Growing the cocoa beans is only part of the story of making chocolate. The next step in preparing chocolate is fermenting and drying.
Once the pods have been harvested and collected, they have to be opened -- a task that itself requires skill and care to be done efficiently and without injury. Using a machete, an experienced cacao-farm worker can open up to 500 of the woody pods every hour without damaging the beans inside (or lopping off a body part). Once a pod is open, the whitish pulp, containing anywhere from 20 to 50 cacao beans, must be scooped out. (The edible pulp tastes sweet and lemony, but the cream-colored beans are far too hard and bitter to eat at this stage.)
The workers then pile up the pulp-coated beans and cover them with banana leaves or spread them out in long, shallow, covered wooden boxes to encourage fermentation to begin. Fermentation is a natural chemical process in which yeast, bacteria, or other microorganisms break down the sugar in the pulp into acidic compounds such as vinegar. The fermentation process is vital to the creation of chocolate, because it triggers chemical changes that help the beans develop their chocolate flavor.
Fermentation generates heat, causing the temperature within the pile of cacao beans to reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit or more. The heat, in turn, kills the germ of the bean (the part that would sprout and develop into a new plant) and liquefies the pulpy residue, which then just drains away.
The heat also activates certain enzymes in the beans that tame their bitterness, form compounds that contribute to the chocolate flavor, and give the beans a brown color. Milder beans (such as the criollo variety) typically need to be fermented for only about three days, while more bitter beans (including forasteros) may require six to nine days of fermentation. Inadequate or interrupted fermentation prevents the development of true chocolate flavor. When the cacao beans finally turn brown, they are ready to be dried.
At this point, the fully fermented beans are typically spread out on bamboo mats or special trays and left in the sun to dry -- a process that takes a few days to weeks. They are turned occasionally to help the process along and prevent mold from growing.
At night, the beans are covered or brought indoors to keep dew from settling on them. If the weather is too damp during the day, the beans may be kept indoors and dried with hot-air blowers. Faster methods, such as drying the beans using the heat of a fire, are usually avoided because they can add unwanted flavors to the beans.
The drying step reduces the moisture in the beans, which decreases the risk of mold growth as the beans make their way to chocolate factories. But it is also during the drying stage that additional chemical changes occur that are essential to the development of the chocolate flavor of the beans. In addition, while the beans are laid out for drying, the farmer can pick through them to remove foreign particles and flat, broken, or germinated beans. By the end of the drying step, the beans have lost most of their moisture (usually at least 92 percent of it) and more than half their weight.
After drying, the beans are packed in sacks for shipment to the warehouses of commodity brokers. If the crop is approved, the buyers pay the farmer the current market price as set by cocoa exchanges (similar to stock exchanges) in New York, London, Hamburg, and Amsterdam. From the brokers' warehouses, the cacao beans are shipped to chocolate manufacturers around the world.
The next steps in making chocolate takes place in the factory. Keep reading to learn about how chocolate is processed.