A complete guide to cocoa beans and the cocoa tree

3 Jun 2020

Food + Drink

The cocoa bean is widely known for its role in chocolate making, but how much do you really know about the plant itself?

The cocoa plant, known also as Theobroma Cacao, or food of the gods, is famous for its role in the creation of chocolate. But there is so much more to know about the cocoa plant and the different uses for the cocoa bean! Read on to find out about its fascinating history, the different types of cocoa plant, and the bizarre uses of the cocoa bean you’d never have guessed. 

Where do cocoa beans come from?

The cocoa tree is native to the Amazon Basin in South America, with evidence suggesting that cocoa was first domesticated here, before being farmed in Central America. Now, the cocoa tree is cultivated in many different countries all over the world, as long as it meets the ideal conditions for the plant.

What are the conditions it grows best in?

rainforest of cocoa tree

To prosper, the cocoa tree requires a minimum temperature of 68°C-70°C and a maximum heat of 90°C. A substantial amount of rainfall is also needed (around 1250mm to 3000mm a year), with a dry period lasting no longer than 3 months.

With the right conditions, each cocoa pod will contain around 20-30 seeds, embedded in a sweet pulp – these seeds are the cocoa beans. For just 500 grams of cocoa beans, it takes a whole year’s crop, and as the pods don’t ripen at the same time, the trees need to be constantly monitored.

After being harvested, the ripe pods are cut open and the seeds – or beans – are removed. The cocoa beans are then fermented, dried, cleaned and packed into cocoa sacks, ready to be sold. Once sold, the beans are processed to create the much-loved chocolate product.

Where does it grow today?

Nowadays, the cocoa tree grows in regions all over the world. The Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana are the top producers of cacao- 70% of the world’s cocoa beans come from these West African countries. However, countries such as Indonesia, Peru, Venezuela and many countries in Central America and the Carribean also grow the bean.

At Hotel Chocolat, we source our cocoa beans from all around the world. From cultivating cocoa trees grown on the highest coastal mountain range in Colombia, to the Nkawkaw cocoa district in Ghana, we’ve searched far and wide to not only find the best tasting cocoa beans, full with nuanced, deep flavours, but we’ve also committed to an ‘Engaged Ethics’ programme.

By growing our cocoa in an ethical community, where the farmers can profit and learn from growing our beans, we’ve managed to help countless communities prosper. Indeed, on our St Lucia plantation we’ve guaranteed to buy famers’ cacao harvests at a rate higher than the market value, and in Ghana we’ve set up a Young Farmers Scheme, a Medical Centre, a Clean Water Project and more.

What are the different types of cocoa bean?

fresh cacao pods

The standard consensus among chocolate producers is that there are three different breeds of Theobroma Cacao, or cocoa tree. In fact, there are over ten varieties of cacao, but we are going to first look at the main three, all of which thrive in an equatorial region, with an altitude of up to 600 metres above sea level.

Criollo

Criollo in Spanish means “native to a region,” and these are the original cocoa plants that first grew in the Amazon basin. The cocoa from these trees are generally considered to be of the highest quality, and the cocoa they produce is described as fine and aromatic, with less of a classic chocolate flavour but rich in secondary flavour notes and aroma.

However, these plants only make up between 1-2% of the world’s production of cocoa. They grow natively in Central and South America but they have a low yield and are very sensitive to diseases and pests, which means they are not an ideal crop for large-scale cocoa production.

Forastero

Unlike Criollo, Forastero is a hardy breed that is favoured for large scale cocoa production because of its high yield and resistance to disease. Forastero means “stranger/foreigner” in Spanish, as the Spanish colonists thought the Criollo variety was native, and all other cocoa plants were foreign in comparison – Forastero trees were first seen in the Bahia region of Brazil.

Making up the bulk of world cocoa production, it produces a standard quality of cocoa bean that is often mixed with superior cocoa beans.

Trinitario

Different type of cocoa bean

Trinitario is a natural hybrid of Forastero and Criollo. The story goes that the Trinitario tree came into existence on the island of Trinidad after a hurricane almost completely destroyed the Criollo crops in 1727. Assuming all Criollo crops were dead, Forastero was planted in its place but a spontaneous hybrid began growing – this might be why Trinitario cocoa trees have the best of both previous varieties.

The tree is hardier than Criollo but produces cocoa beans with a deeper and more complex flavour than Forastero. Now grown across the world, Trinitario makes up around 5% of world production.

Are there really only three types of cocoa tree?

The short answer is – no. For each of the main varieties just mentioned, there are various sub-varieties as well, which can have very different qualities. For example, the Forastero variety of cocoa trees in Ecuador are known as Nacional, or Arriba Forastero (high Forastero) which are of a much higher quality than normal Forastero. In Cameroon, cocoa from the Trinitario tree is considered an ordinary or bulk cacao, rather than a high quality one.

This is because of the over-simplification of the use of Criollo (native) and Forastero (stranger). Criollo means native to your land, whereas Forastero means from somewhere else, which would result in different plants being called different things depending on where you live.

The first non-Spanish speaking agronomists realised this issue early on, but as the two words were in common usage, carried on referring to them as such. Although confusing, we normally use the shape and size of the cocoa pods to help us choose the type of tree; Criollo is long and yellow, Forastero is rounder and redder, and Trinitario can vary between the two.

Can you eat a raw cocoa bean?

raw cocoa pod

If you should ever be so lucky to stumble across a cocoa tree – Crillo, Forastero or Trinitario – and find a ripe cocoa pod, cracking its shell and consuming its seeds might not be the best idea. Cocoa beans in their purest form are incredibly crunchy and exceedingly bitter – if you’re searching for an authentic chocolate taste, we suggest you look elsewhere for your cocoa fix.

That being said, feel free to try the pulp encasing the cocoa bean – this milky-white substance varies widely in tastes, from tart and acidic, to sweet and tropical. So, whilst a raw cocoa bean might not have the nicest flavour, its fruit can actually be quite pleasant.

What exactly is raw cocoa?

The term ‘raw’ suggests that, to earn this title, a cocoa bean must be uncooked. The contemporary raw food movement classes foods as ‘raw’ if they haven’t been heated above 48C.

However, it is nearly impossible to keep below these temperatures when treating the cocoa bean. To make traditional chocolate, cocoa beans are fermented, dried, roasted, pressed and ground. The process is almost the same for raw cocoa beans, but the key distinction is that the beans skip the roasting phase.

During the grinding process, however, friction is created, meaning higher temperatures are a natural part of the process – if cocoa was kept below this limit, the high levels of tannins in cocoa wouldn’t be able to break down, resulting in an unpalatable product. This means that, whilst raw cocoa isn’t exposed to the high temperatures to that of roasted cocoa beans, some heat is involved in its production, so no processed cocoa is completely raw.

What can you use cocoa beans for apart from chocolate

Cocoa beans is famous for its role in the creation of chocolate, one of the UK’s favourite sweet snacks. But the cocoa shell, fruit and bean can all be used to make so much more than chocolate!

cacao pod and beans

Cocoa beans as money

Around 1400BC, the Mayans of central Mexico were the first to start harvesting and using cocoa, but not in the way we know it today. Although they ate cocoa, they also used cocoa beans as a barter currency, exchanging it for other goods such as food, clothes or livestock. It was prized highly by society, as it was very susceptible to crop failure and grew far from Mayan cities, Anthropologist David Freidel told Science Magazine.

Cocoa beans used in rituals and for medicinal purposes

We take our current term “chocolate” from the Nahuatl word “xocolatl”, which actually translates as “bitter water” in the Mayan language. They made a drink by crushing the cocoa beans, adding water, chilli peppers and other spices, and pouring it from one receptacle to another until a frothy foam formed on the top. It was used in rituals, and it was believed that the drink could alter the brain and open the mind to the spiritual realm. Both the Mayan and Aztec civilisations had cocoa festivals that involved offerings of cocoa beans and blood sacrifices to honour the cocoa god.

It was also drunk at weddings and births, as well as being used for its medicinal properties; it was purported to soothe a wide range of illnesses. Aztec warriors drank xocolatl before going into battle so that it would give them increased strength and courage, showing the multiple benefits they attributed to the cocoa bean.

Cocoa beans for beauty

Argan almond and cacao body butter

When cocoa beans are pressed, they release a fat called cocoa butter. This edible fat is also an emollient and is very good at hydrating the skin; this is why it is often used as a base for skin creams, just like in our Rabot 1745 body butters and moisturising lotions. We crush up cocoa shells, coconut shells and almond shells to use as an exfoliant in our Three-Shell Scrub, or use the cocoa butter as a soothing moisturiser in our Cocoa and Aloe Handwash.

For a home-made solution, mix cocoa powder with yoghurt for a facemask. Leave it on for 15 minutes; cocoa powder has caffeine, which can make your skin firmer and tauter, and its inflammatory properties can help to soothe puffy skin.

Cocoa beans in drinks

Cocoa beans can be roasted and crushed up into cocoa nibs, which you can use to make cocoa tea; a healthier and more aromatic drink than decadent hot chocolate.

When you crack open a cacao pod, each bean is surrounded by sweet, tart white fruit. According to the International Cocoa Organisation, this is often referred to as cocoa pulp, and can be collected and bottled to make a juice. If you boil and ferment the juice, it can even be made into brandy!

Cocoa shells for agriculture and farming

Cocoa shells are often seen as a waste product of the chocolate-making process, but in fact they can be dried and used in various different ways. As they have nutrients within them, they are an effective mulch and soil conditioner to help grow plants.

If the husk is sliced, dried, and minced, it can be pressed into pellets and sold as animal feed for poultry and pigs, meaning no part of the cacao tree goes to waste.

At Hotel Chocolat, we take some of the byproducts from making our chocolate on our St Lucia plantation and use them our beauty products, making the most of the cocoa bean’s beneficial properties. This forms part of our Engaged Ethics programme, where we try to be as sustainable as possible, wherever and however we can.

The cocoa plant is the starting point of any great chocolate, and for us at Hotel Chocolat, understanding where it comes from and how it grows is paramount to developing the best chocolate we can. That’s why you’ll find us creating revolutionary new mixes like the Supermilk chocolate, or highlighting the nuanced tastes of individual strains of cocoa bean with our Single Origin chocolate.