The botanical name for the cacao tree (Theobroma Cacao) translates to “Food of the Gods.” Dating back to early Aztec and Mayan civilization, humans have valued and ritualized transforming cacao to cocoa.
The difference between cacao and cocoa isn’t a spelling error. In the purest sense cacao is the raw plant while cocoa is the processed product. Most chocolatiers will use cocoa to describe the cacao product after it has gone through the process of fermentation.
Now that we’ve got the basics layed out, let’s go through the steps a cacao plant goes through before it’s transformed into your favorite chocolate found in the grocery store.
Cacao Tree Growth
The art of care and management of cacao trees is called “Husbandry”.
Unlike most tree crops that bloom once a year and then go dormant, cacao trees are in a state of near constant production.
For 9 months of the year you can find blooms, and pods at various stages of ripeness all on the tree at the same time.
Cacao Fun Fact: Cacao trees grow in a finite zone around planet Earth—the growing regions are a band that runs around a 15° latitude above and below the equator. The only cacao successfully grown in the USA has been grown in Hawaii.
Cacao Pod Harvest
Chocolate is made from cacao beans found within a cacao pod. At this step in the process you won’t want to take a bite quite yet. Cacao beans still need to go through the process to resemble the taste of chocolate that we have all come to know and love.
Once the pods are ripe, the growers pick and gather the pods in piles throughout the growing area and begin the process of opening them up to remove the beans. The husk of the cacao pod is thick, hard and fibrous requiring a hard strike with a wooden tool or more often a machete.
The inside of a cacao pod contains 20-40 beans. After breaking the pod open, the beans are scooped out and placed in bags for temporary storage and transportation.
Cacao Processing Steps
Once harvested, the cacao beans go through several processing steps.
To achieve that distinct chocolate flavor, the first step is fermentation. The beans (still in their husk) are put into bins and typically covered with banana leaves to allow the naturally occurring sugars to pulp and ferment.
Each day, the beans are uncovered, mixed and re-covered to ensure even fermentation; this process takes 4 – 6 days. This is a critical step, as under or over fermented beans can negatively impact quality and flavor.
The finished fermented beans are then spread out on trays where they are sun-dried over several days. During drying the beans are raked and turned to ensure consistency and to prevent any development of mold.
Once dry, the beans are graded, sorted, bagged and sold to chocolate makers.
Finally! Now we’ve reached the stages of production that are in the hands of our chocolatiers and confection makers.
This critical step in flavor development caramelizes some of the natural sugars, unlocking the beginning hints of sweetness. The beans are roasted under careful supervision with a perfect recipe of heat and time to achieve their desired roast.
The beans are transferred to the winnower where they receive a light pressure that cracks the roasted husk, which is then vacuumed off leaving the pure cocoa bean. Given their delicate nature, removing the husk causes the bean to fall apart into what is commonly known as cacao nibs.
The roasted nibs are ground to become a liquid known as “chocolate liquor.” This term describes the roasted, ground cacao beans and has nothing to do with alcohol.
Using the process invented by Coenraad van Houten, the chocolate liquor goes into a cocoa press where the cocoa butter is separated from the cocoa solids. The cocoa solids, also known as cocoa cake, can then be pulverized into cocoa powder.
At this step in the process chocolate makers select their unique recipes for combining chocolate with sugar. The resulting mixture flows through a refiner until it resembles the desired texture and fineness.
If the refining process is too fast, cacao takes on a gritty texture. Too long and it becomes greasy. Neither of which are desirable.
Marich Chocolate Tip: Next time you eat chocolate, savor it, let it melt and soften in your mouth and notice the texture. Is it gritty, sandy or greasy or does it have that ideal silky, velvety feel? This can tell you a lot about the refining process.
Crossing the Finish Line: Cocoa to Chocolate
Let’s recap. Now that the cacao has gone through the many steps leading up to fermentation, the cocoa is beginning to resemble the chocolate you know and love today.
Following the refining process, the mixture is transferred to a “conch”. It is at this stage that additional ingredients such as vanilla and lecithin are added, milk (in the case of milk chocolate), as well as additional cocoa butter to further enhance the flavor and texture.
This is the final stage of flavor development, and a process often considered as fine art. This tightly controlled conching process is where the chocolate is mixed and blended at specific intervals for different temperatures. Quality conching requires patience and it is the last critical stage where flavor and texture is greatly impacted.
The Final Step: Enjoying
At Marich we have perfected each step of the cacao to cocoa process through decades of experience. Many of our products are Fair Trade Certified™ because we believe in making chocolate that tastes good and supports our growers and their communities.