Harvesting the Sacred Cocoa Bean

Chocolate starts as the humble cocoa bean, which is still harvested by hand today, the same way it has been for centuries.

Cocoa, the biological forbearer of chocolate, has a long history of cultivation, first in the New World and now in the Old as well. Despite our modern era of mechanization, it's still harvested by hand, because that's the way it has to be. The product is just too fragile and too precious to leave to machine cultivation.

In this article, we'll give you the skinny on chocolate's first steps from tree to you.

The Tree

As you probably know if you've haunted this site long enough, cocoa beans are the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree, an evergreen whose origins have been traced to the Amazon River basin. It grows best as an understory tree, shaded by other, taller species, generally at elevations of 200-400 meters (650-1300 ft).

Crops such as banana and cassava are often grown with Theobroma trees to provide shade, divert pests, and provide a secondary income for the farmer. In its third to fifth year, a well-shaded Theobroma will start to produce pods, or pochas, directly on the trunk and larger branches.

The bean

The pochas turn yellow or orange when ripe. They're harvested twice a year, usually in June and around Christmas, using machetes and long-handled knives. Because of the way the pochas grow, and the fact that they mature at different times, machine cultivation is not practical for cocoa, as it is for some tree-crops.

Once collected, the thick, woody skins of the pochas are then split open, revealing 20-60 beans nestled inside a pulpy white mass that tastes of vinegar. The beans are scooped out with wooden tools and placed in shallow, perforated bins in preparation for the process known as sweating.

Sweating and Curing

Once in their sweating bins, the cocoa beans are stored in a hot cocoa house to ferment. Each day the bins are emptied into other bins, so that the beans get thoroughly mixed. During the process of fermentation, they turn a dull brown and a sour vinegary brown liquid runs out of the sweat-boxes.

After being sweated for several days, the beans are spread out in trays to dry for several days in the hot sun. Meanwhile, foreign material, leaves, twigs, empty husks, and undersized beans are removed by hand. All told, the curing and sweating process takes about a week.

Then the beans are stuffed into bags, where they stay viable for up to a year without loss of flavor or aroma. At that point, the precious cocoa beans are ready to be shipped to chocolate manufacturers, where they'll be made into that delightful substance that rocks your world!