Cacao beans are the basis for chocolate, harvested from pods on the cacao tree. These trees flourish in warm climates throughout Africa, the Americas and Asia. The beans from these trees are the basis of every piece of chocolate you have ever consumed and they have a long journey from tree to candy bar.
Sources of Cacao Beans
Cacao beans come from three types of cacao trees: forastero, criollo and trinitario. About 90 percent of all cacao in the world comes from forastero trees, which are hardy, but lack subtle flavors of the other two types of trees. Criollo, while more difficult to grow, is noted for fruity characteristics, which can lend a unique flavor to chocolate. Trinitario is a hybrid tree, created from the other two varieties of cacao tree. This variety produces beans that are highly acidic and slightly spicy. These trees are grown in Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, as well as in many countries throughout Central America, South America, the Carribean and Africa. Beans are also grown in Indonesia.
Beans Vs. Pods
Cacao beans grow within a pod. A tree grows about 30 pods per year, and each pod contains around 40 individual beans. It takes approximately 500 beans to make 1 pound of chocolate, meaning that the yearly cacao bean per year is quite low. Each tree only produces enough cacao to make 2 pounds of chocolate every 12 months.
Drying and Fermentation Process
Cacao beans are not ready for use in chocolate-making until they have been fermented and dried. The pod is cracked open and the beans transferred to large containers for fermentation, lasting up to one week. Once fermented, the beans are either sun-dried or dehydrated in an electric dryer. This process can take seven to 14 days. Once dried, the beans can be eaten as-is or made into other products.
Uses of Cacao Beans
Cacao beans are the source of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Once these have been extracted, the beans can be processed into cocoa powder, chocolate, mole sauce or chocolate-based cosmetics and spa treatments. Some people do eat the whole dried cacao beans, which contain high levels of antioxidants.