As with many other tropical crops, the cocoa harvest is spread over several months, usually with a major peak and a minor peak of pod ripeness/harvesting.
Careful removal of the pods from the trees with a knife is required to avoid damage to the flower cushions.
After inspecting and conducting the necessary tests to ensure compliance with international standards and regulatory requirements, the cocoa beans cleaning process takes place.
The inside of an undamaged cocoa bean is clean in all respects (removal of foreign material ranging from machete blades to shotgun shells), and will remain so as long as it is stored properly and is not mixed with contaminated materials not completely removed during cleaning or subsequent steps downstream.
Chocolate flavour is developed in two parts: the first is on the farm through correct fermentation of the wet beans by the grower, and the second by the processor in the factory at the roasting step. Good chocolate flavour cannot be produced by adhering to only one of these stages.
In the initial stages of fermentation, much of the pulp drains away and sometime between 36 and 72 hours the beans are fermented. The processes of flavour development are complex, and still quite poorly understood, though good progress has been made recently through the use of expert analytical and sensory evaluation (flavour profiling) techniques.
After fermentation, the moisture content of the beans needs to be reduced from 55% to 7.5% – an appropriate moisture content for secure storage of cocoa for a couple of months in the tropics. Smallholders lay the wet beans on raised bamboo mats or, less satisfactorily (for hygiene considerations), on concrete platforms on the ground in the villages.
The duration of the drying step depends on the weather, but it is unusual for sun-drying in West Africa, for example to be completed in less than a week.
Roasting cocoa beans can be described as an individual process. While all manufacturers have a similar goal of making products efficiently, the flavour objectives for cocoa liquors usually differ from company to company and from country to country.
Therefore, the flavour target is a key factor in determining the type and blend of cocoa beans to be processed, whether to roast whole beans or nibs, the type of roasting equipment and the roasting parameters employed.
In a nutshell, there is not a right or wrong roast level nor is there a correct or incorrect way to obtain the target roast level. The correct way to roast and the proper roast level is the process which provides nibs in an efficient and cost-effective manner with the chosen flavour system and yields products meeting consumer needs in a specified market.
Winnowing, cracking, fanning and hulling are some of the terms and phrases which describe the separation of the shell (hull) and meat of the bean (nib). It is a process where obtaining a clean separation of the two components is driven by economics, product integrity and, in many countries, government regulation.