Cacao trees grow best in the geographic band that is 15-20 degrees north or south of Equator in West Africa, Central and South America and parts of Asia. Worldwide cacao production is disbursed among the major cocoa producing countries as shown below:
Source: UNCTAD based on the data from International Cocoa Organization, quarterly bulletin of cocoa statistics
Cacao is also grown in Sri Lanka, parts of India, Venezuela, Belize, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Madagascar, Peru, Colombia, Guatemala, Hawaii, Mexico, Fiji and other countries clustered near the equator.
The trees flourish in the shade of rainforests where they gain protection from the wind in rich, well drained soil. The climate is one of high humidity, usually 100% during the day and 70-80% at night. The cacao prefers a constant but moderate temperature of 77 degrees at all times, and ample rainfall of 40-80 inches per year is preferable
The scientific name given to the cacao tree is Theobroma cacao. While there have been some recent attempts to modify to the growth cycle, as a rule the tree starts producing cacao in its 5th year with peak production in its 10th year. The trees can grow to be 100 years or more, but commercial production stops after 25 yrs. The shiny green leaves spring from branches on a trunk that grows up to 30 ft tall. The cacao flowers continuously once it has matured, with orchid-like white & pink blossoms growing directly from tree trunk. Of the thousands of blossoms approximately 100 will become mature pods, which will also grow directly from the trunk of the tree.
Cacao: legumes. Online Photograph Encyclopędia Britannica Online 16Mar 2007
The pods usually mature after 5 months of growth, sporting various colors, including gold, crimson and purple. The thickness of the skin and the shape of the pod varies from long and pointed to rounded and smooth. The pods are filled with a sweet, white or rosy colored pulp and contain approximately 50 beans, all perfectly aligned in rows like corn.
• earliest genotype, grown by Mayans
• grown in Mexico, South and Central America, and Indonesia
• thin skinned pods that are pointed and warty
• cotyledons(seeds) are pinkish to white
• more difficult to grow, fewer seeds per pod
• best quality beans
• grown mostly in Brazil and West Africa
• Rounded pods with thick skins and flatter, dark purple beans
• More disease resistant, higher yielding and less delicate than criollo
• most common genotype now
• 90% of all cacao beans
• beans require longer fermenting than criollo
• Bred in Trinidad after devastation of criollo trees in 1727
• cross between the other remaining criollo and imported Venezuelan forastero
• hardier than criollo with more flavor than forastero
When it is time to harvest, the pods are cut from the tree trunk by hand using a machete. For pods higher up on the tree, a long handle with a small curved blade is used to gently separate them from the trunk. Care must be taken not to damage the other pods or flowers on the tree, as the tree is frail and its roots are shallow. The pods are collected in baskets and brought to a central location. Within a week, all pods are split open, often with a wooden club to avoid damaging the beans inside the pod, and the contents removed. The pods will usually yield 40-60 beans each, depending on the variety of the cacao. When dry, it will take approximately 400 beans to make one pound of roasted beans.
Source: Cocoa Workshop and Educational Program, by Lets Go Africa Foundation
Harvest could be year-round in most growing regions, but there are usually two specific harvesting seasons in each country. Selected country harvest schedules are listed below:
Ivory Coast (main: Oct/Mar, mid: May/Aug) Ghana (main: Sep/Mar, mid: May/Aug)
Indonesia (main: Sep/Dec, mid: Mar/Jul) Brazil: (main: Oct/Mar, mid: Jun/Sep)
Nigeria: (main: Sep/Mar, mid: Jun/Aug) Cameroon: (main: Sep/Feb, mid: May/Aug)
Malaysia (main: Oct/Dec, mid: Apr/May) Venezuela (main: Nov/April, mid: May/July)
Ecuador (main: Sep/Feb, mid: May/Aug)
Beans and surrounding white pulp are removed from the pod and piled high, to promote fermentation. Fermenting piles are often covered with banana leaves and stirred periodically to promote aeration and fermentation. After a day, micro-organisms, in particular yeasts, begin to grow on the beans. The yeast converts the sugar of the pulp into ethanol, and the bacteria then oxidizes the ethanol, causing the temperature of the pile to rise and the beans to turn brown. By the second day the pulp begins to break down into a liquid and drain away. At this point, the bean has died from the heat and the oxidization. Bacteria continues the process of oxidation as more and more air fills the spaces previously occupied by the pulp. The death of the bean causes cell walls to break down and different parts of the bean to merge together. These newly combined substances cause chemical reactions which enhance the color and flavor characteristics in the bean. The entire fermentation process for Criollo beans is 2-3 days, and for Forastero usually 5 days.
Source: Cocoa Workshop and Educational Program, by Lets Go Africa Foundation
When fermentation is complete, the beans have a moisture content of 60% which is much too high- drying will reduce that to 7.5%. Drying is done traditionally by spreading the beans out on the ground or a table and allowing the sun to do the work. More modern techniques include drying rooms and heated tables where temperatures can be strictly controlled. The beans should be dried slowly to allow completion of the chemical reactions that began in fermentation, but not so slowly that moulds develop. During the drying process, the beans are continually turned to help prevent mold and provide sufficient aeration. Once the beans are dried, which usually takes one to two weeks, they are scooped into bags and from there the beans go to the chocolate manufacturers.
Beans drying in front of Chuao church
The cacao undergoes quality tests at several stages along its journey. The first stop after drying is when the plantation sorts the beans according to size. Only the premium beans command top pricing in the market. The local co-ops and plantations sell to brokers in London, Amsterdam and New York, who then act as middlemen selling to the manufacturers and chocolate companies. The beans are tested usually by sampling 300 beans per metric ton. The sample is weighed and the beans are cut open to reveal any mold or pests and to determine the extent of the fermentation. Every company has standards that define the tolerances for defective beans in a lot. As a final test, the liquors are tasted by a professional panel who evaluates the aromas and flavors of the beans.
Transformation at the Chocolate Maker
Once the beans are ready to be processed, it takes at least 2 to 4 days to manufacture a single candy bar. Though processes may differ from maker to maker, the overall process is common to most. Because each maker blends beans to his unique specifications, makers segregate their beans by type and origin. When they are ready to process, the cocoa beans are cleaned to remove any debris or dried pulp that may remain, and then they are graded and sorted by size. Any shriveled or double beans are discarded.
Next the beans are roasted in large rotating cylinders to bring out the chocolate flavor and color. The roasting can take 30 to 120 minutes, usually at 250 degrees or higher. This is a critical step where chocolate makers add their own signature to the process, by varying the temperature, moisture and time the beans are roasted. The longer the roasting the stronger the flavor, but over-roasting will rune the bean and make it bitter.
Once roasting is complete, the beans are put into a winnowing machine where they are passed between two large cones that crack the brittle shells without crushing the nibs. A fan inside blows and separates the hard outer shell from the cocoa nib. As a part of this process, the winnowing machine sifts through the nibs and separates them by size.
Once sorted, the nibs are crushed by large steel discs or grinding stones. The heat generated by the friction melts the cocoa butter which becomes cocoa liquor (cocoa particles suspended in cocoa butter). The cocoa particles at this point are approximately 50-70 microns in size, which is still detected as grainy on the tongue. This liquor if solidified would be pure unsweetened chocolate. The temperature and degree of milling varies according to the type of nib used and the product required.
Some liquor will be used for purposes other than eating chocolate. For this portion, the cocoa liquor is pressed at 6,000 pounds per square inch to extract the cocoa butter, producing a residual solid mass called cocoa presscake. The extracted cocoa butter is used in the manufacture of eating chocolate, while the cocoa presscake is ground finely to form cocoa powder.
For the liquor that will go on to become chocolate, the addition of cocoa butter will be the next step. Other ingredients such as sugar, milk and emulsifying agents such as lecithin, are also added and mixed. The amount of cocoa butter depends on the type of chocolate being made. The cocoa butter and cacao solids together make up the coco percentage that is now being emblazoned on many labels. The higher cocoa percent in the finished chocolate, the more intense the flavor will be and the lower the sugar content.
Mixing of Liquor and Other Ingredients
The chocolate mixture is then put through a refining process, traveling through a series of huge steel rollers until a smooth paste is formed. The size of the chocolate particles is reduced to 14-20 microns at this stage, which greatly improves the mouth-feel of the final chocolate. The substance that comes out of this mixing process is surprisingly dry and powdery.
The next process, conching, further develops the flavor and texture by promoting chemical transformations in the chocolate. This process was developed first by Rodolphe Lindt around the turn of the century. Conching is a process of kneading and agitating the chocolate, which can be completed in as little as 5 hours at the more commercial facilities, but can take as long as 3 days at the more artisan manufacturers. During this process, cocoa butter is sometimes added to further enhance the smoothness of the end result. The speed, duration and temperature of the kneading also affect the flavor affect the chocolate in ways not fully understood.
As a final stage before molding, the mixture is tempered by a series of heating, cooling and reheating steps. This prevents chocolate bloom by realigning the cacao butter crystal formations. The chocolate is now ready to be molded as a whole bar or used to enrobe fillings.
This entire process, its various stages and finished products are represented below in a flow chart diagram, sourced from the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO).
Source: ICCO International Cocoa Organization