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Fermentation Friday™ - Harvesting and Fermenting Cocoa Beans From “Cacao”

“Shake the hand that feeds you.” ― Michael Pollan


There is a nip in the air; the excitement of cool Fall weather brings the prospects of hearty soups and meals and an overabundance of chocolate leftover from Halloween. This got me thinking about how, in the world, we have access to so much chocolate. That delicious, fermented cacao bean ground into cacao powder and made into some of the most decadent concoctions on earth. Where does it come from, and how do we get it? After researching a vast and deep marketplace, and reviewing The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development on cacao and global chocolate production. I found that groups of small family farms run 80-90% of all cocoa production, from running nursery stock for trees to processing and fermenting cacao beans using banana leaves and burlap, in an intriguing process. This ground bean pod is made for chocolate producers who curate some of the most delicious products on earth.


The Global Value Chain

Foraging and Farming Cocoa Production

Most Common Varieties Grown

There are four main varieties of cocoa: Forastero, Criollo, Trinitario, and Nacional. These varieties have distinct differences and some similarities. The Forastero varietal, a reddish-yellowish pod, is the most popular for general food production; it is mass-produced for basic cooking and baking applications. Its origin is Columbia, with a flavor profile of cherries and other earthen red fruits, and it is harvested year-round at 125 meters in altitude. Criollo is the rarest and most fine cacao and makes up 0.01% of all cacao grown worldwide. It dates back to Mayan and Aztec, and tree cultivation has been abandoned. The Criollo is low in tannins and offers a sweet and silky texture and rounded sweetness. Trinitario is a blended hybrid, combining Forastero with Criollo to create a more disease-resistant tree to aid in sustainable production. Nacional is an heirloom bean from the rarest cacao bean in the world. This cacao is a direct descendant of the first cacao trees used in the Guas River basin, and its flavor profile consists of berries, nuts, and cinnamon.

Chocolate Production

The Fermentation Process

Each cacao pod is hand-picked, and the fermentation process produces a deeper and richer flavor. Once picked, laborers open the pods by hand and remove the pulp. The pulp is white with a fibrous texture. The pods are combined into a wooden bin, layered in, and each layer is separated with banana leaves and wrapped in burlap. The bin must reach temperatures of 75-85 degrees Fahrenheit. The alcohol or liquor begins to aerobically decompose and seep out into the bin, changing to acetic or lactic acid. As the acid seeps, the flavor profile is enhanced while laborers rotate and mix the beans over the course of 3-4 days. Once the beans are fully fermented and agitated through the rotation, they are pulled from the bins and laid to dry for another 5-10 days in the hot sun. Once ready for processing, the cacao and the chocolate receive an agricultural grade.

Cacao Fermentation

Grinding Resources

Cocoa grinding is a large marketplace, and there are four top grinders globally. Barry Callebaut AG grinds 25% of the marketplace, followed by Cargill at 17%, ADM at 13%, and Blommer Chocolate Company at 7%. 57% of the market is aggregated into a deep market channel for all chocolate producers to bid on, and demand is growing for rare and heirloom cocoa.

Market Share Of The Top Six Companies

There are many producers of delicious confections, but Switzerland, Japan, and The United States hold key slots in market positions related to global chocolate manufacturing. The top four manufacturers are Mars, Inc., Mondelez International, Nestlé, and Meiji Holdings Co. Ltd. Next time you are in for some heirloom cocoa, search on your local organic and heirloom fair trade website.

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