How do those brightly coloured cacao pods get turned into your delicious chocolate bar? There are many stages along the way and there’s no doubt that the chocolatier plays a crucial role (especially in bean-to-bar chocolate). But the first important steps in making chocolate happen on the farm, where cacao is harvested and processed.
Just like in specialty coffee, harvesting and processing are crucial for high-quality fine cacao. But it’s not easy. We’re talking long, complex procedures and painstaking attention to detail.
I spoke to several cacao producers to unveil the magic behind producing cacao beans. Let’s take a look at what they do.
Learn more! Read Sweet Treats: How Is Fine Chocolate Made?
Unripe and ripe cacao pods grow on the same tree. Credit: Souvenir Coffee
If you’re wondering what cacao actually looks like on the farm, never fear – I’m about to break it down. Cacao beans grow inside vibrant cacao pods, which grow on tree trunks. They look like this:
1. Checking for Ripeness
Similar to coffee, cacao picking is a difficult task. And one of the biggest challenges lies in telling when the pods are ripe. Under-ripe cacao will not yet have developed all its wonderful flavors and aromas while, as the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) explains, over-ripe ones will start to germinate.
However, unfortunately, cacao pods don’t always ripen at the same time – even when they’re on the same tree.
Tuta Aquino, the fine cacao producer behind Vale Potumuju/Fazenda Santa Rita in Bahia, Brazil, tells me, “It’s a major challenge to inspect the crop to determine the cacao pod ripeness. Here in Bahia, we have all kinds of cacao varieties. In our case, we have all sorts of Trinitario hybrids… when ripe, some are yellow, some are greenish-yellow, other are completely red, and others gold.”
What is a variety? Find out in Geisha vs Bourbon: A Crash Course in Coffee Varieties
It takes expert knowledge to understand cacao ripeness. As Tuta says, “There are many varieties in our same farm, but we can identify the shape of the pods and [so know] their best ripeness points.”
Having many varieties on one farm is not uncommon. Rogerio Kamei, a cacao producer and chocolatier at Mestiço Chocolate, also in Bahia, says “We have a lot of cacao varieties on my farm, so we began to produce varietal chocolates. I use specific varietals to distinguish flavor profiles and aromas.”
Once a producer knows their crop is ready to harvest, they can start to hand-pick the pods. Since cacao pods ripen at different times, mechanization isn’t possible. Often a machete or a specialized knife will be used.
However, Tuta tells me, “You must be really, really careful.” This is because cacao pods grow out of fertilized flowers, and cacao flowers tend to cluster in what we call a “floral pillow.” Tuta continues, “Where one pod has grown, that is the area where the new flowering will happen again next year. So, if you cut and hurt that area, you create a wound and the tree will shy away from flowering within the damaged area… meaning that you will decrease productivity.”
What’s more, cacao trees can grow tall. And unlike coffee trees, they’re often allowed to grow to their full height. Rogerio tells me, “If the trees are too high, we have to use hooks that enable us to reach pods.”
The floral pillow; later, cacao pods will grow in this region. Credit: Ruta Origen
2. Pod & Bean Separation
So, what happens with the harvested pods?
Tuta advises that he can only speak about the process in Bahia, where he works. He has spoken to producers in Ecuador who use different methods. But on his farm, “the picker picks the pod and puts it in a basket. They take them to a central area within that orchard. Within that area, two pickers will place a wooden box and sit across each other and, with a little machete that is not sharp, they will break the pod.”
Next comes quality control. Much like in specialty coffee, it’s important to inspect and sort the harvest. “They’ll inspect it and, for our purpose, which is fine cacao, they check the amount of pulp and ripeness,” Tuta explains. “If it’s overripe, it will not go into the wooden box. It will go onto a separate plastic sheet.”
But this doesn’t mean the beans go to waste. Tuta explains that they will still be fermented and sold, but they will be kept separate from the high-quality cacao.
Two pickers break the cacao pods to separate high-quality and over-ripe ones. Credit: Vale Potumuju
Now that the cacao has been harvested and sorted, it’s ready for the next stage: processing. And this begins with fermentation.
Fermentation is when sugars and starches are broken down into acids or alcohol. It’s a key stage in the production of many types of food and drink, including coffee, alcohol, and cacao. Without fermentation, we could never have chocolate.
Learn more! Read How Does Fermentation Affect Coffee Flavour Development?
Tuta tells me the process used on his farm. “Cacao is fermented in wooden boxes the same day the harvesting happens. Here, in our farm, we have two sizes of fermentation boxes. The small size yields from 170 to 180 kilos of wet cacao – cacao with pulp – which is more or less a box one by 0.5 by 0.6 meters. And the big box is double that size, one by one by 0.6 meters.”
Filling the boxes is another moment for quality control. This time, the producers are looking for witches’ broom, a deformity caused by a fungal disease. According to Scientific American, in 1988 it “reduced production by 80%.” Tuta explains that you can’t see witches’ broom while harvesting cacao, so they remove affected beans while filling the fermentation boxes.
He advises that the fermentation boxes should be filled at around 4 or 5 pm on the same day as picking. “[It] is extremely crucial to have them filled… Your fermentation begins when sugars start to get concentrated and the temperature will start to rise, which can even reach up to 58°C [136.4°F].
“The next morning, at around 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning, you switch the cacao from one box to another, we call it ‘turn’. With wood or plastic shovels, you turn your cacao. There is a special procedure while turning based on layers, the beans from the back go to the front, what was at the front goes in the middle, etc.”
Wet cacao beans being turned during fermentation. Credit: Vale Potumuju
Tuta continues, “Once you’ve turned it, you close the top with banana leaves and leave absolutely no gaps for the air to come in. That way you don’t oxidise your beans. You leave the beans covered for 48 hours. After those 48 hours pass, turn them again, cover once again, and then turn them every 24 hours [until at least 6 days has passed].”
While the fermentation is happening, the pulp will be dripping off the cacao beans. For this reason, the fermentation boxes have holes that the pulp can drip through. Tuta tells me that “you lose about 33% of your wet cacao weight after fermenting – which is a lot.”
Banana leaves are used to cover fermentation boxes. Credit: Souvenir Coffee
Finally, after the lengthy fermentation process, your beans are ready to be dried. This is another crucial step in the enhancement of cacao flavor.
Cacao is dried in wooden boxes, beds, pallets or patios. According to the ICCO, the drying stage should bring humidity levels down from 60% to 7%. Just like with coffee, it’s important to periodically turn the beans to ensure they dry evenly.
Cacao beans dry under the sun after fermentation. Credit: Souvenir Coffee
“Cacao is challenging to dry,” Tuta tells me. “Sometimes, during our drying stages, we have a lot of rain here in Bahia, but we have started to implement a system in which we are able to cover the beans while drying [them].”
Equipment can help. “Here at our farms, we have made improvements to our drying facilities. We incorporated solar heaters that are under translucent plastic and have windows so that airflow is continuous,” he explains.
“These solar heaters contain several wooden drawers that contain a plastic mesh to protect from extreme solar exposure. Again, it’s important to recall this may be different from other drying facilities. This will help us control the drying process, so we can get little acidity, less astringency, and be able to get more consistency with the humidity at the end of the drying process.”
The large wooden “drawers” that Tuta uses to dry cacao beans. Credit: Vale Potumuju
Finally, after the drying stage, cacao beans are now ready to be aged. This step can last from 30 days up to a year, although Tuta chooses to do so for around 75 days. The beans are stored in sacks in a storage house.
However, be careful with humidity levels. Tuta warns, “While we mature the cacao beans, they may gain some humidity once again, but you don’t want to get the humidity level up to 8%. Otherwise, mold may be introduced and you’ll have to dry the beans once again.”
Now, the cacao is finally ready to be stored until it’s time for the buyer to collect it. Tuta warns of the importance of keeping oxygen out and ensuring humidity levels are consistent; he uses airtight GrainPro bags, for example.
Learn more! Read What Factors Do You Need to Consider During Green Coffee Storage?
Tuta Aquino at his cacao farm in Bahia, Brazil. Credit: Vale Potumuju
A producer’s work extends far beyond planting and growing cacao. Harvesting, fermenting, drying, aging… All these steps demand time, attention, and skill. Do them poorly, and you will find quality begins to fall. But do them well and you have a recipe for exceptional fine cacao.
Discover What Happens Next! Read Sweet Treats: How Is Fine Chocolate Made?
Written by Julio Guevara.
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