The cacao plant is one of the most difficult to cultivate as it only produces fruit within the latitudes of the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer (with a bit of margin on either side). From 100 flowers on the cacao tree, only about 10 or 15 actually remain on the plant. The trees grow naturally in shady conditions such as dense forests. Cultivation is difficult due to the fragile nature of the flowers. In order to protect the flowers from the strong winds, planters put up protective barriers sometimes using banana plants, acacia trees or other shade giving plants.
Apart from a natural movement of the cocoa culture in Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil, the cocoa trade brought a proliferation of plantations to the Caribbean islands, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Java, Sumatra as well as the Philippines, Ceylon and Indonesia.
After trees are planted, the grower must wait 5-10 years for the tree to reach maturity and produce its first fruit. The cacao pod is actually a huge berry that sprouts directly from the side of the tree. These pods are typically melon-shaped 5 to 12 inches long and 3 to 5 inches wide. The average cacao pod contains 30 to 40 seeds and it takes 20 to 25 pods to get 2 pounds of cocoa. The golden-red to purple fruit pods turn brown at maturity, at which time they are split open and the insides scooped out.
After the cacao beans are removed from the fruit, they undergo a 5-6 day fermentation. This process reduces the natural bitterness of the cacao and helps develop their heady aroma. After the beans are dried for 1-2 weeks, they are ready to be cleaned, graded, packed, and shipped.
Once the beans reach their final destination, they are sorted again to remove any bad beans and then the processing into chocolate begins. First, the beans are roasted and shelled to obtain the center cacao kernel. The kernels are then crushed into smaller bits called nibs. The nibs are then roasted again and finally are ground into the thick, dark-brown paste called chocolate liquor. The method of grinding varies from producer to producer. On one end of the spectrum, the kernels are ground between large heated rollers in high-speed mills, while on the other end of the spectrum, the nibs are ground at low temperature for a longer time between two traditional millstones. Each producer chooses the right method or combination of methods for their own particular style.
Chocolate liquor is the base from which all chocolate products are made. Pure chocolate liquor, which contains 53 to 55 percent cocoa butter, is unsweetened and is typically compressed into blocks or squares and is sold as a base for further processing by blending it with sugar and other chocolates to produce the sweetened chocolate bars we know.
Some producers create their chocolate using beans sourced from one country, one region, or one plantation. Some producers work with a particular variety of cacao, while others specialize in custom blends of various beans from a variety of sources.
A chocolate maker might choose to avoid the production of the base chocolate and simply purchase chocolate from someone else so they can focus on the art of making their bars, bon bons or other confections. They would select their chocolate, melt it carefully to properly temper it and then deposit the chocolate into the molds for their bars.
Other producers who are sometimes referred to as bean to bar producers, select their own beans and control the entire process from roasting, winnowing, conching, tempering all the way to forming their final chocolate products.