The Cocoa Bean
Chocolate making starts with the cocoa bean. Cocoa beans are seeds from the pods of cacao trees, a tropical plant that thrives only in hot, rainy climates. It is grown worldwide in tropical rainforests within 20° latitude of the equator in such places as Brazil, Venezuela, and Ecuador in South America; The Ivory Coast and Ghana in West Africa; and Indonesia in Southeast Asia. Where the beans grow determines the flavor characteristics of the cocoa–all beans are not the same.
The varieties of cacao pods fall under three classifications.
- Criollo has a light color with a unique, pleasant aroma and is used in the finest chocolate.
- Forastero is more plentiful, easier to cultivate, and has a pungent aroma.
- Trinitario is a cross of strains of the other two types and generally has a good, aromatic flavor. The majority of the world's chocolate is made from Forastero beans.
The key to making a great chocolate is to source the beans from different areas of the world, and blend them together to come up with a unique flavor profile. At Ghirardelli, we've perfected a proprietary blend based on over 150 years of experience manufacturing premium chocolate.
The cacao tree bears fruit (or pods) all year, but harvesting is generally seasonal. Harvesting requires a delicate touch, as cacao trees are very frail. Training and experience are necessary to know when the pods are ripe and ready to be cut. About 20 to 50 beans are scooped from a typical pod, and approximately 400 beans are required to make one pound of chocolate.
The beans are then fermented from three to nine days, which serves to develop the characteristics of the chocolate flavor. Without fermentation, chocolate does not taste like chocolate.
After fermentation, the beans are dried. In some countries, the beans are simply spread out on trays or mats and left to dry under the sun. During drying, the beans lose nearly all their moisture and more than half their weight. The drying process generally takes five to seven days, during which the beans are frequently turned.
Beans can also be artificially dried by blowing hot air over the beans from fires. This cuts the time in half but leaves a smoky character in the chocolate. Though less expensive, beans dried using this method are not used for premium chocolate such as Ghirardelli.
Once the beans are dried, they are packed and shipped to chocolate manufacturers.