eat more dark chocolate, a deep appreciation for chocolate, a willingness to spend more on a quality bar and having bonded with my friends. Moonbean’s chocolate making experiences cost Ush75,000 ($20) for adults and Ush 65,000 ($17) for children.