Cacao Farming

In the 18th century, Swedish botanist, Carolus Linneaus, gave the cacao tree its official name: Theobroma cacao, which means “food of the gods.” (This is an apt description according to chocolate lovers around the world!) All cacao products and chocolate are made from the dried beans that are found in pods on Theobroma cacao trees.

Types of Cacao

Cocoa tree with podsThere are three broad types of cacao: Forastero, Crillo and Trinitario, which is a hybrid of Forastero and Crillo trees.

Forastero is the most commonly grown cacao. It is a hardy tree, producing beans with the strongest flavor. Amelonado is the Forastero variety most widely grown in West Africa and Brazil. It has a smooth yellow pod with 30 or more pale to deep purple beans.

Crillo, with its mild or weak chocolate flavor, is grown in Indonesia and Central and South America. Crillo trees are not as hardy, producing softer, red-colored pods that contain 20-30 white, ivory or very pale purple beans.

Trinitario trees are not found in the wild, as they are cultivated hybrids. Trinitario cacao trees are grown mainly in the Caribbean region, but also in Cameroon and Papua New Guinea. The pods are fairly hard and are variable in color. They contain 30 or more beans of variable color.

Cacao Growing Countries

Most of the world’s Cacao is grown 20 degrees on either side of the equator, as the trees grow well in humid,tropical climates. Nearly all of the world’s cacao trees are grown on small, family farms. Almost 90% of the world’s cacao bean production comes from farms under 12 acres. Mayesa only purchases fair trade cacao.

Many countries now grow Cacao, but the following are the main producers:

  • West Africa (Ghana grows some of the best quality cacao in the world)
  • South America (Brazil, Peru, Ecuador)
  • Asia (Malaysia and Indonesia)

Harvesting Ripe Pods and Curing the Cacao Beans

Cacao beans and cacao powder

The harvesting of the pods is very labor intensive. Ripe pods are gathered every few weeks during the peak season. Workers cut the high pods from the trees with large knives attached to poles, taking care not to damage nearby flowers or buds. The pods are split open by hand and the beans, which are covered with a sweet white pulp or mucilage, are removed. The beans are then ready to undergo the two part curing process: fermentation followed by drying. This prepares the beans for market and is the first stage in the development of the delicious chocolate flavor. During fermentation, the pulp and astringency of the beans are removed as the sugar in the pulp turns to alcohol and vinegar-like liquids. These liquids drain away and the true chocolate flavor starts to develop. The beans are then dried and packed into sacks for transportation to processing plants.

Processing the Cacao Beans

Once at the cacao processing plants, the beans are broken down into small pieces called nibs and roasted between 100-105 degrees Celsius. The time after roasting time depends on whether the end use is for chocolate or for cacao powder. Cacao nibs are ground in stone mills until friction and heat of the milling reduces them to a thick chocolate colored liquid, known as “mass.” This is the basis of all chocolate and cacao products. The cacao mass is pressed in powerful machines forming solid blocks which are pulverized into fine powder to produce a high grade cacao powder.