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The Secrets to Making Fine Chocolate—and Great Employees

Thursday, January 18, 2018
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“The answer is chocolate. The question is pretty much irrelevant.” While that anonymous quote may be more fun than fact, when it comes to developing human resources, chocolate may, indeed, be the answer. And as unlikely as that may seem, there are many parallels between making fine chocolate and enabling employees to perform at their best. Before we make that connection, you need to understand what goes in to the process of growing and making fine chocolate.

Where We Get the “Food of the Gods”

It all starts with cacao trees. The botanical name, Theobroma Cacao, is roughly (and appropriately) translated as “food of the gods.” These species only grow in limited locations around the earth within about 20° north and 20° south of the equator. This area is known as the tropical belt and includes portions of Latin America, South America, Africa, and Malaysia/Indonesia. Cacao trees are very fragile and need the right combination of sun, rain and rich soil with lots of nutrients. Given the limited growing regions and that these areas are prone to such challenges as hurricanes and typhoons, political unrest, and unstable economies, it makes sense that cacao is a relatively scarce and inconsistently available commodity.

Like wine, each cacao-producing region produces chocolate that features unique flavor profiles. Cacao beans are the source of all chocolate, and their flavor can be influenced by many factors, including topography, weather, soil conditions, and genetics. These environmental influences are referred to as “terroir” (ter-wahr) in both chocolate and wine-making. In addition, human factors have a significant impact on flavor through the post-harvest processes of fermenting and roasting.

So to not damage the fragile trees, the cacao pods are carefully harvested by hand. The pods are then skillfully scored with a machete, which allows the farmers peel away the outer shell and scoop out the beans.

From Bean to Bar: How Fine Chocolate Is Made

After the harvest, the beans must be fermented with great care to bring out the best of their unique flavors. To the artisanal chocolatier, proper cacao fermentation is critically important. While they may meet the standards of mass market producers, chocolate made from poorly fermented beans does not have the body and richness of chocolate made from cacao beans that have been expertly fermented.

When they are first removed from the pod, the beans have a sweet, white, mucilage-like coating around each bean. This coating is what causes fermentation to occur. The beans are collected together in fermentation or “sweat” boxes. This needs to happen as quickly as possible, since the beans begin to germinate as soon as the fruit has been picked. The farmers must also rotate the beans within the sweatboxes at regular intervals and allow them to ferment just the right amount of time. They will turn bitter if left too long. This time varies with each type of bean, but is typically five to seven days. When the beans are fermented to perfection, they must be removed from the sweatboxes and carefully dried. They are then ready to be bagged and delivered to the care of the chocolate maker.

Once in the hands of artisan chocolate makers, they will first roast the cacao beans using their own techniques that enable them to impart their personal sense of taste and artistry to the process. It also is one of the most important steps in the development of chocolate flavor. The type of bean actually dictates the temperature and degree of roast. To roast cacao beans properly requires a significant amount of labor, care, and attention to detail. Unfortunately, most mass market chocolate manufacturers cut corners to maximize efficiency and reduce labor costs. Roasting too long or too short can result in inferior quality. A chocolate maker intent on coaxing out the best flavors possible, will actually taste the beans many times during the final phases of the roast to determine they have reached their full potential.

Once roasted to perfection, the whole beans must be “winnowed” to completely remove the fibrous husk to maximize superior texture and flavor. This is done by feeding the beans between rollers or revolving plates to crack the hard husks and free the precious “nib.” With the husk separated from the nib, the husks are then blown away by fans in the winnowing machine, thus allowing the heavier nibs to be collected. This is similar to the ancient process of removing the chaff from wheat.

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Now the pure nibs are ready to be refined or ground into a smooth texture. At this point, sugar typically is added to the mixture. The last step in the journey of a chocolate bar is called “conching,” which is a long process of intense mixing, agitating, and aerating of heated liquid chocolate. This is done to remove any remaining bitterness and water vapor and may take up to 72 hours, depending on the type of beans and other variables. If allowed to conch too long, some of the unique flavors can be lost through evaporation. Again, a skilled artisan must monitor the conching process until it is just right. The refined chocolate can now be molded into bars and made available to be savored by anxious lovers of fine chocolate.

Cacao Beans and Human Beings

By now, you are likely experiencing an intense chocolate craving, but please try to resist satisfying it until you understand the people/chocolate connection. You’ve probably already come to some of your own conclusions.

Employees, like cacao, are not an unlimited commodity. Most would admit that good employees are even scarce. Human beings are somewhat fragile and need to be mentored and nurtured, as well as protected from harsh environments—similar to cacao trees. Much of the work of people development also must be performed in a “hands on” process. Little dealing with the growth of human beings can be automated.

The painstaking processes of fermenting and roasting cacao beans have the biggest impact on bringing out their unique flavor characteristics. Mass market methods of treating all beans the same, regardless of their distinct traits, is an unfortunate misuse of precious resources. Homogenization is also a needless and costly waste of human resources.

Most organizations go to great lengths to recruit and hire the best people. It makes no sense to put that much time and effort into the hiring process and not help develop and take advantage of the unique strengths every employee brings to an organization once they are on board.

The benefits of adopting a strengths-based approach to talent development have been eloquently and forcefully articulated for some time by authors and thought-leaders like Marcus Buckingham and Tom Rath. To quote Buckingham: “Companies that focus on cultivating employees’ strengths rather than simply improving on people’s weaknesses stand to dramatically increase efficiency and productivity while allowing for maximum personal growth.”

More recently, Alaina Love of Purpose-Linked Consulting makes the case that, in addition to having unique strengths, people also have unique passion profiles that are powerful drivers of engagement, achievement and fulfillment. “When leaders provide an outlet for employee passions at work, the reward employees receive is a greater sense of meaning and fulfillment from work. It’s the emotional reward, rather than the financial one, that drives discretionary effort. Fulfillment creates a positive feedback loop that encourages employees to go the extra mile for a customer, or think about a project outside of work hours. Organizations are not paying for that effort, but they are certainly reaping the benefits of it,” she asserts.

Just about every organization declares in some way or another that “people are our most important asset.” and rightfully so. But it’s not the sheer mass of humanity or sizeable headcount that generates that asset; it’s the collective combination of diverse and maximized strengths and passions that creates value for exceptional organizations—and fine chocolate bars.

About the Author
Rob Chipman is Executive Producer of ArtWork Media, which he founded with a mission to combine artistry and acumen for a more inspiring workplace. ArtWork Media’s first production is a new experiential learning activity and film called Chocolate: Passion at Work, which is a great way to get a discussion started about passions and strengths in your organization. You can find out more about Chocolate: Passion at Work at www.artworkmedia.com.
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