March 15, 2018

How to Roast Fine Cacao: A Beginner’s Guide


Dear chocolate lovers, you too can create your own delicious, melt-in-the-mouth bars. The journey from bean to bar includes many stages but, today, I’m going to take you through the first fascinating phase of cacao transformation – roasting!

Lee este artículo en español Una Guía Para Principiantes: Cómo Tostar Cacao de Calidad


Fine chocolate and cacao from the lot it was made from. Credit: Raros Fazedores de Chocolate

Cacao Roasting for Beginners

Cesar Frizo, founder and chocolatier of Raros Fazedores de Chocolate in Brazil, tells me that anyone can roast cacao at home. Many start with their kitchen oven or a home machine, while professionals may use a fluid bed machine or a drum roaster. Even a basic machine will work well, so long as you remain aware of how the temperature and roast are developing.

Arcelia Gallardo of Mission Chocolate in Brazil adds that each fine chocolatier creates their own roast protocols, since there aren’t yet many well-known industry standards available for adaptation. However, much like with coffee roasting, there are several points you need to pay attention to: bean size, moisture content, aroma development, the crack…

You might also like: A Home Coffee Roaster’s Dictionary, From First Crack to Silverskin

Unroasted cacao beans

Unroasted cacao beans: Forastero (dark), Trinitario (violet), and Criollo (white). Credit: Arcelia Gallardo

1. Know Your Beans

Like with coffee, the first thing you need to do is examine your raw material. You need to know both its physical and sensory profile to understand how best to roast it.

As Arcelia tells me, “You have to start knowing what kind of beans you are using, where do they come from, what is the humidity of the beans, how big are the beans… and from there, you can start narrowing things down.”

  • Bean Size

Cacao beans, much like coffee, come in different sizes. However, you’ll want to only roast batches with beans of the same size so you can ensure a uniform heat transfer through the bean structure.

When Cesar roasts cacao, he begins by sorting the beans by size. He emphasises that this size changes everything. “If you have a small bean, the heat transfer is different, and it is more complicated when you are roasting bigger beans, as you have to manage different temperatures during the process.”

You might also like: How to Evaluate Cacao & Chocolate Quality

cacao beans

Ecuadorian cacao beans ready for analysis and roasting. Credit: Arcelia Gallardo

  • Moisture & Density

Much like in coffee, moisture and density will affect the heat transfer.

Learn more! Read Roaster Basics: How to Roast Hard & Soft Coffee Beans

Cesar tells me that he wants to see a moisture content of 6.5–7% – something that he measures with a moisture meter. With drier beans, there’s a risk of them breaking during roasting. But at higher moisture levels, making sure the water evaporates sufficiently, without roasting the beans for too long, can be complicated.

Karla McNeil-Rueda, Founder of Cru Chocolate in Honduras, adds that cacao beans are typically less dense than coffee beans due to their high fat content. She recommends doubling the machine’s normal load. For example, if you have a Behmor 1600 Plus, which can roast one pound of coffee, you would use two pounds of cacao beans. In her case, she uses the Royal Coffee Roaster #5, which has a 25-pound capacity, and roasts 50 pounds of cacao at a time.

  • Flavour

Before deciding on your profile, you need to understand your beans’ sensory qualities. Cesar normally tries the beans raw, which allows him to recognise which flavours he can enhance through different roast styles. This requires a lot of tasting and training to achieve.

On the other hand, Arcelia tells me that she does three different sample roasts: one light, one medium, and one dark. From there, she can decide which is best for the beans. However, for those who purchase micro batches, it may be hard to justify this method.

Three different cacao

Three different cacao beans, one roast. Credit: Raros Fazedores de Chocolate

2. Create Your Roast Profile

Now that you’ve analysed your beans, it’s time to decide how much heat to use.

  • Charge Temperature

The charge temperature is the initial temperature you use at the start of your roast. (Find out more about charge temperature in coffee here.)

Do your beans have more delicate flavours? Cesar would aim for a lower charge temperature to enhance these. Or are they more about the body and the caramel notes? He’d start higher.

Remember, however, that the fine cacao industry is still creating its roasting standards – meaning it’s an exciting time for experimentation. You can see this in the differences between Cesar’s and Arcelia’s roast styles.

Cesar opts for 80–90ºC (176–194ºF) while Arcelia goes closer to 120ºC (248ºF). She tells me that the higher temperature ensures the moisture within the beans will be released within the first ten minutes of the roast. Remember, the charge temperature refers to the air within the roasters; the beans themselves need time to heat up.

“From minute zero to the tenth minute, the temperature [within the beans] needs to hit 100ºC…” Arcelia says, “It will take ten minutes to evaporate the water because water evaporates at 100ºC.”

Roasted cacao

Roasted cacao beans from La Masica, Honduras. Credit: Cru Chocolate

  • Manipulating Roast Temperature & Time

Cesar tells me that, if he wanted a delicate roast to enhance fruity and floral notes, he’d take the heat up to 110–116ºC (230–241ºF) and aim for a roast time of 15 to 20 minutes. However, if he wanted to coax greater body and more caramel notes out of the beans, he’d take the heat as high as 130–135ºC (266–275ºF) for 20–22 minutes.

However, this will also vary depending on the beans’ physical attributes. Let’s say that they’re delicate but large: Cesar might extend the roast time to 25 or 30 minutes and keep the temperature lower, at around 100–105ºC (212–221ºF).

As for Arcelia, for a medium roast, she would aim for 110ºC (230ºF) from the tenth to the twentieth minute. Then, for the next ten minutes, she would bring it up to 120ºC (248ºF).

Cesar emphasises that these are average figures but that every bean needs its own roast profile so that you can get the best possible flavours and aromas in the chocolate. Arcelia adds, “There isn’t really one recipe, so this is one of the challenges as chocolate makers… you really do have to spend a lot of time figuring out how you are able to roast your beans your way.”

And both Cesar and Arcelia remind me of the importance of checking the temperature of the beans, not just the roaster, especially if you’re using a kitchen oven.

Measuring the temperature

Measuring the temperature of lightly roasted cacao beans from São Paulo State, Brazil. Credit: Raros Fazedores de Chocolate

Track & Complete Your Roast

Even though you might have a roast time and temperature in mind, it’s important to pay attention to how the beans are developing. Always put the beans first, not the roast profile.

  • Colour & Aroma

Unlike with coffee beans, my interviewees explain that cacao beans don’t really change colour when exposed to heat. However, the aroma will develop. Karla tells me that, to begin with, you will smell acetic and vinegar notes; these will eventually develop into more pleasant ones.

Don’t just rely on what you can smell outside your roaster, though. Karla samples one bean every minute, tasting it and analysing the aroma. This helps her keep track of roast development.

Chocolate monitors

Karla McNeil-Rueda of Cru Chocolate monitors the roast by trying one bean every minute. Credit: Cru Chocolate

  • Crack

What’s more, you should listen out for an audible crack. Much like in coffee, this sound is the sign that your cacao roast is nearly ready. However, Arcelia cautions that it isn’t reliable if you’re roasting beans of different sizes. Some will crack sooner than others.

Cesar adds that if, after roasting, it’s easy to winnow the beans, then you know you’ve done it well.

Forastero and Criollo

A mix of Forastero and Criollo Honduran cacao beans. Credit: Cru Chocolate

Fine cacao roasting is an evolving industry, but this is part of its beauty. With little information available, home and professional roasters alike must experiment in search of the best profile for their beans. It’s the start of a journey of discovery – one that may be difficult but also immensely rewarding.

Pay attention to the beans you’re roasting. Take notes on their initial characteristics, your evolving roast temperature and time, and the results. Deliberately play with your technique. This is the way to cacao roasting mastery.

And, most importantly of all, enjoy it. Savour the fact that you’re hand-crafting your very own fine chocolate bar.

Enjoyed this article? Discover the next stages of chocolate-making in: Sweet Treats: How Is Fine Chocolate Made?

Written by Angie Molina.

PDG Cacao

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