Cacao beans generally grow in regions between 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator where temperatures do not fall below 68°F. The majority of beans produced today are grown in West Africa (Cote d’lvoire produces 40% and Ghana 15%) with smaller amounts contributed by South America, Central America and South-East Asia. The cacao trees are wide-branched evergreens that can grow to heights of 7.5 meters (25 feet.) They require high humidity, heavy shade during the first years of the trees’ growth and 70 to 90 inches of near constant rainfall on an annual basis. The world’s supply of cacao beans is, in fact, grown in a limited geographical area of the world.
Theobroma cacao trees, the source of the seeds for cocoa, chocolate and cocoa butter, begin to produce beans after 3-4 years. Often taller trees are grown along with the cacao trees to provide protection for them. Yellow flowers develop on the bark and larger branches of the tree. These flowers are pollinated in nature by gnats known as midges, but on the cacao plantations the workers often pollinate the flowers with brushes to increase production. After the flowers are pollinated they bear fruit that eventually matures into long pods (lengths of 6 to 14 inches) called cherelles. The shells of the cherelles encase a pinkish pulp (mucilage) and almond-sized cacao beans. One tree may produce from 60 to 120 cherelles, with each pod contributing only 20 to 40 cacao beans to the annual crop.
The cherelles are typically harvested from the trees by workers using knifes or machetes. The pods are cut in half and the beans are removed from the pods along with the pulp, covered with banana leaves and left to ferment. The length of time they are left to ferment is critical to the cultivation of the flavor of the beans and ultimately, the flavor of the chocolate it will be used to create. The finer chocolate manufacturers allow enough time for the flavor to mature during fermentation. After the fermentation process has been completed the beans are dried to prevent molding during transportation. Often the beans are dried right on the plantation by spreading them in the sun and turning them by hand. The beans are graded by inspectors who classify the beans as either fine grade, second grade or third grade, depending on the color and size.
Cacao beans are not generally processed in their country of origin but are bought by distributors or manufacturers and shipped to Europe or the United States for processing. There are a few chocolate manufacturers in Venezuela, Brazil and Cote d’lvoire but these are the few in number. The United States (as of 2007) has a total of eleven actual chocolate manufacturers.
After the beans are purchased and transported to the chocolate maker, they are cleaned and roasted. After roasting the shell easily seperates from the “nib” (inside of the bean.). The shells are discarded (and often used for agricultural mulch) and the nibs are ground to produce chocolate liquor (the liquid essence of the beans.) The chocolate liquor then undergoes a process known as “conching,” during which the chocolate is mixed at high temperatures while being subjected to repeated blasts of fresh air. This produces chemical changes causing enhanced flavor. Sugar is added along with flavoring such as vanilla beans. This liquid chocolate is then tempered,poured into molds and cooled.
Keep in mind that chocolate making is not strictly a mechanical process; it is as much art as science. The nature of the roasting and fermentation of the beans influence the intensity of the bean’s flavor. The types of beans used (see description below), region of growth, soil type and weather conditions all contribute to texture and flavor of the finished product as well as the additives and flavorings used. There are over 400 flavors currently associated with chocolate and a master chocolatier approaches the task of crafting each product with the same creative eye as a vintner approaching a season’s grape harvest to produce the best wine possible. They coax and combine these raw ingredients into the finished products, each with a unique personality and special attributes.
There are two distinct types of cacao beans; the criollo and the forastero. There is also a hybrid of of these two beans called the trinitario bean. From these three beans come the vast varieties of finished chocolate products produced.
Varieties and Characteristics of Cacao Beans
|Criollo||Venezuela, Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Columbia, Trinidad, Grenada and Jamaica||This bean has a slightly bitter taste with a powerful aroma and a complex but delicate flavor. The trees that produce this bean are difficult to cultivate and yield very low volume crops. This bean represents only a small percentage of the world’s cacao crop. The pods themselves are soft, red in color and contain twenty to thirty white, ivory or very pale purple beans.|
|Forastero||Africa, Brazil, West Indies, Central America and in an increasing number of South American countries.||This bean is the most common of the varieties, representing the vast majority of the world’s cacao crop in a given year. While it gives chocolate its body and finish, this bean lacks flavor and aroma of the other varieties and requires an intense roasting process to bring out its qualities. New crossbreeds of this bean have been developed, which are more flavorful than the original.|
|Trinitario||Trinidad (country of origin), Ski Lanka, South America, Central America and Indonesia||This bean is a hearty bean developed by crossbreeding the criollo and forastero trees. It boasts of an extremely high cocoa butter content and comprises less than 15% of the world’s cacao bean production in a given year.|
There are two major classifications of cacao beans on the world market. The first is the “fine” or “flavor” class and the second is the “bulk” or “ordinary” class. “Fine” beans are generally the criollo or trinitario varieties. This class accounts for less than 5% of the total world production. The “bulk” beans are most often the forastero beans but there are exceptions to both of these.
There is huge diversity to choose from when exploring chocolate. Some chocolate will be “single cru” or “single origin” chocolate, meaning that all the beans used for that chocolate came from one location or plantation. Other chocolates will be blends of different beans. Still others will host added flavors and ingredients that may be subtle or bold. Our hope is that the more background knowledge you have about the creation of the product itself, the greater your understanding and appreciation will be of the nuances in each chocolate you encounter along the road.