Cultivation, harvesting & transportation

Short video

The cacao tree

Cacao trees grow best within the tropical belt between 15 degrees north and 15 degrees south of the equator. The trees require optimal vegetative conditions, including rich soil, in order to grow. A consistent climate with temperatures averaging 25° C and high rainfall areas with high humidity are also necessary. Ideal regions for the cultivation of cacao trees can be found near mountains, coasts and on islands. Despite their preference for warmth, cacao trees shun direct sunlight and have evolved to be an understory rainforest tree requiring a canopy. They are often cultivated under such trees as the plantain, banana, rubber and mango.

Noble, fine flavour cacao

Fine flavour cacao (Criollo and Trinitario): The exclusive, aromatic Criollo and Trinitario cacao beans represent less than 10 % of all cacao beans grown. It is almost impossible to find pure Criollo, as this sort has been crossed with the resistent Forastero to aid in the battle against disease. As a result, a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero, called Trinitario, has been cultivated on the island of Trinidad during the 18th century. Trinitario contributed greatly to the restocking of cacao trees on Trinidad after the industry was largely incapacitated through a number of epidemics that swept through the cacao trees.

Commodity cacao (Forastero): The most common and wide spread cacao type, Forastero, is known as a commodity cacao. This hardy, high yield cacao is mostly grown in Africa and is used for the mass production of industrial chocolate. This typical, bland tasting cacao can sometimes surprisingly reveal strong, aromatic flavours.

Harvest

In most countries, the cacao fruit, known as a “pod”, is ripe at the end of the wet season and is ready to be harvested. The farmer uses a sharp knife to carefully cut the ripe fruit from the tree. He pays particular attention not to damage the trunk, flowers or any unripe fruit. The pod is then opened using a machete. In African countries a wooden stick may also be used.

Fermentation

The pulp and the seeds are then removed, placed in large wooden boxes and covered with large leaves, such as banana leaves. Due to the high sugar content of the pulp, a fermentation process begins, resulting in a rise in temperature. Acetic acid is produced, which evaporates with time. During the fermentation process, the cacao beans must be regularly mixed to ensure a constant fermentation and sufficient aeration. This can take up to five days.

Sun-drying

Once the fermentation process is complete, the farmer lays the cacao beans under the tropical sun to dry. A wooden rake is used to regularly mix the beans. The flavour of the beans is further developed during the drying process, which can take between five and six days. The moisture content of the cacao bean must be less than 6.5 % to prevent mould growth. This is controlled by cutting a sample of 100 random beans horizontally.

Calibration

The cacao beans are then sorted into size and quality. This is accomplished by hand or by using simple selecting appliances that filter out the large and small cacao beans. It is important during the roasting process to have similar sized beans to ensure a uniform roasting. The sorted cacao beans are filled into jute bags or special plasticised, air-permeable fabric bags, weighed and then sewn shut. The cacao beans are now ready to be transported in containers on ships to Europe.

Transportation

Transportation of the cacao beans presents its own challenges. It is important that no insects infest the cacao beans. The containers need to be sufficiently ventilated to prohibit the formation of mould due to the large temperature variability encountered during such long sea journeys. These measures, which directly affect the quality of the cacao beans and later the quality of the chocolate, require additional investments to ensure a premium product. Usually, the cacao beans purchased by Felchlin Switzerland arrive in Basel per boat via Rotterdam. The cacao beans are then stored under ideal conditions in rented storage rooms in Basel until needed.