Chocolate – the nectar of the gods in Latin – is a scare resource. Prices are increasing and the size of the bar itself is getting smaller. Last Christmas, Mondelez, the makers of Toblerone reduced the number of distinctive triangles in its chocolate bars in order to keep the price the same. For many consumers, it simply wasn’t the same.
I always knew that one need quite a lot of cocoa pods to end up with one chocolate bar, but I never actually look into this properly. Until last week, when one of our chocolate courses students ask a relatively innocent question: 'How many seeds are there in a cocoa pod?'
And to be honest, I didn't know!
So, as ever I thought, we’d investigate the numbers game behind this tasty 'nectar of the gods'.This led us on a fruitful search either side of the Equator to come up with a forest full of numbers, about beans, pods and trees.
What are the dimensions of a cacao tree?
The cacao tree, an evergreen, grows in the tropics, where there is evenly distributed rainfall. This allows for a year-round growing season, and ripe cacao pods, the fruit of the tree, are found at all times. When ripe, a pod looks like an elongated acorn squash with a colorful outer skin of greens, oranges, browns, tans, yellows, and reds, is 6 to 10 inches long and 3 to 4 inches in diameter.
The cacao tree has large, shiny leaves, which start out red and then turn green. Five-petal blossoms, pink or white, grow on the trunk and main branches only. The tree is very delicate with shallow roots and fragile limbs that cannot support the weight of the fruit pods, which like the blossoms, grow only on the trunk and strong main forks of the trunk. Each pod contains almond-shaped cocoa beans, that are 1/2 to 1 and 1/4 inches long, up to 1/2 to 3/4 inches across, and 1/3 to 1/2 inches thick.
How long does it take for the cocoa trees to produce fruit?
Cocoa trees begin to bear fruit when they are three to four years old. They produce pink and white flowers throughout the year, growing in abundance after before the rain starts. However the pods grow straight out of the trunk and the main branches, which is most unusual. Only a small proportion of the flowers develop into fruit over a period of about five months. The trees are carefully pruned so that pods can be more easily harvested.
How many cacao pods does a cacao tree produce?
Cacao pods are the fruits of the cacao tree. Successfully pollinated flowers mature into this ribbed and oval fruit. The ripening process takes about five months. It is quite common to see both flowers and pods together on the same tree throughout the year. The thick shelled cacao pod contains "mucilage", a sweet white pulp that surrounds the bitter cocoa beans.
Each tree produces about 20 pods and each pod contains between 20 and 60 seeds or beans. In order to produce one kilogramme of cocoa paste about 10 pods are required. Healthy mature pods will eventually rot on the tree unless picked by an animal or farmer. When the pods ripen they turn from green or yellow to orange or red.
How many cocoa beans are in a cocoa pod ?
The number of cocoa beans in a pod can vary significantly. While the average number of cocoa beans in one pod is around 40, the actual number of beans can vary between 20 and 60 or so. Cocoa beans, the base for making chocolate, are the seeds of the cacao tree. They are found inside the cacao pods, surrounded by a sweet white pulp. Each pod contains between 20 and 60 cocoa beans.
A variety of chemicals, including theobromine which is very similar to caffeine, give the seeds a bitter flavour. Beans can only germinate within 2 weeks of being harvested. When monkeys, birds, human or other animals break open the pods to reach the delicious sweet pulp, they spit out the bitter-tasting seeds. This is the clever adaptation that the cacao tree evolved so that its seeds hit the forest floor and sprout into new trees.
How often do you harvests cocoa pods?
The cocoa tree bears two harvests of cocoa pods per year. Around 20cm in length and 500gms in weight, the pods ripen to a rich, golden-orange colour.
What size are the pods?
Within each pod there are 20-40 purple, 2cm long cocoa beans covered in a sweet white pulp.
How many types of cocoa pods are there?
There are three broad types of cocoa - Forastero and Criollo, as well as Trinitario, a hybrid of the two. Within these types there are several varieties.
Forastero Cacao Plant
Producing the greater part of all cocoa grown, Forastero is hardy and vigorous, producing beans with the strongest flavour. The Forastero variety most widely grown in West Africa and Brazil is Amelondaro. It has a smooth yellow pod and pale purple beans.
Criollo Cacao Plant
With its mild or weak chocolate flavour, Criollo is grown in Indonesia, Central and South America. Criollo trees are not as hardy and produce softer red pods, containing 20-30 white, ivory or very pale purple beans.
Trinitario Cacao Plant
Plants are not found in the wild as they are cultivated hybrids of the other two types. Trinitario cocoa trees are grown mainly in the Caribbean, but also in Cameroon and Papua New Guinea. The mostly hard pods contain 30 or more beans of variable colour, though white beans are rare.
How many cocoa pods can be harvested each day?
The pods are harvested individually by hand, then sliced open to remove the seeds and surrounding pulp, which are gathered into piles for fermentation. One worker can harvest about 1500 pods per day—enough to produce nearly 120 pounds of bittersweet chocolate—while another worker takes a day to open those pods for fermentation.
How many cocoa beans does it take to make a bar of chocolate?
At last, the million dollar question, to quote yet another number.
Estimates vary, but it takes approximately 40 cocoa beans to make a two-ounce bar of 70% dark chocolate. Other figures state that approximately 500 cacao beans will produce a pound of bittersweet chocolate - that's about 500g.
What a numerical journey it’s been – or should that be cocoa bean? Along the way, we discovered, that the dear old cacao tree is rather shy and retiring and it’s a minor miracle we’re able to eat any chocolate at all given the tremendous time and effort that goes into making a single bar. We hope you enjoyed the facts and figures and will enjoy precious chocolate even more in future.
It truly is the nectar of the gods -chocolate bar none!
What’s the cocoa production per cacao plant tree?
On a well maintained farm, each cacao tree will produce between two and three pounds of dried cacao beans per year. It takes the whole year's crop from one tree to make 450gms of Chocolate.
After this bit of research, my head is definitely hurting! Time for a tea break....
And next time, my inquisitive chocolate student, I'm ready - I know how many seeds are there in a cocoa pod!
Until next time
Nick - 'don't want to know anything more about cocoa pods' - Marsden
P.S Here are some other chocolate facts you might like to read...