The 50 to 60 seeds that nestle in the pods’ sweet juicy pulp are what we call cocoa beans.
If left to their own devices, the pods will not split open to spread the seeds, which measure about 20-40 mm long and 12-20 mm broad. The ever-dependent cacao tree needs a helping hand from other creatures to do that.
The seeds are so bitter that humans are the only ones who will eat them—and after much preparation, at that. But the promise of delicious pulp attracts birds, monkeys and other rainforest animals. They crack the pods, slurp the pulp and spit the seeds onto the ground. And voila—if all goes well, a new cacao tree sprouts. The temperamental cacao tree, however, can be difficult to grow. In practice, most new trees are hand-planted or grafted from existing ones by human hands.
Harvesting the Beans
Following a tradition of more than a thousand years, workers harvest the beans by hand—very carefully. They cannot climb this fragile tree with its soft bark and shallow roots. Instead, they use mallets or machetes to slice off the lower pods and long-handled mitten-shaped steel knives to snip the higher ones.
The trees produce fruit all year, so a farmer needs a practiced eye to know which pods are ripe; typically, they are yellow or orange. Harvest takes place twice a year, with the main harvest in the fall and a lighter harvest in spring. Harvest time varies somewhat depending on the year’s weather patterns.
After gathering the pods, a farmer splits each one with a mallet or machete to expose the pod’s soft center. A skilled breaker can open 500 pods in an hour. Next, the farmer scoops out the white pulp and slips out the seeds, which quickly turn purple in the open air. At this point, the seeds do not look or smell like chocolate.Fermenting and Drying the Beans
Fermenting is where this seed first begins to take on the qualities we recognize as chocolate. This step dries the beans and tames their bitter taste.
After removing the seeds from the pods, farmers place them into large wooden boxes or rake them into piles or heaps, then cover them with banana leaves. The seeds ferment, heating as high as 125 degrees Fahrenheit both from sun and from the chemical changes taking place. During this yeasting process, the seeds’ sugars convert to acid, primarily lactic and acetic acids, and enzymes break down the bitterness and produce important chocolate flavor precursors.
After two to eight days, the seeds change from purple to rich brown cocoa beans. To preserve them for shipment, they are moved onto trays or mats and left to bask in the sun to dry. If rain or humidity is an issue, the beans will be moved into a covered structure or blown dry with hot air.
Over the next several days, the beans lose nearly all their moisture and nearly half their weight. Farmers sift through them during this time to remove broken or germinated beans or foreign matter.
Next, they take the beans to collection sites, where their beans join other farmers’ beans in burlap sacks weighing 130 to 200 pounds. These sacks are sent to shipping centers, and the beans begin their journey to chocolate factories worldwide.
Most cocoa—70 percent—hails from West Africa.