In the western world, chocolate is everywhere – the local corner store, the big box chains, on the Internet and of course in small boutique chocolate shops. We eat chocolate to be happy, to be healthy and to celebrate our lives. Our demand for chocolate is evident, but have you ever wondered how a small hard bean turns into a silky smooth chocolate bar?
Collaborative efforts of many people and many countries are imperative when transforming bean to bar. From third world growers to western manufacturers, every step impacts the quality of the chocolate we eat. Chocolate means different things to different people. Artful attention to detail and a commitment to craftsmanship are vitally important every step of the way.
Cacao is valued worldwide as a trade commodity, local food and manufacturing product. For the next two weeks, let’s explore, from the ground up, how chocolate is made – from bean to bar. It might inspire you to appreciate your chocolate just a little bit more.
Growing the Cacao Tree
The cacao tree originated in Central America but now grows in many areas of West Africa, Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia. There are about 2 to 2.5 million producers worldwide, 90% being small-scale farmers with 12 acres or less. Cacao trees thrive in these areas because of their humid tropical climates with regular rains and short dry seasons.
The trees can produce pods year round for 25 to 30 years. Thousands of flowers grow from the tree’s trunk each year but only about 1% will bear fruit called pods. The pod is of similar size and shape to a football and grows from the trunk or limbs of the tree. It takes five to six months for the fruit to ripen. Pods can grow in a range of colors: brown, orange, red, green and yellow.
Many modern day chocolatiers are working diligently to empower the farmers of the cacao tree by trading fairly, paying above market value and assisting with better working conditions. This helps both the farmer and the manufacturer to produce higher quality chocolate while encouraging more humane and fair practices.
Harvesting the Pods
Once the pods are ripe, they are harvested by cutting the stalk with a machete or long sharp pruning loppers. This is done with great care, as the stalk must be preserved for further pod production. If the stalk is damaged, that area of the tree becomes infertile and will no longer produce the flower or the pod. Pods can be harvested year round but are usually harvested every six months, coinciding with the rainy seasons.
Removing the Cacao Beans
Once on the ground, the pods are sorted by quality and placed in piles. In many areas this is a social affair, where stories, news and jokes are shared as everyone works. Skilled craftsmen will open the pods with a machete, with just enough pressure to open the pod but not damage the beans inside. The beans are heaped upon large leaves, usually banana leaves. The group socializes as they watch the fruits of their labor pile up.
The empty hulls are gathered and placed in the sun to rot. This will later be used as compost for nourishing the next crop.
Some farmers take their crop to fermenting houses, selling their beans by weight. For these farmers, it’s the end of the road. Others choose to ferment the beans themselves. Whether the fermentation happens on the farm or at the fermenting house, the harvesting has now ended and the beans move forward for further processing.
Many of the farmers who produce the cacao have never tasted a chocolate bar. The cacao trees are a source of community, spirit and livelihood among the farmers and their commitment to growing a quality product touches the world. Without the farmer, there would be no chocolate.
Join us next week as we follow the next phases of the chocolate journey.