From Cacao Pod to Chocolate

If you like many of us have enjoyed chocolate for many years without knowing exactly how it came to be - you’re in the right spot! We’ll take you through what cacao is, the process with which it becomes chocolate and much more! So read on, for some of that delicious chocolate knowledge!

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From Cacao Pod to Chocolate

What is Cacao?

Cacao in its simplest form commonly thought of as the cacao bean. And that isn’t entirely correct! The cacao fruit is a pod (see picture above), within which the cacao bean lives a plush little life surrounded by sweet pulp. A cacao pod is quite large (15 - 30 centimeters) and contains somewhere between 30 and 50 cacao beans per pod.

The cacao tree can live for more than 200 years, although it only produces high-quality cacao beans during its first 25 - 30 years. A typical tree can grow to around 12 meters, and will generate around 20 cacao pods that grow directly on the trunk of the tree.

Fun facts:

  • It takes around 1.200 cacao beans to make 1 kg of cacao paste.
  • Almost all cacao trees in the world grow within 20 degrees of the equator, with the vast majority within 7 degrees of the equator.

So How Does Cacao Become Chocolate?

Cacao is the principal ingredient in chocolate, but what does it take to get there? It is a five-step process, where each step of the process can have a large effect on the quality of the final product.

Workers from our producer's farm removing cacao beans from pods

Step 1: Fermentation

Once the cacao pods are harvested from the trees, they are broken open, traditionally with a machete, and the beans and pulp is scooped out of the pod and put in a pile and covered either in a box or with banana leaves. The fermentation duration varies widely between the species of cacao, where some need only 2 days, others require 7-8 days of fermentation.

Fermentation of cacao beans

Step 2: Drying

Cacao beans are dried for up to seven days in the sun in order to get the water content of the cacao bean down to 7-8%. This process requires lots of oversight as the process, if done incorrectly, can develop off-flavors in the cacao beans. The beans are continuously raked through the seven days, and in the end the cacao bean’s husk will be very tough.

Sun-dried cacao beans from our cacao producer

Step 3: Roasting and Winnowing

The roasting process varies even more widely than fermentation, and is really the purview of the chocolatier. How much you roast the cacao has enormous impact on your final flavor, and so depends ultimately on what the desired goal is. Generally the roasting oven will have a temperature of between 120c to 140c, with a roasting time between 5 and 40 minutes.

Once roasted, the cacao bean needs to be winnowed. Cacao beans have a tough husk surrounding the cacao nibs, and the winnowing process clears off the husk, leaving a happy chocolatier with those delicious cacao nibs.

Roasting cacao beans

Step 4: Grinding and Conching

The cacao nibs are then ground up with stone rollers, creating what is known as cacao mass or cacao liquor, some places this will be called cacao paste. This cacao mass contains both cacao butter (fatty part of the cacao bean) and cacao solids (yummy chocolate).

Cacao butter is then often removed from the cacao mass with a hydraulic press, as many chocolatiers will want to add and remove cacao butter to their final chocolate in order to get that perfect texture and flavor.

The cacao mass is then separated and processed in a different machine called a conch. Here the cacao mass is further refined into smaller particles. It is during the conching process that a chocolatier would add in any other ingredients such as sugar, milk, or any other spices. It is beyond the scope of our article to discuss the finer workings of the conching process, as this is really where master chocolatiers separate themselves from the field by conching the cacao mass just perfectly.

Step 5: Tempering and Molding

The cacao can now be considered chocolate, and it is at this point in time that the structure of the chocolate is really created. Tempering is the process of raising and lowering the temperature of the chocolate in order to create the right crystal structure in the chocolate. A bad tempering process will leave the chocolate brittle and powdery. Finally, the chocolate is poured into molds and we are all treated to a little delicious bite of chocolate.