How chocolate is made: the cocoa bean

For me, artisan chocolate making is akin to alchemy: the transformation of the simple cocoa bean into a delicious sweet treat that we can’t get enough of!

You don’t have to be a scientist to make chocolate, but my professional scientific background has definitely helped me to understand the cocoa bean’s journey. I spent more than 15 years working in the chocolate manufacturing industry and during that time I learned all about the chocolate-making process. This, combined with my love of intense flavours, drove me to retrain as a chocolatier. I wanted to use my knowledge and my palate to create my own indulgent chocolates, made from pure, raw ingredients and the best cocoa I could source.

I’m fascinated by everything chocolate: its history, how it’s grown, and what you can do with it…and I’d like to share some of that fascination with you.

AuBel Chocolate Selection

The chocolate journey

So, how we get from the cocoa bean to a chocolate bar? It’s a complicated technical process, but I’ve simplified it here:

There are so many interesting things to point out along the chocolate journey that I’m going to divide the steps into several posts. Here I’m going to look at the different varieties of cocoa bean and the growing conditions that give them their distinct taste.

Future AuBel blogswill look at how the bean is used to create liquid chocolate and how that then becomes the products that we buy. When we come to the ‘final chocolate product’ (i.e. the bars and boxes that, apparently, the world spent approximately 98.2 billion US dollars on in 2016!), I’ll also give you an insight into how I come up with my award-winning AuBel flavours.

The cocoa tree

The Latin name of the cocoa tree is Theobroma Cacao, also known as ‘Food for the Gods’ in Greek. It grows to be 25 feet tall with white flowers, and it takes five years to produce its first colourful fruit. They’re called cocoa (or ‘cacao’) pods: they have cocoa beans inside them and the tree grows around 20 of them annually.  Each pod holds approximately 30 to 60 beans and it is these that are used to make chocolate.

(According to Cadbury’s, one cocoa tree produces approximately 1,000 cocoa beans a year, yielding 1lb of cocoa!)

Cocoa pods growing from the trunk of a cocoa tree

The pods need warm temperatures and lots of rain to grow; this is why most cocoa beans are produced in the hot and humid regions of Africa (mainly forest areas), Central and South America, Asia and Oceania.  Mass chocolate producers tend to source their cocoa from the Ivory Coast, where the majority is grown.

The cacao pod

There are four main varieties of cacao beans, each giving a distinctive colour and flavour to the chocolate it produces.

Forastero: this versatile bean is mainly grown in Africa, Ecuador and Brazil and makes up 80% of the world’s cocoa supply. Forastero beans are purple in colour and give chocolate its full-bodied, earthy and bitter flavour.

Criollo: the Criollo tree is native to Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean islands and Sri Lanka. It is particularly difficult to grow and, as such, makes up less than 5% of the world’s cocoa supply. The beans are a white to pale pink colour and their taste is delicate yet complex, aromatic and less bitter than the Forastero.

Trinitario: the hybrid Trinitario bean results from cross-pollination after the near destruction of Trinidad’s Criollo plantations by a hurricane in 1727. Forastero seeds were brought over from Venezuela and cross-fertilised with native Criollo beans, creating the Trinitario. It only covers about 10 to 15% of the cocoa harvest and is considered fine-flavour cacao.  The Trinitario bean has the fine and complex flavour of the Criollo and the tree has the hardiness of the Forastero.

Arriba: a unique cocoa species, discovered in the 19th century by a Swiss chocolatier while navigating the Guayas River in Ecuador. This Nacional variety, named Arriba due to the region it was found in, has an intense cocoa taste with complex aromas.

Harvest time

When the pods are ripe, they turn red, yellow or orange. Pods are suitable for harvest for three to four weeks, after which time the beans begin to germinate.

Harvesting is done manually: this involves removing the ripe pods from the trees by making a clean cut through the stalk.  The hard shells of the pods are opened a week to 10 days after harvesting, and the wet seeds (the cacao beans) extracted, along with the surrounding soft pulp.

Cocoa Pod with white Soft Pulp with Cocoa Beans

The beans then undergo fermentation, a crucial stage in their journey as this is where their flavour development begins. This can happen in a variety of ways but all methods depend on the beans being removed from their pods and heaped together. This allows micro-organisms to develop and initiate the fermentation of the pulp surrounding them.

The pulp’s sugars convert to alcohol through yeast, and bacteria oxidises the alcohol, which contributes to complex chemical reactions. This leads to the nature of the chocolate’s flavour and colour. The length of fermentation is determined by the type of bean: e.g. Forastero beans take five days; Criollo beans only two or three.

Sun-dried beans

Once fermented, the beans get to sunbathe! The natural heat of the sun also plays a significant role in how their flavour advances. Once dry, the beans are bagged up, ready for shipment across the world.

And there we have it: the first part of the cocoa bean journey.  In my next blog post we’ll look at how these beans go on to become liquid chocolate.

In the meantime, if you have a chocolate-related enquiry please get in touch!