How chocolate is grown

How chocolate is grown

How chocolate is grown: from cacao tree to chocolate liquor.

By Ann MacDonald

Chocolate is produced from the cocoa bean, a product of the evergreen cacao tree. The cacao tree thrives in hot, tropical climates that receive substantial rainfall. Cacao seedlings are delicate and are often planted in the shade of other trees in order to protect them from direct sunlight and wind. Once they are several years old, however, they are sturdier and can be grown unprotected.

A cacao tree takes several years to first produce its fruit. While it may successfully bear fruit after three or four years, it is more common for it to take five. The trees grow tiny flowers of pink or white. Each of the five-petaled flowers has the potential to mature into cacao pods that contain the cocoa beans but only a small percentage will actually do so. Each reddish pod turns brown when it is ready to be harvested and produces approximately 30 cocoa beans.

There are several varieties of cacao tree, each producing beans with slightly different variations. The three major classifications of cacao are the criollo, forastero and the trinitario. Since all of these varieties cross-pollinate freely, there are many subvariations. In additions, growers are purposely working with hybrids to create cocoa beans with all of the most desirable characteristics for making high quality chocolate.

To harvest the pods, growers use knives to carefully slice the fruit from the trees. The harvest must be done by hand, and the pickers cannot climb the trees since the cacao is delicate and could easily be damaged. Special tools are used to reach the pods that grow high on these trees that are commonly cultivated to a height of 20 feet tall.

Once the hard pods are picked, they are cracked open and the beans are scooped from them. The ripe beans are placed in temporary storage to be fermented. During the fermentation, the beans are heated and the sugar contained in them is converted to lactic and acetic acids. The fermentation process serves to change the flavor of the raw beans from its bitter natural state to something closer to the chocolate people known and enjoy around the world.

Once the fermentation process is complete, the beans are spread out and dried. Most often, they are dried naturally in the sun on trays or in flat baskets. In moist climates, sometimes they are dried indoors with a warm forced air process. As they dry, the moisture content in the beans evaporates leaving the end product substantially lighter weight.

The dried beans are cleaned and sorted by grade. Broken or inferior beans are all removed at this point of the process. Then, they are shipped from the grower to the chocolate manufacturer.
These dried beans are ready for the final processing that will create the chocolate product.

To turn the beans into chocolate, they still must be roasted and shelled. The inner kernel of the bean is then crushed and ground to make the chocolate liquor that is the key ingredient used in all chocolate products.

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