Welcome to the third part of our series explaining cocoa! The previous posts in this series explained the history of cacao and cocoa. This post will explain how the contemporary cocoa industry works.
The World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) describes seven steps in the farmer-to-consumer cocoa supply chain. Whilst these steps contain a multitude of other steps, they are a useful framework to begin understanding how a cocoa bean becomes a chocolate bar.
The steps outlined are:
- Growing Cocoa Trees
- Harvesting and Pod Breaking
- Fermentation and Drying
- Sourcing and Marketing
- Processing: Roasting, and Grinding
- Manufacturing and Distribution
Each of these steps is remarkably complicated, and there is a wide variation of practices contained under each heading. This post is a very general summary of each step because any more information would make this post extremely long! That said, if you think there is anything egregious missing, please let us know!
Growing Cocoa Trees
Theobroma cacoa is the scientific name for cocoa trees. They grow in hot, humid climates. The largest cocoa-growing nations are, in order, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Ecuador, Cameroon, Nigeria, Brazil, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. These countries comprise 90% of global cocoa production.
Cocoa trees become productive after four years and remain productive until they are 25 – 30 years old. There are three main varieties of cocoa trees: Criollo, Trinitario, and Forastero. Forastero is most used in mass-market cocoa production. While the taste is not as refined or interesting as Criollo or Trinitario variations, it is hardier and has greater yields.
Harvesting and Pod Breaking
Cocoa pods grow out of the trunk of the cocoa tree and are suitable for harvest 3-4 weeks after appearing. Most of the cocoa pod is not used in cocoa production. Cocoa beans are contained within the hard shell of the pod and must be extracted. This usually happens at the edge of cocoa farms 7 – 10 days after harvesting and is often conducted using machetes.
Other tools have been developed to make this process faster and safer such as pele bongos, but machete use remains prevalent due to ease of access, cost, and cultural familiarity with machetes as tools.
Fermentation and Drying
Cocoa bean fermentation removes cocoa pulp and stimulates the development of colour and flavour in fermented cocoa beans.
After beans have been harvested from cocoa pods, they are stored in boxes or simply heaped in piles. Left to heat up in the sun, the pulp ferments the bean within. The fermentation process lasts 3 – 7 days and is vital for developing the taste of chocolate.
After fermentation, cocoa beans are laid out on mats and dried in the sun for five days. Drying cocoa beans stops the fermentation process. Beans are raked and turned over to ensure even drying.
Fermentation and drying are key for the development of cocoa flavour and are part of the art of chocolate production. Too long or too short a time fermenting, and too quick or slow drying beans can result in acidic or unpleasant flavours.
Sourcing and Marketing
When drying is complete, cocoa beans are cleaned, weighed, and packed. It is at this point that farmers sell their beans, typically to an aggregator who collects beans from multiple farms. Aggregators then usually transport beans to exporters, who sort beans according to grade and transport them to warehouses.
Some small-scale and higher-end chocolate companies have their cocoa shipped to them directly from producers. In general, the more direct cocoa sourcing is, the higher the traceability, the greater the efficiency, and, generally, the better the conditions for cocoa farmers. Larger chocolate companies looking to buy sustainable cocoa purchase cocoa that has been certified sustainable according to a standard. There are different kinds of traceability, which will be explored in a later post in this series.
Packing and Shipment
The cocoa beans are then packed onto container ships in 20ft (5.9m) or 40ft (12.03m) containers – the two most common container sizes globally. Within the containers, cocoa is stored either in bulk or, more commonly, in jute sacks. ETG also ships cocoa beans in plastic bags when coming from Ecuador.
Typically, cocoa is either shipped to a warehouse from which a chocolate client will collect the volumes or to the port, where they will be sent abroad for processing.
Processing: Roasting and Grinding
During processing, cocoa beans are roasted and ground. Historically, this only occurred in cocoa-importing countries, but cocoa processing in cocoa-origin countries has been increasing in recent years.
Roasting adds around and flavours to cocoa beans. The beans can either be roasted in their shell, or the shell can be removed prior to roasting, roasting only the nib. Cocoa nib shells are often sold for use in fertilisers. Once the nibs are roasted and shelled, they are ground under high temperatures to create a slurry known as cocoa liquor. This can either be used directly in chocolate manufacturing, or pressed through a sieve, at which point cocoa butter is extracted for use in chocolate manufacturing.
The solids left behind during the sieving process are called cocoa cake. Cocoa cake is, depending on fat content, either broken into smaller pieces and sold on cocoa markets or ground to a fine powder.
Manufacturing and Distribution
At this stage, the cocoa liquor and cocoa butter are mixed and often have other ingredients like sugar, milk, and emulsifiers added to the mixture. The mixture passes through a series of rollers and is set in moulds, ready for consumption or distribution to bakers.
A wrapper is slapped on these bad boys and they are sent to the supermarket! This stage is where you will most likely see the chocolate bars you know and love, available anywhere and ready for consumption.
Transforming cocoa from a strange bumpy pod to an individually wrapped treat is a long and complicated process involving hundreds of individuals and thousands of kilometres. Cocoa sustainability projects typically focus on cocoa growing activities, but not all sustainability projects are made equally. To design an effective sustainability project for cocoa farming households, it is important to understand the lived realities of farmers themselves. In the next post in this series, we will examine what it is like to grow cocoa for a living in order to better understand the origins of this strange fruit.
 Cocoa pulp is usually discarded after this process. However, cocoa pulp is rich in flavour and vitamins. Beyond Beans’ partner, Kumasi Drinks, has been leading projects to create a tasty juice from cocoa pulp. After extracting the juice, cocoa beans are still able to be converted into chocolate. This is not only an excellent contributor towards a circular economy but is an effective tool for increasing farmer incomes. You can read more about cocoa juice projects here.
 Due to the structure of cocoa production in cocoa origin countries, most of the benefit of cocoa production is retained by large cocoa processors, who house their operations in special tax-exempt zones near ports, thereby limiting the economic usefulness of these practices to cocoa origin countries.
Read the first blog in this series here.
Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Medford, Ma, Polity Press, 2018.
Swiss Platform for Sustainable Cocoa. “Cocoa Facts and Figures – Kakaoplattform.” Www.kakaoplattform.ch, 2023, http://www.kakaoplattform.ch/about-cocoa/cocoa-facts-and-figures. Accessed 5 Sept. 2023.
World Cocoa Foundation. “History of Cocoa | World Cocoa Foundation.” World Cocoa Foundation, 15 Aug. 2018, http://www.worldcocoafoundation.org/blog/history-of-cocoa/. Accessed 24 July 2023.
—. “The Cocoa Supply Chain: From Farmer to Consumer.” World Cocoa Foundation, 2022, http://www.worldcocoafoundation.org/about-wcf/the-cocoa-supply-chain-from-farmer-to-consumer/.