The Cocoa Bean
Cocoa beans are the product of the cacao tree. The origin of the cacao tree is in dispute. Some say it originated in the Amazon basin of Brazil; others place it in the Orinoco Valley of Venezuela, while still others contend that it is native to Central America.
Wherever its first home, we know the cacao tree is strictly a tropical plant thriving only in hot, rainy climates. Thus, its cultivation is confined to the lands not more than 20 degrees north of south of the equator.
The Need for Shelter
The cacao tree is very delicate and sensitive. It needs protection from the wind and requires a fair amount of shade under most conditions. This is true especially in its first two to four years of growth.
A different type of tree often shelters a newly planted cacao seedling. It is normal to plant food crops for shade such as banana, plantain, coconuts or cocoyam. Rubber trees and forest trees are also used for shade. Once established, however, cacao trees can grow in full sunlight provided there are fertile soil conditions and intensive husbandry. Cacao plantations (trees under cultivation), and estates, usually in valleys or coastal plains, must have evenly distributed rainfall and rich, well drained soil.
As a general rule, cacao trees get their start in a nursery bed where seeds from high yielding trees are planted in fiber baskets or plastic bags. The seedlings grow so fast that in a few months they are ready for transplanting, container and all.
The cacao tree is a strange-looking tree, with dozens of yellow-green pods hanging from the trunk and stems like alien ornaments. If you strip off the rippled outer layer of the palm-sized fruits, you will find chunks of the fibrous white pulp inside – the fruit of the cacao tree. It is mild tasting, with a subtle bittersweet chocolate flavour. Embedded in the pulp are dark, purple Âcoloured seeds that, after being dried and processed, are known as the famous “chocolate beans.”
The First Fruit
With pruning and careful cultivation, the trees of most strains will begin bearing fruit in the fifth year. With extreme care, some strains can be induced to yield good crops in the third and fourth years.
Everything about the tree is just as colorful as its history. An evergreen, the cacao tree has large glossy leaves that are red when young and green when mature. Overlays of clinging moss and colorful lichens are often found on the bark of the trunk, and in some areas beautiful small orchids grow on its branches. The tree sprouts thousands of tiny waxy pink or white five-pedaled blossoms that cluster together on the trunk and older branches. But, only three to 10 percent will go on to mature into full fruit.
The fruit, which will eventually be converted into the world’s chocolate and cocoa, has green or sometimes maroon colored pods on the trunk of the tree and its main branches. Shaped somewhat like an elongated melon tapered at both ends, these pods often ripen into a golden color or sometimes take on a scarlet hue with multicolored flecks.
At its maturity, the cultivated tree measures from 15 to 25 feet tall, though the tree in its wild state may reach 60 feet or more.
The potential age of a tree is open to speculation. There are individual trees known to be over 200 years of age, but no one has determined the real life span of the species. However, in 25 years the economic usefulness of a tree may be considered at an end, and it often becomes desirable to replant with younger trees.
Varieties of Cacao
While the cacao tree bears fruit (or pods) all year round, harvesting is generally seasonal. The pods come in a variety of types since cacao trees cross-pollinate freely. These types can be reduced to three classifications: Criollo, the prince of cacaos, is a soft thin-skinned pod, with a light color and a unique, pleasant aroma. Forastero, a more plentiful type, is easier to cultivate and has a thick-walled pod and a pungent aroma. Trinitario, which is believed to be a natural cross from strains of the other two types, has a great variety of characteristics but generally possesses good, aromatic flavor; and these trees are particularly suitable for cultivation.
In the Western Hemisphere, strange as it may seem, plantations composed of just one species of cocoa beans are uncommon. Even single trees with all the characteristics of a specific type are rare. Uniformity exists only where cacao plantations have been developed from the rooted branch cuttings of single mother trees.
In recent years, cacao growers have turned increasingly to hybridization as a means of improving the quality of the bean and making it more disease resistant. Scientists using state-of-the-art biotechnology techniques are also trying to improve the quality of cacao and its resistance to disease.
Handling the Harvest
The job of picking ripe cacao pods is not an easy one. The tree is so frail and its roots are so shallow that workmen cannot risk injuring it by climbing to reach the pods on the higher branches.
The planter sends his tumbadores, or pickers, into the fields with long handled, mitten-shaped steel knives that can reach the highest pods and snip them without wounding the soft bark of the tree. Machetes are used for the pods growing within reach on the lower trunk.
Where Experience Counts
It requires training and experience to know by appearance which fruit is ripe and ready to be cut. Ripe pods are found on trees at all times since the growing season in the tropics, with its evenly distributed rainfall, is continuous.
For most localities there is a main harvest lasting several months and a mid-crop harvest lasting several more months. Climatic differences cause wide variations in harvest times with frequent fluctuations from year to year even within the same location.
What Happens after Picking
Gathers follow the harvesters who have removed the ripe pods from the trees. The pods are collected in baskets and transported to the edge of a field where the pod breaking operation begins. One or two lengthwise blows from a well-wielded machete is usually enough to split open the woody shells. A good breaker can open 500 pods an hour.
A great deal of patience is required to complete harvesting. Anywhere from 20 to 50 cream-colored beans are scooped from a typical pod and the husk and inner membrane are discarded. Dried beans from an average pod weigh less than two ounces, and approximately 400 beans are required to make one pound of chocolate.
The beans are still many steps away from the familiar finished product. Exposure to air quickly changes the cream-colored beans to a lavender or purple. They do not look like the finished chocolate nor do they have the well-known fragrance of chocolate at this time.
Preparing the Crop for Shipment
The cocoa beans or seeds that are removed from the pods are put into boxes or thrown on heaps and covered. Around the beans is a layer of pulp that starts to heat up and ferment. Fermentation lasts from three to nine days and serves to remove the raw bitter taste of cocoa and to develop precursors and components that are characteristic of chocolate flavor.
Fermenting is a simple “yeasting” process in which the sugars contained in the beans are converted to acid, primarily lactic acid and acetic acid.
The process generates temperatures as high as 125 degrees Fahrenheit, which kill the germ of the bean and activate existing enzymes in the beans to form compounds that produce the chocolate flavor when the beans are roasted. The result is a fully developed bean with a rich brown color, a sign that the cocoa is now ready for drying.
Drying is Important
Like any moisture-filled fruit, the beans must be dried if they are to keep. In some countries, drying is accomplished simply by laying the beans on trays or bamboo matting and leaving them to bask in the sun. Very often artificial methods are used. For example, the beans can be carried indoors and dried by hot-air pipes. Accelerated or artificial drying is quicker but produces the vastly inferior chocolate used in most mass produced products.
The finest chocolate though is produced when the drying process is done naturally by the sun for about 7 days. In this interval, farmers turn the beans frequently and use the opportunity to pick them out foreign matter and flat, broken or germinated beans. During drying, beans lose nearly all their moisture and more than half their weight.
When the beans are dried, they are prepared for shipping in 130 to 200 pound (60-90Kilo) sacks. They are seldom stored except at shipping centers, where they await inspection by buyers.
Marketing for export
Buyers sample the quality of a crop by cutting open a number of beans to see that they are properly fermented. Purple centers indicate incomplete fermentation.
If the prevailing crop is found satisfactory, the grower is paid at the current market price. The market price depends not only on the abundance of the worldwide crop and the quality of farmers’ crops in a number of countries, but on a number of economic conditions throughout the world. The industry has set up Cocoa Exchanges, similar to stock exchanges, in principle cities such as New York, London, Hamburg and Amsterdam.