The cocoa plant, first discovered in South America, is responsible for producing the raw ingredinets needed to make chocolate.
Cocoa was first found in South America, which is where the "best" cocoa in the world is still grown to this day.
In the last 500 years or so, the plant responsible for producing cocoa has moved to other parts of the world.
It is now grown in Africa, India, and the southeast Asian islands of the Pacific.
Because cocoa requires specific climate conditions to grow, it has only been a successful crop in small regions around the world.
Ideal Conditions For Growing Cocoa
First discovered by the Toltec people, the cocoa plant is grown along a narrow belt between 10 degrees N and 10 degrees S of the Equator.
Many experts agree that this narrow strip of land produces the best cocoa in the world.
There are other climates in which cocoa can grow, namely the lower altitude areas of the rainforest that have certain rainfall, sunlight, and temperature conditions.
In general, the theobroma cacao plant won't survive in anything less than 64° F. It can withstand temperatures as hot as 86-89° F.
Rainfall is abundant in the Mesoamerican rainforest, something cocoa needs. Cocoa grows best with 59 - 78 inches of rainfall per year.
After temperature and rainfall are accounted for, the last important ingredient for producing quality cocoa is shade.
The best cocoa is grown among the rainforest canopy, which the tall and thick jungle setting provides for plenty of shade. (This is exactly how the best coffees are grown as well—and guayusa.)
When the Europeans tried to cultivate cocoa in the 16 and 17th centuries, it did not go as planned. In Spanish Dominican Republic, Trinidad, and Haiti, initial cocoa planting provided no results. The Caribbean was thusly dubbed inhospitable to cocoa, but this was not true. The English and French were able to successfully recreate conditions on many islands and on the south American continent before the century was over.
Cocoa Goes Global
More recently, cocoa bean production has expanded beyond the traditional central and south American countries.
In fact, the three highest cocoa bean producers in the world are in Africa and Asia. The leader being Ivory Coast followed by Indonesia and Ghana. In total, west African countries now account for 69% of the world’s cocoa bean production, most of which is used for mass-produced chocolate products.
The plant has come a long way since the time of Cortes and the fall of the Maya empire. Since then, cocoa has continued to spread across the globe through new and improved methods for growing, cultivating and processing.
The processing methods for growing cocoa vary greatly depending on whether you buy organic or conventional.
While some organic products are not much different than normal grade (and some are), conventional cocoa is one of the world’s most heavily sprayed crops in the world (again, just like coffee).
And since the cocoa butter (the fat) of the beans easily absorbs and retains pesticides, it is a product that you should always try to buy organic (like coffee).
From Plant to Bean to Bar
After three or four years of growth, a cocoa plant will start bearing fruit. Once mature, cocoa trees produce 20 - 30 pods per year, each of which yield 20 - 50 beans each.
Of course, not all cocoa beans are the same. There are three main cocoa beans, each varying in flavor, aroma, and nutritional makeup. These are:
Forastero - This is the bean most commonly found in Africa, hence the name “foreign” in Spanish. Up to 80 - 90% of all cacao comes from this plant because it is highly resistant to disease and climate and produces a high yield of beans. Typically, this is the least quality grade of bean and is blended with more superior types of cocoa to improve the flavor.
Criollo - This is the “native” cocoa bean, found in Central and South America. It is considered the highest grade of cacao and is more expensive due to the trees being fragile and yielding low and inconsistent beans. Only 5 - 10% of the world’s cocoa production is criollo. A unique property of these beans is they contain more theobromine and caffeine than the other varieties.
Trinitario - The trinitaro beans are a hybrid of the two and combine the best aspects of each. Accounting for only 10 - 15% of the world’s cocoa production, it is resistant to disease and is still considered “very fine” chocolate.
Harvesting cocoa is usually done with the machete wielded by skilled laborers.
Once the pods are cut down from the tree, they split the pod with the large knife, expose the beans, and remove the pulp.
Next the cocoa beans are fermented in a process called “sweating," which aims to remove some of the bitterness from cocoa beans.
After 4 - 7 days of fermentation, the beans are then dried for 1-2 weeks.
The best cocoa farmers in the world manually harvest the beans, mix fermenting beans every couple of days, and sun dry their product on raised beds to prevent moisture accumulation and mold.
The final step for the beans is roasting. This process depends on the type of bean. For example, cocoa nibs are roasted at temperatures of 215° - 248° F, with the time roasted depending on whether the final product is meant for producing cocoa or chocolate.
After this processing, the fermented beans are sent to various manufacturers for producing the various chocolate products, such as cocoa powder, cocoa butter, chocolate bars, cocoa nibs, and so on.
To produce great cocoa, it is important that skilled laborers harvest, process and manufacture the cocoa by hand through the entire process. While this increases the cost of the cocoa, it produces a far better tasting product (as well as a better quality of life for the workers and farmers and a better result for the environment).
The cocoa bean has been used for hundreds of years and throughout this time, cultivation and processing methods have developed. Even still, with all the technology we now have access to, it's the traditional, handcrafted methods with an eye for precision and quality that produce the finest cocoa.