Why Cocoa

The cocoa bean or simply cocoa , from which cocoa solids (a mixture of nonfat substances) and cocoa butter (the fat) can be extracted. Cocoa beans are the basis of chocolate, and Mesoamerican foods including tejate, an indigenous Mexican drink that also includes maize.

The word “cocoa” comes from the Spanish word cacao, which is derived from the Nahuatl word cacahuatl. The Nahuatl word, in turn, ultimately derives from the reconstructed Proto Mije-Sokean word kakawa. 

The term cocoa also means

  • the drink that also is commonly called hot cocoa or hot chocolate
  • cocoa powder, which is the dry powder made by grinding cocoa seeds and removing the cocoa butter from the cocoa solids, which are dark and bitter
  • a mixture of cocoa powder and cocoa butter – a primitive form of chocolate. 

The three main varieties of cocoa plant are Forastero, Criollo, and Trinitario. The first is the most widely used, comprising 80–90% of the world production of cocoa. Cocoa beans of the Criollo variety are rarer and considered a delicacy. Criollo plantations have lower yields than those of Forastero, and also tend to be less resistant to several diseases that attack the cocoa plant, hence very few countries still produce it. One of the largest producers of Criollo beans is Venezuela (Chuao and Porcelana). Trinitario (from Trinidad) is a hybrid between Criollo and Forastero varieties. It is considered to be of much higher quality than Forastero, has higher yields, and is more resistant to disease than Criollo

A cocoa pod (fruit) has a rough, leathery rind about 2 to 3 cm (0.79 to 1.18 in) thick (this varies with the origin and variety of pod) filled with sweet, mucilaginous pulp (called baba de cacao in South America) with a lemonade-like taste enclosing 30 to 50 large seeds that are fairly soft and a pale lavender to dark brownish purple color.

During harvest, the pods are opened, the seeds are kept, and the empty pods are discarded and the pulp made into juice. The seeds are placed where they can ferment. Due to heat buildup in the fermentation process, cacao beans lose most of the purplish hue and become mostly brown in color, with an adhered skin which includes the dried remains of the fruity pulp. This skin is released easily by winnowing after roasting. White seeds are found in some rare varieties, usually mixed with purples, and are considered of higher value.

Cocoa trees grow in hot, rainy tropical areas within 20° of latitude from the Equator. Cocoa harvest is not restricted to one period per year and a harvest typically occurs over several months. In fact, in many countries, cocoa can be harvested at any time of the year. Pesticides are often applied to the trees to combat capsid bugs, and fungicides to fight black pod disease.

The harvested pods are opened, typically with a machete, to expose the beans. The pulp and cocoa seeds are removed and the rind is discarded. The pulp and seeds are then piled in heaps, placed in bins, or laid out on grates for several days. During this time, the seeds and pulp undergo “sweating”, where the thick pulp liquefies as it ferments. The fermented pulp trickles away, leaving cocoa seeds behind to be collected. Sweating is important for the quality of the beans, which originally have a strong, bitter taste.

The wet beans are then transported to a facility so they can be fermented and dried. The farmer removes the beans from the pods, packs them into boxes or heaps them into piles, then covers them with mats or banana leaves for three to seven days.

People around the world enjoy cocoa in many different forms, consuming more than 3 million tons of cocoa beans yearly. Once the cocoa beans have been harvested, fermented, dried and transported they are processed in several components. Processor grindings serve as the main metric for market analysis. Processing is the last phase in which consumption of the cocoa bean can be equitably compared to supply. After this step all the different components are sold across industries to many manufacturers of different types of products.

To make 1 kg (2.2lbs) of chocolate, about 300 to 600 beans are processed, depending on the desired cocoa content. In a factory, the beans are roasted. Next, they are cracked and then deshelled by a “winnower”. The resulting pieces of beans are called nibs. They are sometimes sold in small packages at specialty stores and markets to be used in cooking, snacking, and chocolate dishes. Since nibs are directly from the cocoa tree, they contain high amounts of theobromine. Most nibs are ground, using various methods, into a thick, creamy paste, known as chocolate liquor or cocoa paste. This “liquor” is then further processed into chocolate by mixing in (more) cocoa butter and sugar (and sometimes vanilla and lecithin as an emulsifier), and then refined, conched and tempered. Alternatively, it can be separated into cocoa powder and cocoa butter using a hydraulic press or the Broma process. This process produces around 50% cocoa butter and 50% cocoa powder. Standard cocoa powder has a fat content around 10–12%. Cocoa butter is used in chocolate bar manufacture, other confectionerysoaps, and cosmetics.