I was so close I could taste it. Actually, I couldn’t taste it, and that was exactly the problem. Since someone first told me how amazing the fleshy white part of the cocoa bean pod tastes, I’ve been obsessed with trying it for myself. I admit to adding an extra day to a trip just in case it would give me an hour at a cocoa farm; I’ve tried figuring out consulting opportunities in cocoa producing countries; and here I was on a true bean-to-bar farm in tropical Grenada…that had just finished processing the last raw bean pods of the day. Disappointment followed by the happy thought of needing to visit more cocoa farms.
Origin & Cultivation
Theobroma Cacao, AKA cocoa or cacao (pronounces kuh-kow) trees, grow in shady areas about 20° north and south of the equator. Think Mexico City to Bolivia, or Qatar to nearly the bottom of Madagascar. Pods grow off the tree trunks and branches that contain cocoa beans (along with the white fleshy meat I still haven’t tried).
Farm plots are typically small, less than 3.5 hectares (less than 9 acres). Trees begin peak production around five years and can continue high yields for another decade. The soil. growing conditions and fermentation of the beans are what give each location a unique flavor, called terroir (pronounced like tare-war) like in winemaking.
Not So Sweet
There are problems in the cocoa and chocolate industry – aging (and poor) farmers, aging trees, poor soil, changing climates, and child labor top the list (not in any order). A CNN story about Cocoa-nomics sums the issues well and has some nice graphics and videos to boot.
If you want to put your money where your mouth is – literally – look for chocolate that is certified by UTZ, Rain Forest Alliance, Fair Trade, or Direct Trade, like Madécasse. These programs have a component to ensure farmers receive a minimum wage or better. Buying from small chocolatiers (like those listed below) is another good way to support farmers; these producers typically know who they’re sourcing from and pay a fair price for their products.
From Cocoa to Chocolate
We can thank the Mayans and Aztecs for chocolate, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that “eating chocolate” came about. Before then, chocolate was confined to drinking until the Swiss figured out how to make solid chocolate.
The beans are typically allowed to ferment, which develops the characteristic flavors we recognize as chocolate. Beans can be processed at low heat to produce cacao products, like cacao nibs, powder, etc., or at a higher temperature to produce cocoa. Cocoa butter, cocoa powder and cocoa “mass” or “liquor” can be made when heating cocoa and processing it.
Chocolate, as we know and love it, can be made using these products. Chocolate is, at minimum, a mix of cocoa powder, cocoa butter and a sweetener. You can try making it from cocoa powder and butter at home, but without starting with the beans, tempering, and other processes, the quality won’t be the same.
Cocoa & Chocolate Stats
More than 70% of the world’s cocoa today is grown by farmers in West Africa, particularly Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana (40% and 20% respectively). The graphs below show export (left) and import (right) values for 2018 by percent. Observant folks will notice European countries (in purple) are exporting beans, they aren’t grown there, just processed.
And here’s where we need to get to work, America! Cocoa can be a good thing to include in your diet – it makes us happy, can improve circulation and essentially, save the world (as most superfoods are reported to do, right? I’m kidding…naturally). But we are being outpaced, coming in at a depressing #9 for consumption of cocoa in the world. Consider this your opportunity to help make the US number one.
North Carolina Chocolatiers:
I’m not advocating eating more Hershey’s bars and Nesquik…go get the good stuff! To get started on your quest for high quality chocolate, start local. You can get bean to bar (or other treats) made here in North Carolina.
Black Mountain. Winston-Salem
Carolina Chocolate Drops. Kidding. They are not a chocolatier, but they do make great outstanding music.