The Cocoa Trees

Cocoa trees can grow as tall as fifty feet although they are usually kept pruned and kept much shorter to make it easier to harvest the cocoa bean pods.

The trees reach their maximum productivity when they are thirty to forty years old. A cocoa tree will live approximately sixty years.
The bean pods grow directly off the trunk and thicker main branches of the tree, not off the leaves as many people think. This is because the pods are heavy. The fragile leaf systems of the tree couldn't support the weight of the pods.

A cocoa tree can have up to one hundred thousand baby-pink and white blossoms every year. The blossoms have no scent. The leaves of the tree vary in color. Young leaves can be pale green, lavender, or purple in color. Mature leaves are dark green. The pods start out green but turn yellow or red when ripe, depending on what type of cocoa tree it is.

There are two main types of cocoa trees. There is the native Central American cocoa tree called the Criollo, and a type called Forastero which is grown mostly in West Africa and Brazil. The Forastero trees produces approximately ninety percent of the world's crop of cocoa beans. The beans from the Criollo are more expensive and are used in high quality chocolate.

Cocoa trees like shade so other tropical trees such as banana trees are planted right next to the cocoa trees. These larger trees that provide shade for the cocoa trees are often called "cocoa mother trees."

The cocoa trees start producing cocoa bean pods after three or four years and continue producing pods for approximately another thirty five years. In most areas, harvesting of the cocoa pods is done twice a year. Ripe pods are approximately eight inches long and three to four inches in diameter. The ripe pods are cut by hand in order to protect the younger pods that are still ripening.

After the pods are cut from the tree they are taken to a fermenting area. There the pods are split open to reveal the pulp and cocoa beans. There are up to forty cocoa beans in every pod. The pulp and beans are scooped out of the pod, placed on banana leaves that are usually laid on the ground (fermenting is also done in baskets and also in large sloping boxes), and then covered with more banana leaves. The pods are left to ferment for several days.

As the beans ferment they lose some of their bitterness and change from a lavender or white color to brown. The fermenting process is important because that is when the beans take on the chocolate taste we are accustomed to. During the fermenting process the beans lose some of their moisture. By the time the beans are ready to be packed in bags for shipping, the moisture content in them is somewhere around five to seven percent.

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