That bar of chocolate you may regularly enjoy had its unlikely origin in the cocoa bean, the basic building block of chocolate.
Cocoa beans, in fact, are not beans at all but the dried and fully fermented seed of the cacao tree. The popularity of cocoa and of chocolate throughout the centuries would seem to justify Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus’ botanical name for the cacao plant, which is Theobroma, or “food of the gods.”
The cacao tree is native to the Americas. Examples of wild cacao trees can still be found in the basins of the Amazon and Orinoco rivers in South America. Ancient peoples cultivated cacao beginning in at least 1500 BC. Cacao grows in a relatively limited geographical zone, roughly 20 degrees north and south of the equator. Today nearly 70 percent of the world’s crop is grown in west Africa.
The seeds come from the tree’s football-shaped pods, which have a leathery rind about three centimeters thick, varying according to the variety of the pod. It is filled with a sticky, sweet pulp and 30 to 50 large seeds that are fairly soft and white to pale lavender in color..
Before Spain’s arrival in the western hemisphere, the cocoa bean was used as currency. Aztecs often demanded payments of cocoa beans after vanquishing rival groups of indigenous peoples.
Once chocolate was introduced to Europe, production has evolved throughout the centuries, continually fostering innovative processes and new chocolate products [history of chocolate].
Forastero, Criollo, and Trinitario are the three main varieties of cacao. The first comprises 95 percent of the world’s production. Overall, the highest quality cocoa beans come from the Criollo variety, which is produced by few countries because of it is less resistant to disease. The Trinitario variety is a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero varieties and considered to be of much higher quality than the latter, but has higher yields and is more resistant to disease than the former.
The largest cocoa bean-producing country in the world is Coite d’Ivoire in western Africa, which produces nearly 40 percent of the world’s total. Other countries that are high on the list of cocoa bean production are Ghana, Indonesia, and Cameroon.
Harvesting cocoa beans
When the pods ripen, they are harvested from the trunks and branches of the cocoa tree with a curved knife on a long pole. The pods are then opened, typically with a machete, and the rind is discarded once the pulp and cocoa seeds are removed.
The pulp and seeds are then piled in heaps, placed in bins, or laid out on grates for several days. During this time, the thick pulp liquefies and trickles away, leaving cocoa seeds behind. The beans are dried by spreading them out over a large surface and constantly raking them.
Beans are often exported to the United States and Europe in jute bags, although over the last decade shipments are made in bulk parcels of several thousand tons at a time on ships to reduce handling costs.
Processing into Chocolate
To make around two ponds of chocolate, 300 to 600 beans are processed, depending on the desired cocoa content. In a factory, the beans are roasted. Next they are cracked and then de-shelled into pieces of beans called “nibs,” which are usually used for cooking, snacking and chocolate dishes. Nibs may also be ground into chocolate liquor, a thick, creamy paste, then further processed into chocolate by mixing in cocoa butter, sugar, and other ingredients. It is then refined, conched, and tempered. It may also separated into cocoa powder and cocoa butter using the Broma process or a hydraulic press. Cocoa butter is used in the manufacture of chocolate bars or other confectionary, and even soap and cosmetics.
Roasting is another process that helps the flavor. It can be done on the whole bean before shelling or on the nib after shelling. The time and temperature of the roast affects the result, with a low roast creating a more acid, aromatic flavor, while a high roast gives a more intense, bitter flavor.
Roughly 3.5 million tons of cocoa is produced each year. Global production has been steadily rising for several decades, reflecting the increasing popularity of chocolate. The Netherlands is the leading cocoa processing company, followed by the United States.