Cacao Processing: From the Farm to Each of Your Favorite Cacao Products

Cacao Processing: From the Farm to Each of Your Favorite Cacao Products

Sep 25th 2022

How cacao is made into cacao nibs, cacao liquor, cacao butter, and cacao powder

All cocoa products come from the same place: The cacao tree, also known as Theobroma Cacao. All the cocoa products you can think of can be traced back to this plant and start with the harvesting process. There are three different main varieties, and many subvarieties and hybrids derived from these. But that will be a subject for another article.

But one of the most important aspects as a chocolate maker, bakery, or a brewery owner, you must know there are many different cacao products on the market, and not all of them are sustainably or ethically sourced. That's why it's important to always do your research, understand the origin, and know how those cacao products are made. That way, you can confidently sell your products to your consumers, knowing that you're making the responsible choice.

Whether you need cocoa butter or cocoa nibs, all products start with the same cocoa beans. These products go through a process, avoiding any type of harmful chemicals, that we're here to walk you through.

Here's what you need to know:

Harvesting

The production of our products starts with harvesting cacao first.

First is the origin. Most of our cacao comes from Ecuador, the land of our ancestors. Being a family with five generations in cacao, we at CocoaSupply, are the first generation to make the bridge between the origin and the international markets, such as US/Canada and Europe.

Cacao pods are ready to harvest around six months after they bloom. The blooming process can last anywhere from 10 to 14 days between May and July and October to March. The best way to know if a cocoa pod is ripe is by scraping off a piece of the husk. If the husk is still green, it’s not ready for harvest. You’ll want to look for a yellow or white color to know if the plant is ready.

If the pod is ready, it's carefully removed from the tree with a knife (machete). You want to avoid damaging the flower cushions as much as you can.

If the cocoa beans are clear for harvesting, the cocoa beans then go through the cleaning process. During the cleaning process, the inside of the cocoa bean is thoroughly cleaned and stored away to ensure there’s no contamination.

Fermentation

The first part of developing the chocolate flavor you know and love is through fermentation. The fermentation process can take up to ten days. During the process, some of the pulp is drained, then the first anaerobic process starts. It is an exothermic process so that the beans can become quite hot. The heat improves and accelerates the fermentation process, so it is important to keep the beans isolated (piled under a black plastic cover or in wooden boxes), and the complex flavor begins to take shape. The second stage is aerobic fermentation, in which some of the acidity is created. The more the beans are mixed (to receive oxygen), the more will have the typical cacao acidity.

All beans are fermented differently. For example, Our Ecuadorian Nacional beans need less fermentation time than other hybrids. This process helps enhance the intrinsic flavor and aroma. Please note that the fermentation process and handling of the beans are almost as important (some would say even more important!) than the bean variety itself.

Drying

Once the fermentation process is complete, the cocoa beans need to be dried out. Typically, 7% is considered an appropriate moisture content. There are several ways to dry out cocoa beans, but the recommended way is under the sun. Some of the fermentation is still in process, so this will allow it to be complete by the time they are dry.

Many smallholders lay the beans out either on concrete patios or on raised wooden platforms to allow the sun to dry out the cocoa beans. The length of the process depends on the weather and where they're being dried. Usually, the beans will be dry in less than a week.

Roasting

The roasting process is the second part that helps develop the distinct chocolate flavor that varies by product. The roasting process is different depending on the manufacturer.

The roasting process is similar to the coffee roasting process. However, cacao beans typically need to be handled gently and at a lower and slower temperature. Depending on the manufacturer, the roasting process can last anywhere from 15-90 minutes.. Many of these factors depend on the flavor target and may vary.

Cracking/Winnowing

The cracking phase is when the shell is separated from the mean of the bean. This phase is also often referred to as winnowing, fanning, or hulling. After cracking the beans, you'll have the kernel and the shell. The dehulled bean is the  cacao nib, and the shell is usually called the husk.

The cacao husks don't have much nutritional value, but it is a fantastic all-natural fertilizer. It breaks down slowly and will not disappear in the soil. Plus, your garden will always smell like freshly roasted cacao beans! Additionally, some are using the husk as a flavoring agent in teas and beers, but be aware it needs to be further processed to avoid high bacteria count and other impurities.

Grinding the nibs into liquor

This is the process of grinding the cocoa nibs into a paste. Cocoa nibs are coarse with a nutty texture. Fiber encases the cacao butter in cellular pockets so that even though it is about 50% cacao fat, it doesn’t melt when heated; it roasts like a nut. So the grinding breaks these pockets and creates a paste that, at room temperature, is solid, but when heated, it melts and becomes liquid. Thus, the name  cacao liquor was born, as it is liquid cacao (no alcohol, for those of you wondering!). This paste is known as cacao liquor, paste, mass, or even unsweetened chocolate or baker’s chocolate.

Cacao Alkalization

Cacao powder or liquor without any additional ingredient is called natural cacao powder.  Alkalized powder, on the other had has an additional process. This is an optional phase and the only one that involves another ingredient: Potassium Carbonate, a salt, such as in baking soda. It is the process that helps to modify the flavor and color of the cocoa powders and liquors to bring the pH up so as to make it less acid and also help with dispersibility. It’s also referred to as a Dutching (because it was invented in the Netherlands). It is basically adding a very small amount (about 2%) of alkali to the liquor (some do it to the powder itself) and mixing it very well, so it reacts with all the cacao.

Cacao Liquor pressing into butter

Hot cacao liquor is pumped into a hydraulic press. This is when the liquor is pressed down, and all of the butter is pressed out from the liquor at very high pressure. The press lets the butter flow through its filters, and all the remaining cacao solids that are left in the plates form a large compact disc of defatted liquor called cacao presscake (it looks like those makeup pressed powders, just much, much, much larger - 24 in diameter). Cacao cakes will later be broken and milled into cacao powder.

Cocoa Milling

Before the cocoa cake can go through the milling process, it needs to be cooled down. This is achieved through a few different steps. However, it’s important to note that this milling process doesn’t determine the particle size of the powder. The particle size of the powder depends on the initial grinding of the nibs into cacao liquor. Mills do not change the particle shape. They only break up agglomerates.

Natural Cacao butter to deodorized butter

The cacao butter coming out of the hydraulic presses is called  natural cacao butter. As it comes from premium cacao beans without the husks and other impurities and NOT extracted with solvents like hexane (yuck!), this butter is called Pure Prime Pressed. All our cacao butters are pure prime pressed, which is the highest quality standard for cacao butter.

After that, it is either packed in boxes or cooled into pieces and then also packed. But some customers need a butter that doesn’t have the strong smell of cacao and chocolate.

For these, the butter is segregated into a separate tank. It is then passed through a deodorizer that basically sends steam (water vapor) countercurrent of the thin layer of falling liquid butter, thus absorbing most of its aroma without damaging the butter itself. This is the most natural and minimally intrusive way of  deodorizing cacao butter. It is NOT bleached or refined, which would be a chemical process and would leave the butter whiter and completely odorless. But our deodorized butter maintains all the natural characteristics of natural butter, and the flavor and odor are barely noticeable.

Packed and ready to go!

At Cocoa Supply, we have all the previous products to choose from. We make sure our packages are easy to handle and can be directly delivered to you without minimum order quantities and straight to your door.

High-quality and ethically sourced cacao beans and other products can make all the difference for taste, quality, and peace of mind. If you’re looking for sustainably sourced cocoa products, you’ve come to the right place.