Cultivation of Cocoa
The successful cultivation of cocoa requires a special climate that is mostly found within the area bounded by the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The majority of the world’s crop is now grown within 10° North and South of the equator. It will grow from sea level up to a maximum of some 1,000 meters (3,300 feet), although most of the world’s crop grows at an altitude of less than 300 meters (985 feet). Temperatures must generally lie within the band of 18°-30° C (65°-86° F). Rainfall must be well distributed across the year, with a minimum of 1,000 mm (39 inches). The trees must be protected from strong winds (the root system is not robust), soils must be well aerated, and pests and diseases must be carefully controlled.
The original cocoa tree grew to a height of about 10 meters (33 feet) at maturity and preferred the shade of other larger trees. Modern breeding methods have led to the development of trees of a standard about 3 meters (10 feet) tall to allow for easy hand harvesting.
Certain cocoa trees become productive in three to four years, while in the past six to seven years was common. When the evergreen cocoa tree reaches its bearing age, flowers and fruits begin to appear in modest amounts. These can be found on the tree at all seasons of the year, although typically two crops are harvested each year.
The fruits grow directly from the trunk of the tree and the thicker branches. While there may be several thousand flowers on a mature tree, only a small number matures into fruits or pods. These take some six months to grow from a fertilized flower, measure 10-15 cm (4-6 inches) at the center, and are 15-25 cm (6-10 inches) long. The pod contains some 40 seeds or beans. After fermentation and drying, one pod produces about 40 g of beans, one bean typically weighing around 1 gram (0.03 ounces).
Yields per hectare (2.5 acres) vary greatly. Yields are around 350 kg (772 pounds) in West Africa (70 percent of the of world crop), where most cocoa growers are small holders and therefore do not have the most professional farming skills or access to agricultural inputs and high-yield planting materials. Yields can be more than 1500 kg (3,307 pounds) on the most efficient farms, run by professional farmers, mostly in Latin America and some parts of Indonesia. Today, cocoa trees are cultivated in more than 40 countries around the world, across an estimated area of 5 million hectares (12.5 million acres), producing an annual crop of more than 3.6 million tons of dried beans ready for processing.
Types of Beans
Typical attributes of the bean, such as bean size, flavor, color, and chemical composition of the fat, vary considerably in beans of different origins. Traditionally, there have been two main types of cocoa described: Criollo and Forastero. Criollos are commonly known as lighter in color with a mild, nutty character. Forastero cocoas are characterized as darker brown, more strongly flavored, slightly bitter, with a higher fat content. The greater part of the world’s cocoa crop has long been considered to be of the Forastero type, more specifically a sub-type known as Amelonado. Parts of Ecuador boast a very specific type of cocoa, Cacao Nacional or Arriba. The Criollo are known for flavor characteristics, while the Forastero plants are most commonly known for their ability to withstand more severe climatic conditions. A third type is has also been described as “Trinitario” – essentially a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero crosses.
In 2008, a large study of genetic and geographic differentiation of Theobroma cacao was completed in Latin America. The results suggest, as researchers now recommend, a new classification of cacao germplasm into 10 major groups: Marañon, Curaray, Criollo, Iquitos, Nanay, Contamana, Amelonado, Purús, Nacional and Gulana. This new classification is said to reflect much more accurately the genetic diversity of cocoa and should act to support new mating schemes targeted to increase disease resistance, enhance flavor and improve crop yield.
It would be wrong to claim that certain natural varieties of cocoa are better than others. Each has its own specific chemical and physical characteristics that are taken into careful consideration when beans are blended.
The ultimate quality of cocoa, whatever its origin, is significantly affected by weather conditions during growing, soil status, fermentation and drying. Storage conditions are also important in preventing deterioration of the quality.
Harvesting and Fermentation
Although nearly 500 years have passed since Cortez first witnessed the making of hot cocoa by the Aztecs, the basic methodology for processing cocoa beans has remained much the same. While a vast amount of research has been undertaken to speed up the cocoa bean fermentation process, there has been little success. Clearly, the different stages of fermentation are essential in the creation of the complex organic components essential to the final taste and enjoyment of cocoa.
The pods grow directly from the trunk of the tree. They are generally harvested by hand using long-handled cutting tools and broken open to reveal the beans and the white pulp surrounding them. Beans are then extracted and directly subjected to fermentation.
The traditional process in West Africa, the world’s largest cocoa growing area, is simple: Farmers place the pulp-covered beans on the ground, cover them with layers of leaves (often banana), and allow the heap to remain for four to seven days, depending on the variety of the bean. It is preferable to mix the heap every two days so that the bean mix ferments evenly. The fermentation is critical for the future development of color and flavor of the cocoa, although there are still many unknowns as to the exact processes occurring. Development of aroma precursors is essential to the eventual creation of flavors.
A more industrial fermentation uses three to five stepwise-positioned boxes: the highest box is filled with pulp-covered beans, and after one to two days the content is mixed and transferred to the lower box, a process which is repeated until the lowest box is reached. In four to six days, this box fermentation can reach the result of the traditional heap process.
After completion of the fermentation process, during which the white pulp is totally degraded, the cocoa beans have to be dried. In Africa the traditional method is to spread the beans out on mats or in trays in the open air to dry in the sun.
Because of the high rainfall and cloud cover in Brazil and Malaysia, other techniques are more popular. In Brazil, the beans are typically laid out on broad mats on stilts above ground level to dry. In the event of rain, a roof can be slid across the mats, and hot air is used to dry them. In Malaysia, use of mechanical rotary dryers is widespread. After drying, the beans are bagged and made ready for transport to buying stations and regional warehouses.
Physical Cocoa Versus Cocoa Futures
Physical cocoa is real cocoa, bought and sold according to its actual quality, tonnage, delivery time, place and price. Cocoa traded on the terminal or futures market is paper cocoa, traded according to a uniform description and lot tonnages, with price and delivery period as the only variables.
With around 3.6 million tons consumed annually (2010), cocoa beans are a major commodity today. The main cocoa exchanges are London and New York. The physical traders of cocoa are located in many other cities such as Amsterdam, Geneva, Hamburg, London, Paris, Kuala Lumpur, Philadelphia and Singapore.
As a commodity exposed to oversupply by bumper harvests, or to shortage caused by weather or disease, the price of cocoa naturally varies. As with other commodities, the futures market allows manufacturers to purchase for future requirements at a known price. In that way, the prices of beans and intermediate products are based on the market’s perception of the current and future supply and demand. Everyone can see what is happening. Cocoa is thus traded openly.
Bulk shipment of cocoa beans made its entrance in Europe in 1995. Instead of receiving the beans in traditional jute bags, cocoa may now be shipped to a large extent in bulk in containers or directly in vessel holds. New handling technology, as well as innovative quality control procedures, were developed and implemented both at the loading and discharging points, leading to a highly efficient bulk transportation system.
In the countries of origin, sustained by government incentives to promote industrialization, there is a trend to grind a larger part of their cocoa bean output into semi-finished products and export cocoa liquor, butter, and powder instead of raw beans. Liberalization of the cocoa trade and industry in the countries of origin, notably those in West Africa, will continue, resulting in greater transparency of the cocoa trade, while various bean grading systems control the quality of the beans shipped to the consuming countries.
World Demand For Cocoa
The world demand for cocoa beans has steadily increased over recent decades as a direct result of increased world demand for chocolate and chocolate-flavored products. On the other hand, because cocoa is an agricultural product subject to the influences of nature, the supply fluctuates from year to year.
The bean grinding quantities do not indicate what is actually made from cocoa. For example, in the Netherlands, the world’s largest cocoa bean processor, almost the entire quantity of beans is processed by the cocoa press industry into intermediate cocoa products rather than directly into cocoa consumer products like chocolate.
Three products—cocoa liquor (also called cocoa paste or cocoa mass), cocoa butter and cocoa powder—are initially made from cocoa beans. Combining cocoa liquor and cocoa butter (with sugar and possibly milk powders) creates chocolate.