Have you ever wondered where chocolate comes from? Did you know it starts out as a fruit that grows in football-shaped pods on Theobroma (cacao) trees in tropical areas? Cacao trees need protection from wind and rain and flourish under the protection of other, taller trees found in rainforests. The bulk of cacao is grown and cultivated in West African countries, with about 75 percent of the world’s cacao beans coming from this area. Central and South America, southeastern Asia and the Caribbean make up the other 25 percent.
Harvesting cacao pods is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process. When cacao pods are ripe, farm workers cut them off the tree by hand, not with a machine. The beans that are found inside these pods are fermented, roasted and dried so that they can be shipped to chocolate makers around the world who grind them and use them to make delectable chocolate treats.
Keep reading to learn more about how to tell when cacao pods are ripe, how long it takes a cacao pod to reach maturity and how they are harvested.
How Do You Harvest Cacao Pods?
Do you know how to harvest cacao pods? Like any fruit, cacao pods are harvested as soon as they ripen. (There’s more about how to tell when cacao pods are ripe below.)
To harvest cacao pods, the cacao farmer makes a clean cut through the stalk of the ripe pod with a well-sharpened blade like that of a machete. Pods can grow along the trunk of the tree or on the branches. If the pod is high on the tree, a tool with a handle on the end of a long pole (like a pruning hook) can be used to reach it. The goal is to cut the stalk cleanly without damaging the branch it’s growing on, the unripe cacao pods around it, or the blossoms that will produce new cacao pods.
After the ripe cacao pods are removed from the tree, they are collected in a basket or bag and taken to a central location for post-harvest processing. Within a week to ten days, the pods will be opened to extract the pulp surrounding the cacao beans along with the beans themselves. The faster processing can begin, the better the flavor of the cacao beans will be. If the pods are opened near the planting area, the husks can be discarded and distributed in the field so that the nutrients are returned to the soil.
How Long Can It Take for Cacao Pods to Be Ready to Be Harvested?
As with any agricultural endeavor, growing and cultivating cacao is a practice that takes patience. When temperatures are warm enough, a cacao tree will produce fruit all year round, which is only one of the reasons cacao trees are grown in tropical areas. It takes about three years for a cacao tree to become mature enough to produce fruit.
Cacao pods start as flowers that grow on the trunk and branches of the Theobroma tree. After the flower forms and the pod begins to develop, it takes about 4 to 6 months for the cacao pod to reach maturity.
How Do You Know When a Cacao Pod Is Ripe?
Because cacao pods don’t ripen at the same time—even when they’re on the same tree—knowing when the pods are ripe can be a challenge.
The optimal point of ripeness is determined by the color of the pod. Cacao pods come in a variety of colors like green, red, orange or purple, as well as multiple sizes and shapes based on the cacao variety. An experienced cacao farmer can know when the cacao pod is ready to be picked by watching the cacao pod change colors. And while this is a good test and one that’s easy to perform, it is not quite as easy as it sounds.
Four main types of cacao beans are used in making chocolate, and each produces cacao pods and beans of different colors:
- Forastero, which has a rounder pod than the criollo with shallower ridges. The pod has a yellow to deep orange color with purple beans.
- Trinitario, with a pod that turns red, yellow, orange or purple at maturity. The beans are usually a dark purple.
- Criollo, which has red, yellow or sometimes blue pods that are elongated and ridged and cacao beans that are white to pale pink.
- Nacional, with pods that are typically yellow or orange and cacao beans that are white.
To ensure that the cacao pod is ripe, another way to test it is to shake the cacao pod. The cacao beans are attached to the inside of the husk until the pod is ripe, so the cacao farmer won’t notice any movement if the pod is unripe. If the beans move around inside when the pod is shaken gently, the fruit is most likely ripe. A sloshing sound means the cacao beans have liquified and the fruit is too ripe—it will need to be discarded.
Another sound test can be performed by tapping on the cacao pod. If the pod is ripe, it will make a hollow sound. This indicates that the cacao beans have pulled away from the husk and are lying loosely inside the pod.
Yet another way cacao farmers check for the ripeness of a cocoa pod is to scrape off a tiny piece of the husk with their fingernail until they can see the inner skin of the husk. If it’s still green, the fruit is not ripe. If it has turned yellow or white, it is probably ripe. If the cacao isn’t ripe yet, the flavors and aromas won’t be fully developed, and an overripe cacao pod will start to germinate.
How Often Are Cacao Pods Harvested?
How often do you harvest cacao pods? Since cacao pods can ripen at any time—and at all different times of the year—cacao harvesting occurs year round. However, cacao farmers typically harvest the majority of their cacao pods twice a year—once during a main harvest and then again during a smaller one with lower yields.
These two big harvests usually occur about six months apart. The smaller harvest happens between May and July and lasts for about 10 to 14 days. The main harvesting season starts around October and ends in March. Pods are ready for harvesting every three to four weeks.
After the pods have been picked, they are graded for quality and placed into piles. They are then split open with a machete or a wooden club, and the cacao beans and pulp are scooped out and placed on a mat or banana leaves and covered or put into a box with a lid.
Each pod contains about 30 to 50 cacao beans surrounded by a sweet pulp, and each Theobroma tree produces around 1,000 beans each year, which is enough to make about 2 pounds of chocolate.
Each month at Cococlectic, we feature a different American small-batch bean-to-bar chocolate maker who is passionate about producing their chocolate from scratch using only three main ingredients: cacao beans, sugar and cocoa butter.
The chocolates sold at Cococlectic are vegan, non-GMO, fair trade and ethically sourced. They do not contain any soy, gluten, dairy or nut, but they may be produced in a facility that handles these ingredients.
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