Cacao Versus Chocolate
Cacao is the term that the chocolate industry uses for tree (Theobroma Cacao), the agriculture thereof, and the raw products that come from it. Once the cacao pod is opened and the beans are fermented, the name commonly used for the product switches to cocoa, as in cocoa beans, cocoa butter, and so on. In all about chocolate, that guideline is honored, with one exception: when referring to a manufacturing process that may affect a number of different products (e.g., cocoa butter, chocolate liquor, cocoa powder), all about chocolate uses the term cacao to denote the range of cacao products that may be affected by that process.
From Bean to Bar: Cacao Agriculture
Chocolate manufacturing bears several similarities to wine making: as with wine, chocolate starts out as an agricultural product. Like wine making, chocolate production requires fermentation, and uses only few ingredients; and in both wine making and chocolate making, from these few ingredients can be produced an infinite range of products with unique flavor nuances, characteristics, and qualities, from the pedestrian to the exquisite. The ultimate outcome is dependent on the raw materials used and, to a great extent, the skill of the producer.
Unlike wine makers, however, chocolate manufacturers seldom have control over the cultivation, harvest, and fermentation of their raw materials. The majority of the world's cacao crop is grown not on large corporate plantations, but on small plots of land by individual or family landowners, who often cultivate their cacao alongside other crops. Also, two other vital processes occur before the beans even reach the manufacturer: fermentation and drying. Each of these happen immediately after harvest, at the location where the cacao is grown. This fact, combined with the remote nature of cacao agriculture, means that these crucial steps usually happen beyond the control of the chocolate manufacturer. The only control the manufacturer can exert is to evaluate the beans when they arrive at the manufacturing facility and to decide whether or not to buy them based on the manufacturer's specifications.
Cacao agriculture and production is an enormous topic, worthy of volumes in its own right. For the purposes of this work, it is sufficient to say that there are essentially three varieties of cacao grown commercially: Criollo, Forastero, and Trinatario. Criollo cacao is generally regarded as the finest quality, but it is low yielding and prone to damage from disease. Criollo constitutes a very small portion of the world crop; most estimates put it around 10 percent of the annual cacao harvest.
Forastero is a hardier variety that produces better yields but tends to lack the flavor complexities of the Criollo bean. Forastero constitutes the majority of the world's cacao harvest, approximately 70 percent of the annual production.
Trinatario is a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero, a crop that exhibits some of the advantages of each of the parent varieties and makes up some 20 percent of the world harvest.
While generalizations can be made about quality and flavor profiles, they are far from foolproof. Like any crop, cacao is profoundly affected by the vagaries of terroir; the same variety of cacao can produce vastly disparate results when grown in different locations. In addition, a Forastero grown and fermented under ideal conditions may well be a superior bean to a Criollo grown and fermented under poor conditions. Perhaps a better way to look at the world cacao crop is to divide it into "bulk" beans, which constitute some 95 percent of the harvest, and "flavor" beans, which make up the remaining 5 percent of the crop. This ratio is a profound illustration of how just little of the cacao harvest is deemed to be the highest quality, and why premium-quality cacao commands a high price.
After the pods are harvested, the cocoa beans and pulp are removed from the shell and fermented, either in wooden boxes or wrapped in banana leaves fermentation takes an average of five days. During the first days of fermentation, the temperature of the beans rises significantly, killing the live beans and preventing germination. The primary function of fermenting cocoa beans is to produce the flavor precursors that will allow the development of the chocolate flavor that is produced when the beans are roasted.
While fermentation itself does not result in chocolate flavor, unfermented beans do not contain the necessary compounds to achieve chocolate flavor during roasting; without fermentation, chocolate flavor cannot exist. Cacao fermentation is carried out by native yeast, bacteria, and enzymes, and results in liquefaction of the pulp, allowing it to run off the beans. More important to the chocolate producer, though, are the changes that occur within the bean itself: many complex compounds, such as polyphenols, proteins, and polysaccharides, are broken into smaller compounds, a process that reduces their bitterness and astringency and provides the raw materials for Maillard browning that will result in chocolate flavor when the beans are roasted.
The proper degree of fermentation is critical to the quality of the bean and to the resulting chocolate; unfermented or even under fermented beans simply do not contain flavor precursors, and therefore cannot provide chocolate flavor, even when roasted. Excessive fermentation, however, can cause loss of quality and spoilage.
Fermentation of cacao is an extremely complex process involving many various yeasts, anaerobic and anaerobic bacteria, and divers enzymatic processes. The full extent of the reactions that occur during fermentation are not fully known or understood. Still, fermentation remains one of the most crucial steps on the path from bean to chocolate.
After fermentation is complete, the beans must be dried. The immediate result of drying is to stop the fermentation process, but the major objective is to make the beans stable for shipping and storage. Beans that are not dried to approximately 8 percent moisture are prone to mold formation, which can result in severe lost of quality. Various methods can be employed for drying beans, depending on climatic conditions and the availability of energy. Ideally, the beans are spread out in a layer few inches deep to dry in sunshine. Periodically throughout the day, the beans are raked in order that all their surfaces are exposed to the sun and air; at night they are covered either with a roof on wheels or with tarps, to protect them from dewfall. If the climate permits, this method of drying is ideal, as it requires no machinery and no energy source other than the sun, and it dries and cures the beans slowly and evenly, resulting in a superior product.
other methods of drying involve the use of fire for heat, either with or without additional convection. As a group, these methods are called "artificial drying". there are several drawbacks to artificial drying, the most severe of which is the danger of contamination from smoke, resulting in a smoky flavor in the beans. Smoky flavor notes are not necessary present in artificially dried beans, but are a potential risk. Other negative effects of artificial drying include producing "case-hardened" beans, in which the outside of the beans dried very rapidly, hardening and preventing the moisture and acids inside the bean from escaping. A final problem with artificial drying is the potential to over dry the beans, which results in brittle beans that break easily during shipping.