If there is one thing we can all agree on its chocolate. Chocolate is grown from the cocoa tree known as Theobroma cacao. The cocoa bean is considered to have originated in the America’s, but is now mass produced most prevalently in Africa. The first sources of chocolate are thought to have derived near the Amazon River and rain forest of South America. Many believe the first people who cultivated the cocoa tree were the ancient Amazonian people.
What gives the cocoa bean the deep, rich and intense taste is the temperate and humidity of the location the bean is being grown. Cocoa beans thrive in hot, humid and/or rainy locations that are within 20 degrees of the equator. In its natural environment, the cocoa tree may grow up to 60 feet tall, whereas for the purpose of cultivation, farmers usually do not allow the tree to grow more than 40 feet.
The cocoa beans are cocooned within a pod that each produce 30-60 beans. The pod, which looks similar to a small American football, is usually between 7-15 inches long. The pod naturally occurs in various colors such as yellow, green, orange, light brown, red and purple. Its colors vary dependant on where it is grown and the maturity of the bean.
The seeds of the cocoa plant found in the pod are submerged deep into the pod. Without any help from animals or other aspects of nature, the seeds have no chance of becoming loose and falling into the earth. In search of food and liquids, animals gladly are taken to task as they spend time rummaging through the cacao pod. As the animals split open the pod, the seeds fall into the soil, continuing the process of growing new cocoa trees.
Before the tree can be mature enough to product the cocoa bean within the pod, the tree’s flowers are pollinated, usually by insects. If the plant is not pollinated naturally, a farmer can pollinate the tree by hand with special material. It takes about six months for the pod of the cocoa tree to fully mature.
After nearly six months of maturation, an experienced farmer can usually tell whether the cocoa bean is ready for the next step. If the plant is seen as mature enough, the farmer will take a machete or knife and slice open the pod. A farmer can usually split open anywhere between 400-500 cacao beans per hour from the pod. The pods’ beans are then taken out to begin the next step in the cocoa bean process.
Once the farmer takes out the cocoa beans, they will then begin to ferment the beans. Prior to fermentation, the beans have a bitter taste with very little to no smell. It is the fermentation process which gives the chocolate its distinct taste. In the fermentation process, the beans are heated as high as 130 degrees to unlock its flavor and aromas.
There are various cocoa tree varieties. The most common are: