Saturday, February 18, 2012

Where Does Chocolate Come From? Cacao Cultivation on Sumatra

In the previous two posts I've described some of my experiences from my trip up through the province of Sumatra Barat (West Sumatra) last week.  I made the trip at the request of my very good friend Nat, who is co-founder, owner and manager of Madre Chocolate, a small but growing chocolate company based in Hawai'i.  Nat asked me to visit the cacao farm to check out the operation and take pictures, because he's interested in buying cacao directly from the farmer.  Most chocolate companies buy cacao through a middleman, and so the farmers aren't able to realize the full market price for their product.  One of Nat's goals is to buy directly from the source so that farmers will harvest more of the benefits of their labors.  I'll write more below about Nat and Madre Chocolate, but first I want to talk a little bit about cacao farming and my experience at the cacao plantation I visited.

A Visit to a Cacao Farm

Drawing from
Cacao is the primary ingredient in chocolate and comes from the seeds of the fruit of the tree Theobroma cacao, which originally grew in South America.  Cacao was used in a variety of drinks, foods, and medicines in pre-Columbian (before Columbus) America.  It was then taken to Europe by the Spanish.  However, cacao won't grow in Europe because it gets too cold there in the wintertime.  Cacao needs consistently warm temperatures and a lot of water distributed evenly throughout the year (it also has specific soil and shade requirements), so the Europeans transported cacao to their colonial possessions in Africa and Southeast Asia.  Currently Indonesia is the world's second largest producer of cacao (after Cote d'Ivoire in West Africa), producing about 20% of the annual global crop.

While some cacao is grown in large plantations, the farm I visited is relatively small scale.  I was shown around the 8,300 square meter (a little smaller than a football field) farm by Datuak Damo Anso (Pak An), who, along with this plot owns a total of 3 cacao parcels. He told me that the 667 trees in this plot were planted 19 months ago, and that they start to bear fruit after about a year.  Pak An's manager, Rahmat, told me that they grow two different varieties of cacao.  One has red fruits while the other has green; they said the red one is better for making chocolate.  I asked why they don't grow the red ones exclusively and Rahmat told me that the local planters can't tell the difference when they put the seeds in the ground.  They also do grafting, which means that they take a stem from a more desirable variety and attach it to trees that aren't producing as much as they'd like.  Eventually the new stem starts to grow and they cut off the old stem, and so the fruits that are produced are of the better variety.  They also grow "protection trees" (tanaman pelindung) between the rows of cacao trees because cacao likes shade.  Pak An taught me a lot about growing cacao, but to learn more about what happens after the fruit is harvested, I asked Nat.

After the Harvest

I first met Nat 4-5 years ago when he moved to Hawai'i after he finished his PhD in ethnobotany.  We had a mutual friend and Nat needed a place to stay for a couple of weeks while he looked for an apartment, so he crashed at my place.  We quickly became friends.  In addition to his chocolate expertise Nat is an expert forager, and so I learned a lot from him about the wondrous variety of edible fruits and leaves that grow in Hawai'i.  Over the past few years Nat has pursued his dream of starting a company to produce small batches of high-quality chocolate that emphasizes flavor and fairness over profit.  Now Nat's company is starting to take off, and it's been pretty inspirational to see how all his hard work and dedication is starting to pay off.  I emailed Nat to ask him what happens after the fruit is harvested, and he was kind enough to mash out the following steps in making chocolate:

Cocoa butter crystal forms from Chocolate Alchemy.

  1. After picking the pods are cracked, the wet seed taken out and fermented for 508 days under banana leaves.  This moves a lot of bitter alkaloid compounds like theobromine and caffeine to the shell out of the seed and develops the flavor of the seed immensely.
  2. The seeds are dried in the sun, having to moved in and out of the sun if it rains.
  3. The seeds are let sit for 7-30 days.
  4. The seeds are then sold usually through a middleman to chocolate makers.  
  5. They are then roasted for a short time to bring out the flavor and kill pathogens on the shell.
  6. They are then cracked into "nibs" to help remove the shell.
  7. They are next winnowed using air flow to completely remove the astringent, bitter shell
  8. The shell is sometimes sold for making "cacao tea", as garden mulch, or used in the soap
  9. The remaining nibs are refined down to about 10-20 microns between steel or granite rollers into what is called "cacao liquor" although it is not alcoholic at all
  10. For some portion of the world's cacao, this liquor is then placed in 10,000 lb heated hydraulic presses to squeeze out the fat (cocoa butter), leaving behind the cacao press cake which is ground up and sometimes alkalized to make cocoa powder the cocoa butter is used by the cosmetics industry and by some chocolate makers.
  11. For chocolate bars, the cacao liquor is conched (mixed with low hear) for 1-4 days long with sugar, extra cocoa butter (optional), vanilla (optional), lecithin (optional, an emulsifier that lowers energy use, usually derived from soy so creates allergies for some people), and milk powder only for milk chocolate.  This conching develops and blends the flavors through the Maillard reaction where proteins "caramelize" like the browning of steak on a skillet
  12. Once the chocolate reaches the desired flavor it is tempered to grow the right cocoa butter crystal, cocoa better has 6 crystal forms and only 2 have a nice shine and snap, whereas the others are dull and crumbly.  So just like carbon can be coal, graphite, graphene, carbon nanotubes, or diamond (all the same atom, just different arrangements), we want the diamond form of cocoa better.  This is achieved by heating the chocolate to 120 degrees f, cooling to 80 degrees f and heating again to 88-91 f, all while stirring thoroughly.
  13. Once the chocolate is tempered, it is poured into molds which are chilled for 10-30 minutes
  14. The chocolate bars are removed from the molds.
  15. The bars are foiled and paper wrapped
  16. Phew!  finally done, 1-2 months after the cacao fruit is picked from the tree!
Nat also told me that most Indonesian cacao isn't used for chocolate making but is instead sold directly to cosmetic companies for making cocoa butter, which is used in skin care products.  Since this doesn't require the cacao to be fermented, the farmers don't normally invest in fermenting facilities, and they only get the basic market price for their product.  One of the by-products of the cosmetic uses is cocoa powder, which is sold to big chocolate companies, who add a bit of cocoa butter and milk to replace the missing fat that is removed when the cocoa butter is taken out.  Thus what you eat when you buy an average chocolate bar is diluted and adulterated chocolate.  In addition this removes a lot of the healthful aspects of the cacao.  

Picture from Madre Chocolate
Nat also told me that Indonesian cacao, if it's fermented properly, has a distinctive hazelnut flavor that isn't found in cacao from other countries.  He's not sure why this is the case; it could be the soil, the fermentation microbes, or something in the way the farmers grow the cacao.  Nat is hoping to work with the farmers to bring out this unique flavor.  As I mentioned previously, part of Nat's (and Madre Chocolate's) philosophy is to make the farmers a more integral part of the production operation, which includes increasing their participation and ensuring they reap more of the rewards for their work.  In Nat's words:

Another part of chocolate making that we're trying to change is that most cacao growers never taste the chocolate made from their cacao, so the feedback loop is never closed and they don't know how changes in their growing and fermentation effect the final chocolate.  We try to send back a bar of chocolate made from the growers' chocolate so they can see the effects, and where we've done this in Mexico, Hawai'i, and Indonesia, we've seen the growers eyes light up with understanding when they taste it.

I had a really good time with Pak An learning how cacao is grown.  The cacao farm is located in the heart of the Minangkabau culture region of Indonesia, so I suggested to Nat, that if he does end up sourcing cacao from An that they call the resulting product the "Minangkabar" (1).  I even took the picture below so that he can use it on the wrapper.  Note the cacao tree in the foreground.  We'll see if Nat realizes the brilliance of my marketing strategies.  In the mean time, if you want to learn more about Madre Chocolate, where to get it, or the chocolate-making classes they offer, click here.  It's good stuff.  


(1)  Which also might be a good name for a newspaper or gossip show....


  1. I thought the techniques to growing Cocoa was interesting. Grafting sounds like something i would like to here more about. I think it was cool that within the rows of cacoa, trees are grown because cacoa like shade. I also had no idea cacao takes a while to make. Just fermenting the seeds take 508 days. I thought cocao was stricly made for chocolate not cosmetic products.

  2. Next time I use cocoa butter, or eat my favorite chocolate bar I will definitely remember how much work goes into its production! Its crazy to think that chocolate used to be a luxury to wealthy people, and is now readily available to millions of people. I also had no idea that cacao was even produced in Indonesia. I love Nat's perspective on growers from various countries. This post was full of really interesting facts, especially that cacao would be healthier if larger companies didn't add preservatives and remove the healthier aspect of raw cacao. The diagrams and process of extracting the cacao from the fruit tree is so in depth. This really is an art, I feel like workers must learn from a very young age in order to produce the best tasting cacao products. Thanks for such an interesting blogpost!