The journey of the cocoa bean

From cultivation to transport to processing, there are many facets to the art of converting cocoa beans into the rich cocoa and chocolate products you use in your baked goods. Few bakers realize what a long road the cocoa bean travels on its journey from the tree to your door:

Cultivation

  • Chocolate products are made from cocoa beans, the seeds inside the fruit pods of the cocoa tree. The pods measure about 20 cm long and 10 cm in diameter. Each pod contains about 20 to 40 beans.
  • An average tree produces about 0.5 to 2 kg of beans per year. Cocoa trees require a warm, humid climate, and can only be cultivated in a zone about 20 degrees north or south of the equator.
  • The Ivory Coast is the world’s largest producer of cocoa beans. Central and South America and many Asian countries are also important producers.

Harvest

  • Cocoa beans are harvested twice each year, generating a main harvest and a smaller mid crop.
  • The ripe pods are cut from the stem and branches of the tree and split open.
  • The beans, covered in a thin layer of pulp, are removed, collected into cases or heaps, and covered. They are left to ferment for 3 to 7 days. Fermentation gives the beans a dark color and pleasant aroma. The beans are then dried, at which point they’re ready for transport.

Trading

  • Supply and demand for cocoa varies every year, which is why the price of cocoa is subject to considerable fluctuation.
  • Cocoa is traded on the world physical cocoa market, where buyers, sellers, brokers and agents negotiate agreements covering the type, quality, price, quantity and delivery of the unprocessed beans.

Storage and Shipment

  • The hot, damp climate needed to grow cocoa beans is not conducive to storage or processing. That is why cocoa beans are shipped to supply ports in temperate climate zones, closer to where the chocolate products will be consumed.
  • The beans are sent to transportation sites by ship, train or truck. The beans are stored in warehouses, often in 65-kg bales, but also in bulk containers, until they are shipped for processing.
  • Amsterdam is the world’s largest port for unprocessed cocoa.

Processing the Beans into Cocoa Liquor

  • The production process gives cocoa its characteristic color and flavor.
  • Cocoa liquor is the basis of all cocoa products. It is produced by crushing the beans and separating the shell from the nib, or germ. The nib is dried, roasted and ground into a liquid cocoa liquor.
  • The manufacturer may alkalize the nib during or after roasting. Alkalization enhances the color of the cocoa, and replaces its natural acidity with a round and finished cocoa flavor.
  • The blend of the cocoa beans and the processing of the liquor are well kept secrets of most chocolate manufacturers.

From Cocoa Liquor to Cocoa Butter and Cocoa Powder

  • It is the cocoa liquor that provides the unique chocolate flavor to chocolate products.
  • Cocoa liquor is used in its existing state, or it can pressed at extremely high pressure. Pressing separates the liquor into cocoa butter (which is mostly used as an ingredient in chocolate) and cocoa cake (which is ground finely to create cocoa powder).
  • The cocoa butter is filtered to remove remaining fine particles of solid cocoa. It can also be deodorized to provide an ingredient with a neutral flavor. Because it melts at body temperature, cocoa butter is also used in cosmetics and medicinal ointments.
  • Cocoa powder is used in a variety of drinks, pudding, drinks and baked goods.

Chocolate Products

  • Chocolate is made from cocoa liquor, cocoa butter and sugar. Other ingredients and flavorings may also be added depending on the end product.
  • The mixture is ground between rollers and conched. Conching is a mechanical treatment in which the chocolate is kept in constant motion. This homogenizes and binds the liquor, enables volatile acids to escape, and allows the chocolate aroma to develop further.
  • The mixture is then cooled under precise temperature control, a process called tempering. Tempering ensures the cocoa crystallizes correctly so it won’t turn white at a later stage.
  • After tempering, the chocolate can be molded into any shape, including the drops used in many baked goods.