The chocolate we enjoy is only the final stage in a long and complex alchemy involving people with very different skills: botanists,farmers, chocolatiers and confectioners. Without cocoa farmers to grow and process cocoa there would be no fine chocolate.
Chocolate Facts: Growing Cocoa
While soil characteristics of cocoa growing countries vary immensely. Cocoaplantations are usually established on land where the drainage moderates the wet and dry climate seasons. And the composition of the soil has to be neutral, neither acid nor alkaline.
The ideal climate is a combination of humidity and heat, with the trees not directly exposed to the sun. So cocoa is grown in tropical climates. And cocoa trees are planted under cover of the tall trees of tropical forests, where there is around 50% shade.
Chocolate Facts: Processing Cocoa
While the tree variety and the nature of the soil are important, other factors also play a role in determining the quality of the finished chocolate. Cocoa must be processed correctly, if it is to create truly fine chocolate:
Quality chocolate is made from beans taken from cocoa pods that have reached just the right degree of ripeness. Under-ripe pods have low cocoa butter content and over-ripe pods may contain microbes. Both affect the fermentation process and damage chocolate flavor.
After the harvest, the pods are opened to extract the grains and the sticky white pulp or ‘mucilage’ that surrounds them. Precautions must be taken to ensure the quality of the end product.
Farmers ferment the cocoa within a week of harvesting or, ideally, immediately after shelling. The five to eight day process transforms the seeds/grains from the shell into ‘stabilized’ beans, ready for the chocolate maker to use.
The pulp disappears completely, leaving only the fermented seeds. These are then dried and become known as ‘beans’, ready to leave for the chocolate factory.
Poor fermentation procedure can have serious consequences.
- If fermentation stops completely, the beans will be ‘slaty’ and unable to produce quality chocolate.
- Short fermentation prevents flavor precursors developing and bitterness and astringency reducing.
- Too much fermentation develops undesirable flavor characteristics (known in the business as ‘off-flavors’) when the beans are roasted.
After fermentation the beans have a moisture content of 55 to 60 percent. Drying should reduce the moisture content to 7% all allow safe storage before roasting.
- Sun Drying: the beans are spread out in the open air, on racks or directly on the ground. This is the best method of drying. (The ‘cocoa dance’ where workers dance on the drying beans to rake them is still a tradition in some cocoa-producing regions, such as Chua.
- Artificial Drying: beans are dried in special drying units designed to provide heat and ventilation. (While more controllable this method carries a risk of tainting the beans with a smoky bacon flavor if they come into contact with smoke from the heat source).
Beans are stored in climate controlled environments because growing regions are commonly many thousands of miles from chocolate making facilities.
The cocoa is now ready for the chocolate making process.