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From Bug to Bean to Bar

Megan Wood learns the business of cacao.

The Bug

One doesn’t care to think about bugs while savoring a piece of chocolate. Scientists are still figuring out how wild cacao trees reproduce, but evidence shows that the millimeter-long midge fly is one of the only insects small enough to work its way through the complicated cacao flower for pollination. In Belize, where farmers allow organic matter to pile up in their small orchards, the midge fly is able to thrive and reproduce, which leads to more and healthier cacao pods than in a large, industrial orchard where the organic matter is cleared away.

The Bean

Cacao trees produce cacao pods year-round. The cacao pod resembles a melon-shaped coconut with an interior pulp that holds about 40 beans covered in a sweet, white mucilage, which is enjoyed by cacao farmers who suck the honey-flavored pulp and spit out the bitter bean. The beans are collected and placed in wooden crates for six days of fermentation, then dried in the sun. The fermented, dried beans are sold to chocolatiers who sort the beans by size before roasting them. After the beans are roasted and cooled, they are cracked to remove the shell from the nib, which is the desired part of the roasted bean.

The Bar

The nibs are milled to create cocoa liquor, which resembles smooth chocolate peanut butter. This liquor is pressed, separating the solids from the liquids, which makes solid cocoa butter. The cocoa butter is added back to the leftover liquid cocoa liquor, and other ingredients, such as sugar or milk, are added. All of it is transferred to the conche, a machine that smoothes and mixes the ingredients for two days, allowing any acid to evaporate. After conching, the chocolate is cooled so the cocoa butter can crystallize and everything can temper. Tempering is what makes good chocolate shiny and smooth, with a satisfying snap when it breaks. The chocolate is poured into molds, wrapped in packaging and boxed to sell.