Love is in the air, everywhere you look around. But do you know what else is everywhere during this romantic time of year?
Chocolate! In heart shaped boxes, in artisanal bars, in cookies and cakes – in just about every corner of the supermarket there will something deliciously chocolate for Valentine’s Day. On a day like this, let’s try to understand how exactly a lowly bean becomes a universal favorite sweet.
To make a long story short: imperialism. In 1528, Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes returned from the New World (Nicaragua, to be exact) with a recipe for xocoatl, a chocolate drink that would change our sweet tooths forever. Chocolate grows in hotter temperatures than that of Europe or North America, so these chocolate loving places must import cocoa beans from countries in South America, Asia, and Africa. The top three cocoa producing countries are Ivory Coast (Côte d'Ivoire), Ghana, and Indonesia.
The logistics of cocoa is anything but simple. Cocoa is truly a global product, and must travel great distances to bring us joy.
From the trees to the sacks:
Cocoa trees are grown on small family farms or on big cocoa plantations in a near-rainforest climate with plenty of warmth and rain, usually within 15-20 degrees north and south of the equator. The plants are somewhat finicky, and too much rain or not enough rain can cause the harvest numbers to fall. With proper care, most cocoa trees begin to yield pods at peak production levels by the fifth year, which can continue for another 10 years. Ripe pods may be found on cocoa trees at any time; however, most countries have two periods of time per year of production. Each pod may yield 20-50 beans. The bean pods are picked, and then they must be fermented to diminish some of the acidity.
After removing the beans from the pods, farmers pack them into boxes or piles, which are covered with mats or banana leaves. The layer of pulp that naturally surrounds the beans heats up and ferments the beans. Fermentation is important, lasting 3 to 7 days that produces the chocolate flavor we know. Then it usually takes few days for the beans to get dried in the sun. The heap method is typically found in Africa and the box method is typical in Asia and Latin America.
This process can be rushed using artificial means such as heat, but the chocolate won’t taste as good. Farmers usually pack the beans in sacks. Small traders will visit farms, buy the beans, and in turn sell them to wholesalers who sell them to exporters. Some farmers cut out the middlemen and sell beans to the exporters themselves.
From the sacks to the manufacturers:
The physical shipment of cocoa beans over long distances from numerous smallholdings to the main processing and distribution centers is a complex business – and not without risk. Bulk shipment and storage of cocoa have to be undertaken with extreme care and consideration for the formidable array of international rules and regulations that surrounds it. To get the cocoa into the hands of candy makers, the beans stop at a port, are graded for purity, and get loaded onto a ship headed for their new home. There’s a similarly complex process of releasing the beans to the buyers on the other end of the journey: buyers will conduct a quality check to accept delivery. Trucks and trains carry the cocoa in large tote bags or loose in the trailer to the manufacturer’s facility on a “just-in-time” basis.
Various forms of cocoa:
Once the beans are in the hands of Mars, Hershey or whichever company has purchased them, these companies turn the beans into delicious products for us to enjoy. Beans will be thoroughly inspected, cleaned, shelled and roasted. The nib will be ground into a paste. The heat generated by this process causes the cocoa butter to melt and creates “cocoa liquor”, which does not contain alcohol but can be further refined and sold as unsweetened baking chocolate or chocolate used in manufacturing. The cocoa processor has the option of treating the cocoa liquor with an alkali solution with reduces the acidity. This is known as alkalizing or dutching, which makes the liquor darker and has a milder but more chocolaty flavor. The cocoa liquor is fed into hydraulic presses that divide liquor into cocoa butter and cocoa cakes. The cake can be sold into the generic market or ground into a fine powder.
To add another layer of complexity (and anxiety) to our beloved chocolate – big chocolate companies have reached the conclusion that our chocolate supply is waning, mostly due to production woes. And our demand is growing. This is a potential problem for chocolate lovers everywhere, for the industry and countries that depend on cocoa.
Why is the world’s chocolate supply in danger? There are many factors at work. Illnesses like ebola have cut into the growing ability of some West African countries. Likewise, labor restrictions against child and slave labor have also left some countries with fewer workers for the cacao fields. Pair this with changing weather, and that more people enjoying chocolate - especially Chinese and Indian, you’ve got chocolate production in a bit of a bind. But before you rush into a panic, know this: chocolate suppliers are actively working to solve the looming chocolate crisis before we hit the point of no return. Ten major chocolatiers held a conference in 2014 to figure exactly what to do about decreased production. And what they’ve suggested makes a lot of sense: replanting cocoa plants with more frequency, increased training for farmers, and more use of grafting techniques to attach a more productive variety of cocoa onto another.
So there’s no need to stockpile Cadbury, Hershey, or Mars products yet – although it never hurts to keep an extra bar in your desk for that afternoon pick me up, or to surprise a friend with your favorite chocolate bar on Valentine’s Day <3