Despite the fact that chocolate is enjoyed by people the world over, few know the interesting history of this wonderful treat.
Chocolate bars don’t grow on trees, but cacao beans do. But where in the world does it come from? How does one become the other? What even is chocolate?! Now that the wheels of curiosity are turning, let’s join cacao beans on the journey from tree to treat. Buckle up!
Cocoa Bean Journey From Tree to Treat
First There Was a Tree…
We all basically know that there is something called a cacao bean that chocolate comes from, but beyond that probably haven’t given it much thought.
Often when people first see a cocoa bean, they are surprised at what it looks like. It looks like a bean, which actually shouldn’t be surprising at all since that’s exactly what it’s called. But it can be hard to make the mental connection between this bumpy, big raw ingredient and the final product of a sweet candy bar.
But a bean is a bean, cocoa or otherwise. And therefore contains an outer casing — a pod — and beans (actually, technically, seeds) inside. Cacao beans, hopefully not too surprisingly, grow on cacao trees and are actually pretty big — sort of the shape and size of a small football. There are a variety of types of cacao, which determine the colour and eventual taste of the beans inside.
Types of Cacao Beans
Forastero: these come with a smooth, round cacao pod and a thicker shell wall. From these, chocolate producers bring about the classic chocolate flavours.
Criollo: this variety has a bumpy and long pod shape with a relatively thin shell wall. From Criollo beans comes a more floral, fruity and nutty taste.
Trinitario: this type is a hybrid of both the Forastero and Criollo types.
The trees are, compared to other trees, pretty short — maxing out around 25 feet tall. Theobroma cacao is the scientific name of the cacao tree, and means “food of the gods.”
These heavenly trees start producing cacao after they have been alive for around five years and the average cacao tree produces 30-40 cacao pods a year. Depending on the variety, the pods come in vibrant shades of yellow, red, green, or orange. During certain seasons, the cacao tree produces pretty, delicate white flowers, which are pollinated by a tiny insect called a midge. The flowers that are successfully pollinated eventually develop into the fruit that becomes the cacao pod.
It’s a beautiful process!
Many modern cacao trees are carefully tended and harvested since the fruit they produce is so widely demanded from around the entire world. The vast majority of cacao trees are still grown on smaller family farms, with only approximately 5% grown on commercial plantations. There are an astonishing 40-50 million farmers who grow and harvest cacao, making it an incredibly valuable industry in many countries.
Where in the World Do Cacao Beans Come From?
Cacao trees are found in a specific climate, which doesn’t veer too far from the equator. In fact, the range of suitable climates doesn’t extend too far north and south from the equator, only about 20 degrees, but it does run the length of it. In other words, the cacao tree growing region is like a belt around the earth’s belly.
Originally, cacao trees were found in the upper Amazon basin region Brazil, Colombia, and Peru. The trees grow best at low elevations and thrive on year-round moisture, heat, and shade. Today, more than 50 countries grow at least a little bit of the global supply of cacao, however more than half of the world’s cocoa comes from only two countries: the Ivory Coast and Ghana.
Interesting side note: even though the US is one of the world’s leading consumers of chocolate, the only state that can reliably grow cacao in Hawaii.
Once it’s fully formed, the cacao beans are really just at the beginning of their long journey to actually becoming chocolate — the delicacy and delight we all know and love.
After the beans are harvested, they undergo fermentation, drying and roasting. Then the inner part of the bean, the nib, is separated from its outer shell, and the nibs are ground into a paste. The paste is then turned into cocoa liquor (but there is no actual alcohol involved), which is then put under high pressure to create cocoa powder and cocoa butter (but there is no actual dairy or traditional butter in it — no wonder people get confused!).
Now we are getting closer. The cocoa powder and cocoa butter are finally in the form chocolatiers and confectioners use to make the final product. The paste can also be slowly ground and mixed, while adding sugar and additional cocoa butter, to make chocolate.
From here, the sky’s the limit! This is the part where creative chefs and inventive dessert and chocolate makers take these ingredients and turn them into the incredible array of chocolate offerings we enjoy today. From chocolate bars to chocolate milk to high-end stand-alone chocolates.
Chocolate has, in one form or another, been around for thousands of years. It has been (and still is) used in ceremonies, makes for a perfect gift, and is an integral part of celebrations and holidays year-round. You can hardly imagine Christmas or Valentine’s Day or Easter without chocolate.
But it does take a ton of energy to get chocolate into the hands of hungry consumers. Perhaps knowing that this delicious treat begins as a humble seed, harvested by the hands of dedicated farmers, it will help people stop and really savour the experience of eating this very special gift.
They had it right when they named the cacao tree the food of the gods — we can’t think of a tree more deserving! If you want to buy a high % of cocoa bean chocolate, please make visit the cocoa chocolate online store.