Cacao

Most people don’t know that chocolate comes from a fruit

You read that right—the deep, dark, chocolaty goodness that you love so much starts with a pod that looks a lot like an elongated melon and grows on a tree. How that very fruity melon-like pod becomes chocolate is a fascinating story.

The cacao beans that are turned into chocolate are the seeds from the fruit of the tree Theobroma Cacao, which grows only within twenty degrees north and south of the equator. Cacao pods come in many different shapes, sizes and colors, and these variations are due to the many genetic differences in the trees. These differences also have a big impact on flavor.

A cacao pod sprouting from the branch of a Theobroma cacao tree.
Cacao pods ripening on a mature tree.

Beyond the genetic differences in the trees, arguably the biggest impacts on the flavor of a cacao bean are post-harvest practices, the two most important of which are fermentation and drying.

Monica enjoying the fruity goodness of a cacao pod.
Harvesting a ripe cacao pod.

Post harvest practices have a big impact on flavor

Unlike coffee beans, cacao beans can’t just be picked and then shipped—they must undergo a period of fermentation that’s not only crucial to developing the flavors in the bean, but also requires extensive skill to master.

Likewise, the beans can’t just be laid out to dry in the sun. The process must be done in a way that ensures maximum flavor without compromising the quality of the bean.

It is this skill in post harvest practices that makes finding fine flavor cacao so difficult. In fact, finding a bean with incredible genetic qualities will still result in poor chocolate if the post harvest practices aren’t done with care and skill.

The first step, of course, is to harvest the beans. Ripe beans are cut down and then carefully broken open, usually with a machete. Care must be taken to not cut into the beans.

Pods are opened with a machete...
…and the beans and pulp are separated from the shell.

Once enough beans are collected they’re brought to a fermentation facility and placed in fermentation boxes. Depending on the bean, they’re fermented for anywhere from three to six or more days. During the fermentation they’re periodically “turned” to ensure the beans ferment evenly. This can be done in several ways, but usually involves moving the beans from one box to another.

The fermentation process must be carefully monitored, and the beans are periodically checked to determine when they’re ready to be turned and when the fermentation is complete.

Wet cacao beans (known as baba) being loaded into a fermentation box. Typically at least a half ton of beans are needed to ensure proper fermentation.
Beans being moved to another box to begin the next stage of fermentation.
Checking the sugar content of the baba. Among other things, sugar content determines how hot the fermentation will get.

Once the fermentation is complete the beans are moved onto drying platforms or racks. These are usually covered to protect the beans from the elements, and sometimes are on wheels or have retractable covers that can be pulled back to fully expose the beans to the sun.

The fermentation boxes have openings to allow the pulp to drain out, which is important for proper fermentation.
Drying racks. The beans are periodically turned to ensure even drying.
Beans in various stages of drying — lighter beans are drier.
A cut test. This is done to determine how the drying is progressing — these beans are still very wet.
Each rack is labeled with the date drying began.
Tom with drying beans at Cacao Bisiesto.

After the beans have been drying for several days they’re tested for moisture content. When they reach a level near 7% they can be bagged for shipment.

Preparing to test the beans with a hygrometer, which measures moisture content.

Finally the beans are weighed, bagged, labeled and sent to a warehouse in preparation for shipment.

Weighing the beans prior to shipment.
Ready to be made into chocolate!