Today, most cacao beans come from small, independent cacao farms in tropical regions in Africa and Indonesia. On these small farms, the cacao trees are planted among taller trees, such as banana, rubber, and coconut. The taller "mother trees" shelter the cacao trees from harsh sunlight and wind, help limit the spread of diseases and pests, and ensure a steady supply of decaying leaves and other plant matter that naturally enrich the soil.
That natural ground cover also provides habitat for the midges (tiny insects) that pollinate the cacao plants. The native farmers provide the intensive cultivation and diligent care necessary for the cacao trees to thrive and have the skill, experience, and patience required to handpick the beans and prepare them for market.
Growing and Harvesting Cacao Beans
Farmers raise cacao trees by first setting out cacao seeds in fiber baskets or plastic bags. It takes only a few months for the seeds to sprout and grow into seedlings that are then transplanted among the mother trees. In time, each seedling grows into a magnificent tree with large, glossy red leaves that gradually turn green as the tree matures.
Although wild cacao trees can grow to a height of more than 50 feet, cultivated trees are usually in the 15- to 25-foot range. It usually takes a new cacao tree about five years to begin producing the fruit that holds the valuable cacao seeds.
Unlike most fruit trees in the United States, the cacao tree sprouts flowers and seed pods from its trunk and main branches. A typical cacao tree sprouts thousands of small, waxy, pink or white blossoms, although only 3 to 10 percent of these will eventually produce fully mature fruit. A healthy, productive tree can yield up to 2,000 pods a year. Another feature of the evergreen cacao tree is that it produces fruit year-round, so it is typically host to blossoms, unripened fruit, and fully mature seed pods all at the same time. The blossoms sprout from "cushions" that are clustered together on the trunk and main branches.
There are many varieties of cacao, and the trees cross-pollinate freely, but they fall into three basic types:
- Criollo. The cacao considered to produce the best chocolate, criollo pods are soft and thin-skinned, with a light color and a pleasant aroma.
- Forastero. The most common and easiest-to-cultivate variety, forastero cacao trees produce the most pods, which are thick-walled, have a pungent aroma, and produce a more bitter chocolate.
- Trinitario. A natural cross of criollo and forastero, trinitario cacao blends the greater hardiness of the forastero tree with the milder and more aromatic flavor of the criollo beans.
The vast majority of chocolate today is made from the more bitter forastero variety, because forastero trees are hardier and produce more pods (making forastero beans cheaper) than the other two types. In recent years, however, cacao growers have been working on developing cacao hybrids to improve the quality and flavor of the beans while making the trees hardier and more resistant to disease. And recent interest in "gourmet" foods -- especially among people who can afford to pay higher prices -- has begun to increase demand for chocolates made from the rarer and more flavorful criollo beans.
Although cacao pods continually ripen on the trees, there are usually only two major harvests -- sometimes with a third minor one in between -- each year. It takes an experienced farmer to tell when cacao pods are ready for picking, and as in ages past, it takes careful manual labor to harvest them. Machines would simply cause too much damage to the trees.
Ripe cacao pods must be individually handpicked to avoid harming the younger pods, tender blossoms, and delicate flower cushions (which will give rise to future pods) that are clustered with them on the trunk and main branches. In fact, the cacao tree is so easily damaged and its roots are so shallow that farmers don't dare climb it to harvest the ripe pods growing higher in the tree. Instead, the harvesters stay on the ground and use special long-handled cutting tools to snip off the higher pods. They deftly wield machetes to remove those closer to the ground.
The next step in making chocolate includes fermenting and drying. Learn about this step in the next section.