What are the Origins of Cocoa?

Question: What are the Origins of Cocoa?

There are several ways to answer this question. Historically, while the subject is still debated, most scientists now believe that the cocoa tree originated in South America in two places: the Amazon Basin and in Venezuela. Gradually, cocoa trees spread into Mexico and other Central American countries; only more recently has cocoa begun to be cultivated in as many regions of the world as we’re used to seeing.

Technically, the origin of cocoa is the cocoa pod, also called cacao pod or cabosse de cacao, the pod-like fruit of the cocoa tree. These pods grow on the trunk of the cacao tree, as well as its main branches. The tree bears pods all year long, but harvesting is generally seasonal. The pods come in multiple types, because cocoa trees cross-pollinate easily. Typically, they are green, yellow, or maroon in color; their sizes and shapes can vary widely. It takes knowledge and experience to determine when the pods are ripe for harvest, and harvesting must be done with care, as the tree is delicate. Cocoa pods do not fall from the tree; they must be carefully cut from the tree one at a time.

Inside the cocoa pods grow cocoa beans, and it is these beans that are the origin of cocoa. In a complex, multi-step process, the pods are harvested and split open. The interior mass of pulp and beans is then fermented, during which time the pulp liquefies and drains off by itself (it takes knowledge and experience to know when fermentation is complete). The still-damp beans are then dried, classified, bagged, and stored or transported to factories where chocolate is made. But if we’re talking about the origins of cocoa, how do factories come into play?

At the factories, the cocoa beans are cleaned and roasted; like fermentation, roasting is a crucial step in flavor development of the beans. The hulls, officially called “shells”, are removed to leave the cocoa nibs, the interior “meat” of the bean. The nibs are ground in high-speed mills to produce chocolate liquor, a non-alcoholic, thick, gritty paste composed chiefly of cocoa butter and cocoa solids. The chocolate liquor is then subjected to great pressure, which allows the separation of more cocoa butter from the cocoa solids. The resulting material (there is still some cocoa butter left in it) is unsweetened cocoa powder, the type used for baking and making hot cocoa.

The exact origins of cocoa are shrouded in mystery, but it’s a mystery for which we can all be grateful.