Where do cocoa beans grow? The beans come from a fruit that is commonly found in the tropics. But as you may imagine, it takes quite a bit of work to turn it into the sweet, delicious chocolate bar that you are used to.
In many parts of the world, chocolate is considered much more
just candy. It is an exquisite delicacy with a global market exceeding
$98.3 billion and is still growing. From the standard chocolate bar to
the perfectly crafted gift done by artisans, more than 3 million tons
of cocoa are being consumed every year. But who discovered this
life-changing treat? How is it done? Well, it all started more than
3,000 years ago.
The Theobroma cacao is the tree that produces the popular cacao fruit (reference). It is inside this unusual but delicious fruit that you can find the fabled cacao seeds, which are the source of the hot drinks and tasty bars you enjoy today. Cacao is actually pronounced Ka-kow, people today still have problems trying to pronounce it. Cocoa powder comes from the cacao seeds. Chocolate products require cocoa powder to taste the way they do.
The name Theobroma comes from the Greek word “Theos” which means God and “Broma” which means food so it can be translated to “food of the gods.” It was in the 18th century that Carolus Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, renamed the cacao tree as Theobroma cacao.
The Theobroma cacao is fragile, and it needs a lot of care for it to produce the seeds that everybody loves. Even though this tree is frail, it may be able to produce up to 20 to 30 fruits or pods per year. Each fruit contains close to 40 seeds.
You may be surprised by the fact that the fruit doesn't grow from the secondary branches, but actually from the trunk of the tree and main branches (similar to papayas). The fruits or pods come in different sizes, colors, and shapes due to cross-pollination.
The cacao tree is native to Central and South America, and its
fruit only grows in the “chocolate belt.” (resource)
You are probably thinking, “What is that belt?” Well, it is an area
roughly covering 20 latitudes north and south of the equator. This
region is the only one with a warm enough temperature and high humidity
to promote the tree's growth. Temperatures from 65 to 90º F and
rainfall from 40 to 100 inches per year are necessary for the
successful harvesting of cacao.
The three main types of cacao seeds are Forastero, Trinitario, and Criollo (source). Even among them, several varieties can be found. Forastero is the most common one and is the type grown in West Africa. It has a peculiarly strong flavor.
Criollo, which is a top quality seed, is grown in Central and South America and Indonesia. The Criollo variety has a weaker flavor than Forastero; it is used to prepare premium chocolate treats that mix the mild bitterness of cocoa with the sweetness of fruits.
Trinitario is a hybrid of Forastero and Criollo. They are
mostly grown in the Caribbean.
Cacao has been important for the Mayans for hundreds of years (information). A Cacao-based drink was used by the Mayans in marriage and other religious ceremonies, which is kind of curious if you think about it. Chocolates are considered to be a romantic gift today. So from ancient times, there has been a connection between chocolate and romance.
The cacao tree was so important for the Mayans that they considered it a divine gift. But it was more than just a nutritious food as it was used as currency for the acquisition of goods as well. Like the Mayans, the Aztecs drank cacao in their religious ceremonies. It has been said that The Aztec Emperor Moctezuma drank 50 cups of it every day, which gave him wisdom and strength.
It wasn't long after their arrival to the new world that the Spaniards learned the value of the cacao beans used by the natives. They began to trade them in Europe and generated a nice profit from it in the market. Their monopoly lasted for over a 100 years.
After that, France, Great Britain, and other European countries didn't waste any time and used cocoa as part of a premium drink that was particularly enjoyed by the upper classes. Hot chocolate drinks stores spread like wildfire in Europe during the 18th century and became even more popular after the steam engine reduced the cocoa's processing costs, allowing the less fortunate classes to get a taste of it.
In 1828, Coenraad Johannes van Houten developed a method that
cacao seeds to turn them into a fine powder, which was later used by
the chocolate maker J.S. Fry and Sons to make the first chocolate bar.
Everything begins with the harvest of pods. Once they are ready for the taking, the farmers cut them from the trees with large knives (source). Next, the pods are opened, and the seeds are carefully removed from the pods. Seeds, which are the cacao beans, are fermented by placing them in bins that are covered with leaves. The bins have drainage holes allowing the flow of air and the removal of byproducts formed during fermentation.
The fermentation process reduces the bitterness of the beans, darken their appearance until they turn dark brown, and eliminate most of the remaining pulp. How long do they get fermented? Well, it depends. High-quality beans are typically fermented for a few days, but lower quality ones may remain in the bins for a week or more.
Once the fermentation is over, the beans are dried. The drying
process is done over a fire or by the sun. Drying using fire is faster
but changes the flavor into something less desirable. The heat produced
by the sun allow the beans to keep most of their flavor, but it takes
around a week for it to happen. After the beans are dry, they are taken
to factories where the final product is made. The final product could
be chocolate bars, cocoa powder, or anything else that require the
While it is true that cocoa originated in Central and South America more than 3000 years ago, today it is growth and harvested in many countries around the world. Curiously enough, most of the production doesn't come from the western hemisphere but the African continent (source).
1) Ivory Coast
The top producer in the world is Cote d'Ivoire or the Ivory
With around 30% of the total production of cocoa in the world, it
generates around 1,448,992 metric tons every year. Most of the big
chocolate brands get their cocoa from this area.
The second place in the world's cocoa production belongs to
Ghana. It is responsible for 835,466 metric tons every year.
In third place, you can find Indonesia. Its cocoa production
sky-rocketed from almost nothing to 777,500 metric tons since 1980.
Nigeria is another African top producer with a yearly
production of 367,000 metric tons.
While Cameroon has a crop production of around 275,000 metric
year and remains in the fifth place of the top producers, the country's
farms are being threatened by the lack of efficient management. Unless
new trees are planted, and more effective overseeing methods are
implemented, the situation will not improve for the hardworking
farmers, and the production may not get the boost it desperately needs.
The sixth place belongs to Brazil. With 256,186 metric tons
produced every year, it remains at the top in the western hemisphere.
Brazil consumes more cocoa than it produces, which is a quite a lot
considering the amount it exports.
Ecuador is the second highest exporter of cocoa in South
with 128,446 metric tons. While the country is one of the native spots
of the cacao seed, it hasn't been able to increase its production to
the level of the African countries. However, the quality of the seeds
is far beyond the ones harvested by the leading producers. The variety
and exquisiteness of the cacao in Ecuador are highly sought by
chocolate connoisseurs around the world.
Mexico remains in the 8th place with 82,000 metric tons of
Mexican Crops have suffered a lot due to diseases, but efforts are
being made to improve the plants' resilience by using hybridization.
Peru is the 9th producer with 71,715 metric tons of cacao.
10) Dominican Republic
In the 10th place, you can find the Dominican Republic. With
metric tons of cocoa, it is quickly becoming a major player in the
cocoa industry. Dominicans are well-known for their production of
organic cocoa. They have been taking measures to make it sustainable
and are known for their varieties: Sanchez and Hispaniola.
20 years ago the Dominican Republic was struggling with its cocoa production (reference), but there was a good reason for that. The market didn't regard its product as high quality, and since it was forced to sell it at a low price, farmers weren't exactly motivated to increase their yields if they could sell other more attractive crops to the marketplace.
Today is a completely different story. Cacao is the third most important crop in the country just behind sugar and tobacco. With the help of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), around 40,000 farmers work the land relentlessly to improve the quality and yield of their cocoa beans.
Dominican have managed to make their cacao beans one of the most coveted products on the market and export around 60 metric tons of it each year. But even more than boosting the production, they aim to be the number one supplier of high-quality beans in the world. Currently, 20% of the Dominican Republic's cocoa total export is organic, and that number keeps rising every year.
The cocoa in the Dominican Republic combine the flavors of
found in Ecuador, Trinidad, and other Latin American countries to
create a unique, distinct Caribbean taste that only the DR can offer.
Hispaniola and Sanchez (fermented and not fermented Dominican varieties
respectively) are loved in the major markets of Europe and the United
In the following video, you can be a
witness of the
techniques and expertise used by Dominicans to turn cacao beans into
mouth-watering chocolaty treats:
Most of the farms in the Dominican Republic are small. 80% of them are less than three hectares, and only 5% exceed that number. Even with all the progress that Dominicans have made, they still have plenty of room to improve.
The farmers' average monthly income is only around $500, but plans are being made to boost their earnings. So far they have been using 60% of the plantations' capacity. With the help of the government and the UNDP, they plan to optimize their agricultural practices, which may lead to higher profits.
The top exporting companies in the Dominican Republic are
Roig Agro-cacao, Rizek Cacao, Cooproagro, Yacao, Cortés Hnos. &
Biofcacao, and Joes Palewonsky E hijos.
If you plan to visit the Dominican Republic and are curious about how Dominicans cultivate such a coveted product, you can take one of the several tours available that will show you how they grow their cacao trees and the steps they take to ensure the quality of their seeds.
Explora ecotour offers excursions where you can admire the breathtaking view of a tropical forest while you learn how farmers grow their seeds in a way that is beneficial for the environment (resource). Of course, you will also hike through the forest and get a lovely Dominican lunch with snacks, and other refreshments included.
If you find yourself vacationing in Punta Cana, you can take a tour with Bavaro Runners to learn more about the premium Dominican cocoa (source). Bavaro Runners has several tours where you can visit a plantation and watch the techniques used by cacao farmers to grow organic crops and live off their land. You also get a sample of their finest product, and you can be the judge of its astounding quality.
Chocolate lovers will feel like home in the Choco Museo in Punta Cana (information). Inside you can learn about the history of cocoa, get some of the finest cacao beans available in the market, and taste the best handcrafted chocolate, you have experienced in your life. The place is open from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm.
German, Austrian, Swiss, or Dominican, it doesn't matter who
it or the shape it takes, chocolate has been popular for hundreds of
years and will continue to be for a long time.