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What's Behind the Best Chocolate Bars? Great Cacao.

Tue, Sep 08, 20

By Sofía González B.

Theobroma cacao, also known as cacao, is the scientific name of the fruit used to make cocoa, chocolate and other products. Cacao’s bitter and distinctive flavor is determined throughout a complex process that involves a wide range of chemical reactions. When looking for the best chocolate bars, it is important to understand how cacao is harvested and processed.

Costa Rica’s geographical location, climate and soil play a relevant role in the quality of the fruit harvested. As a matter of fact, the acidity, humidity and composition of cacao beans produced in this country is highly coveted for chocolate production. Because of its flavor, Costa Rican cacao is regarded by chocolate producers as some of the best in the world. 

Cacao is a fruit of great complexity, from every angle you look at it. Understanding how chocolate is made is, to a point, also understanding how cacao is produced and why it has played such an important role in a country like Costa Rica. 

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The cacao fruit has a tough, yet colorful, exterior.

Understanding the Fruit to Make Artisan Food

The G&E Chocolate Adventure farm is close to downtown Limón, in a place called Santa Rosa. George Grant, the owner of the farm, states that the property has been around for 78 years. “Cacao’s productive lifespan is short but the plant lasts longer. It’ll typically produce for around 15 years, yet continues around for decades.” 

There are three main varieties: the trinitarian, the criolla and the forastera or foreign variety. “You can tell the difference by how they look. There are cocoa beans that turn red when ripe. There are others that a tinge of yellow indicates that the fruit is rotten”, says Grant. Each variety has a different level of maturity, sweetness and resistance.

The criollo variety is available throughout the entire Mesoamerican region, from México to Venezuela. It offers little bitterness and best flavor, but it’s also most susceptible to pests. The foreign variety, on the other hand, is commonly grown in Africa but comes from the Amazonian basin. It accounts for 80% of the total cacao production worldwide. 

George Soriano, from Sibú Chocolate, explains that their company only works with the Trinitarian variety. “Out of the three, this variety offers a good balance between flavor and productivity.” It’s a hybrid between the criolla and the forastera, and truly combines the best characteristics of both.

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Cacao seeds, collected and ready to be placed in the laurel boxes.

But that’s not where it stops. Experts have found eleven different classifications of cacao. “Each classification has different subcategories, and with each subcategory, you notice changes in the morphology of the fruit”, says Soriano.

Like Chocolate, Like Wine

The cacao fruit has a hard exterior, yet inside it contains around 30 to 40 seeds. Once harvested, the farmer is in charge of the handling. Grant says: “Cacao is very slimy. That’s why it is placed to ferment in wooden boxes, usually made of laurel. During this process, which lasts from 5 to 6 days, the sweetness of the cocoa produces alcohol.”

In chocolate-making, over-fermentation or under-fermentation can be a problem. “If it is not fermented correctly or over-fermented, there is no way to go back”, says Soriano. “If it is under-fermented, you are going to end up with a very astringent chocolate. It is a very exact process. It is not complicated, but it is very precise.”

This process, if done correctly, is the one responsible for giving cacao it’s bitterness. That’s why turning it twice a day and checking the temperature is very important. In the fermentation phase, cacao requires a person to measure the conditions and adapt them. If cacao doesn't reach the desired temperatures, the seeds rot. 

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Dried cacao seeds.

The drying process halts the fermentation, but it is done quickly enough so that this cocoa does not mold. However, if it dries too fast, the outer shell is sealed and all the acids produced during fermentation are locked inside the bean. This, again, is very important for flavor. Some acidity is pleasant, and even necessary, for chocolate. But too much acidity can become unpleasant. 

“Cocoa is very similar to wine”, says Soriano. “One can have excellent grapes, but if one doesn't know how to do the fermentation well, you won’t have good wine. The same applies with chocolate. Every single step must be done carefully and well.”

From the Best Chocolate Bars to Skin Care

G&E Chocolate Adventure focuses directly on cacao and its derivatives, such as cocoa butter, cocoa oil, cacao beans and powdered cocoa. “Once you have the roasted cacao bean, you have two options. Because the cacao contains 54% fat, you can get cocoa butter by pressing it. This fat is rich enough to fry an egg in it! The remainder becomes cocoa powder”, says Grant.

He continues, “Cocoa solids and cocoa butter are the two main components from the beans that go into making the chocolate we enjoy today.  The butter is very convenient for the skin, especially to treat spots and dryness. From the cocoa powder, we pack it and use it as it is.”

Making fine chocolate is a different story, says George Grant. “We have to remove the shell and grind it. When it's ground, you create a thick paste known as cocoa liquor. To create a soft paste, cacao beans are placed in a machine called a ‘conchadora’ and ground for 48 hours.”

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More Than Chocolate

Although chocolate is loved by many, it is not the only relevant product. The many uses of cacao seeds, from skin care to beverages, explain why it has been such an important fruit in Latin America, specifically Mesoamerica. In Mayan cosmology, for instance, people were made from cacao seeds.

In colonial Costa Rica, before introducing coins, cacao seeds were used as currency. And even when cacao beans were substituted for minted coins, it’s importance didn’t dwindle. Up until mid-twentieth century, cacao was an important crop for the Caribbean region of the country. 

Although diseases affected its productions during the seventies and eighties, it’s production and relevance has spiked once again, mainly due to the work of institutions such as CATIE and of small producers and chocolatiers. Cacao production not only helps the economical sustainability of a region, it also helps the environment through the creation of biological corridors.

So, in summary, cacao is much more than chocolate. It is, going back to ancient Mayan myths, a fruit of life.


Pictures courtesy of George Grant.


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