The cocoa tree (Latin Theobroma Cacao, meaning literally “food of the gods“) only grows in humid, tropical climates, with cultivation limited to regions between 20° north and 20° south of the equator.
A delicate tree
Cocoa is a delicate and demanding tree requiring temperatures between approximately 24-26° celsius, abundant and regular rains, and soil rich in potassium, nitrogen and trace elements. Young cocoa trees are particularly delicate, vulnerable to direct sun light and wind, having to develop initially in the protective shade of other trees, affectionately referred to as “mothers of cocoa“ (including banana trees, cotton plants, rubber trees, etc.). It grows to about 5 meters within three years, and reaches 8 meters at about ten years. A tree lives normally for 30-40 years. In most plantations, new cocoa trees replace older trees at 25 year intervals. The cocoa tree produces millions of flowers throughout the year. In the wild, only midges of the Forcipomyia genus carry out pollination. Only 5-10% of the flowers are fertilized, and five months is required for a fruit, in the form of a pod, to appear.
A ripe pod can weigh, according to the variety, between 200g and 1kg, and contains 30-40 seeds in a cluster, surrounded by a white gel (or “mucilage “), which is greatly prized by monkeys and parrots. Before ripening, the pod is green or red-violet. It becomes yellow or orange upon maturity and measures approximately 20cm in length, and 7-9cm in width.
The cocoa tree is very sensitive to insects and disease. Among the diseases caused by fungus, are witches broom (particularly in South America) and brown pod rot (particularly in Africa). Some insects can cause younger trees to wither. In South East Asia, the “cocoa pod borer” insect causes considerable damage. All told, illnesses and parasites can destroy 20-30% of total production. Pods are still harvested with a machete to this day. After extraction from the pod, the seeds are fermented and then sun-dried. A producing tree can deliver on average 0.5-2kg of dried seeds per year. In producer countries, plantations generally have a density of 1,000-1,200 cocoa trees per hectare. A cocoa plantation is expected to be profitable after approximately 6 years. A plantation’s economic life is considered to last 15-40 years.
The Three Grand Varieties of Cocoa
Today, three distinct varieties of cocoa are recognized: Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario.
-Criollo (means “Creole” in Spanish) This variety is the original cocoa tree, the earliest plantations recorded in the 17th century. Originally grown in Venezuela, Central America and Mexico, it is now also in Ecuador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Sri Lanka. Known as the “prince of cocoas“, Criollo has a reputation for fineness and an intense aroma. It is reserved for use in only the very finest chocolates.
-Forastero (means “foreigner” in Spanish) This group is very diverse and is more resistant to disease and pests and therefore more productive than the Criollo. Originally grown in the high Amazon region, it is now the predominant variety cultivated in Africa and, consequently accounts for nearly 80% of world production.
-Trinitario (“from Trinidad”) This species of cocoa tree is a natural biological hybrid between the Criollo and the Forestario, exported from Trinidad where the Spanish colonists had established plantations. The quality of its cocoa varies with strong cocoa butter content. It represents 15% of world production.
The Most Desired Cocoas and the Countries that produce them
All of the great chocolate makers and famous chocolate houses use cocoas which are called fine or aromatic of Criollo, Trinitario (plus Nacional from Ecuador). These cocoas are distinguished by their individual flavors: fruity, woody and floral. They are also recognized by their color and their structural and agronomic characteristics.
The ICCO (International Cocoa Organization) established a list of producer countries for fine and aromatic cocoas in 1993. There are 17 producer countries in all, 9 of which are considered exclusive producers of fine and aromatic grades.
It is planned that the different origins and species of cocoa tree will soon be recognized with an “Appellation d’Origine Controllé” (Controlled Origin Name) label, in the same way that good wine is identified. This development coincides with an increasing demand for quality chocolate, recognized for distinct flavors. The production of fine and aromatic cocoas represents only 4% of the world market. Domination of the market by production of ordinary cocoas emerged in less than a century as a result of increasing demand for mass produced chocolate and the corresponding advances in the technology and means for producing larger and larger quantities, often at the expense of quality.