Where cocoa beans grow?

The exclusivity of chocolate was ultimately diminished by the onset of the Industrial Revolution, when steam-powered machines made the production of cocoa powder significantly quicker and more affordable. Solid chocolate hit the market and found wild success by 1850, due to the discovery by Joseph Fry that adding cacao butter to the cocoa powder formed a solid mass. Sixty years later, the art of creating chocolate confections with flavored filling—referred to as pralines by their Belgian inventor, Jean Neuhaus II—went public. From there, the chocolate and cocoa industry exploded in popularity and quickly spread around the world.

Throughout its centuries-long evolution, one factor has remained consistent and cocoa has attracted devotees worldwide. Today, over 4.5 million tons of cocoa beans are consumed annually around the globe, in everything from drinks to candy bars. It’s safe to say that the ancient Mesoamericans who pioneered the crop could never have imagined the popularity cocoa would someday experience.



History of use

Cacao residues on pottery in Ecuador suggest that the plant was consumed by humans as early as 5,000 years ago. The tree was likely domesticated in the upper Amazon region and then spread northward. It was widely cultivated more than 3,000 years ago by the Maya, Toltec, and Aztec peoples, who prepared a beverage from the bean (sometimes using it as a ceremonial drink) and also used the bean as a currency.

Christopher Columbus took cocoa beans to Spain after his fourth voyage in 1502, and the Spanish conquistadores, arriving in Mexico in 1519, were introduced to a chocolate beverage by the Aztec. The Aztec beverage was made from sun-dried shelled beans, probably fermented in their pods. The broken kernels, or nibs, were roasted in earthen pots and then ground to a paste in a concave stone, called a metate, over a small fire. Vanilla and various spices and herbs were added, and corn (maize) was sometimes used to produce milder flavour. The paste, formed into small cakes, was cooled and hardened on shiny leaves placed under a tree. The cakes were broken up, mixed with hot water, and beaten to foamy consistency with a small wooden beater, a molinet, producing the beverage called xocoatl (from Nahuatl words meaning “bitter water”).

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Too bitter for European taste, the mixture was sweetened with sugar when introduced to the Spanish court. Although Spain guarded the secret of its xocoatl beverage for almost 100 years, it reached Italy in 1606 and became popular in France with the marriage of the Spanish princess Maria Theresa to Louis XIV in 1660. In 1657 a Frenchman opened a London shop, selling solid chocolate to be made into the beverage, and chocolate houses, selling the hot beverage, soon appeared throughout Europe. By 1765 chocolate manufacture had begun in the American colonies at Dorchester, in Massachusetts, using cocoa beans from the West Indies.

In 1828 C.J. van Houten of the Netherlands patented a process for obtaining “chocolate powder” by pressing much of the cocoa butter from ground and roasted cocoa beans. In 1847 the English firm of Fry and Sons combined cocoa butter, a by-product of the pressing, with chocolate liquor and sugar to produce eating chocolate, and in 1876 Daniel Peter of Switzerland added dried milk to make milk chocolate. The proliferation of flavoured, solid, and coated chocolate foods rapidly followed.

cocoa butterNatural cocoa butter and cocoa beans.© Olyina/.com

Starting in the Americas in an area stretching from southern Mexico to the northern countries of South America, commercial cacao cultivation spread around the world to areas within 20° of the Equator where rainfall, temperatures, and soil conditions were suitable for its growth.

Both the Mayans and Aztecs believed the cacao bean had magical, or even divine, properties, suitable for use in the most sacred rituals of birth, marriage and death. According to Chloe Doutre-Roussel’s book The Chocolate Connoisseur, Aztec sacrifice victims who felt too melancholy to join in ritual dancing before their death were often given a gourd of chocolate (tinged with the blood of previous victims) to cheer them up.

Sweetened chocolate didn’t appear until Europeans discovered the Americas and sampled the native cuisine. Legend has it that the Aztec king Montezuma welcomed the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes with a banquet that included drinking chocolate, having tragically mistaken him for a reincarnated deity instead of a conquering invader. Chocolate didn’t suit the foreigners’ tastebuds at first –one described it in his writings as “a bitter drink for pigs” – but once mixed with honey or cane sugar, it quickly became popular throughout Spain.

By the 17th century, chocolate was a fashionable drink throughout Europe, believed to have nutritious, medicinal and even aphrodisiac properties (it’s rumored that Casanova was especially fond of the stuff). But it remained largely a privilege of the rich until the invention of the steam engine made mass production possible in the late 1700s.

In 1828, a Dutch chemist found a way to make powdered chocolate by removing about half the natural fat (cacao butter) from chocolate liquor, pulverizing what remained and treating the mixture with alkaline salts to cut the bitter taste. His product became known as “Dutch cocoa,” and it soon led to the creation of solid chocolate.

The creation of the first modern chocolate bar is credited to Joseph Fry, who in 1847 discovered that he could make a moldable chocolate paste by adding melted cacao butter back into Dutch cocoa.

By 1868, a little company called Cadbury was marketing boxes of chocolate candies in England. Milk chocolate hit the market a few years later, pioneered by another name that may ring a bell – Nestle.

In America, chocolate was so valued during the Revolutionary War that it was included in soldiers’ rations and used in lieu of wages. While most of us probably wouldn’t settle for a chocolate paycheck these days, statistics show that the humble cacao bean is still a powerful economic force. Chocolate manufacturing is a more than 4-billion-dollar industry in the United States, and the average American eats at least half a pound of the stuff per month.

In the 20th century, the word “chocolate” expanded to include a range of affordable treats with more sugar and additives than actual cacao in them, often made from the hardiest but least flavorful of the bean varieties (forastero).

But more recently, there’s been a “chocolate revolution,” Leaf said, marked by an increasing interest in high-quality, handmade chocolates and sustainable, effective cacao farming and harvesting methods. Major corporations like Hershey’s have expanded their artisanal chocolate lines by purchasing smaller producers known for premium chocolates, such as Scharffen Berger and Dagoba, while independent chocolatiers continue to flourish as well.

“I see more and more American artisans doing incredible things with chocolate,” Leaf said. “Although, I admit that I tend to look at the world through cocoa-tinted glasses.”

The analyses of RFLP and microsatellite markers presented here shed new light on the patterns of genetic diversity and genetic relationships amongst T. cacao populations. Both techniques yielded equivalent results, despite the number of alleles detected per locus being significantly higher for microsatellites than for RFLPs. The correlation between RFLP and microsatellite DAS matrices was highly significant. There is no apparent effect of the higher mutation rate for microsatellites (Dallas, 1992; Dietrich et al, 1992) on the determination of relatedness between cacao individuals. Congruency between RFLP and microsatellite diversity patterns has also been observed for other species (Pejic et al, 1998; Desplanque et al, 1999).

Both our RFLP and microsatellite analyses clearly distinguished Ancient Criollo individuals from Modern Criollo (Ancient Criollo individuals introgressed with Forastero genes). It is important to note that previous studies using isozymes (Lanaud, 1987; Ronning and Schnell, 1994), RFLP (Laurent et al, 1994; Lerceteau et al, 1997), and RAPD markers (N’Goran et al, 1994; Lerceteau et al, 1997) have analysed what are defined here as Modern Criollo (usual representatives of the Criollo group). The present study is the first to show that the two types (Modern and Ancient) can be distinguished, and this was made possible by using a sample that avoided mixing pure Criollo individuals with individuals classified as Criollo but likely to have been introgressed with Forastero genes. Thus, individuals classified as Ancient Criollo constitute the true Criollo group comprised of cacao genotypes cultivated before the introduction of Forastero individuals to cacao plantations. Natural hybridisation between these two groups later gave rise to the appearance of Modern Criollo or Trinitario.

De la Cruz et al (1995) and Whitkus et al (1998) found that cacao trees from the Lacandona rainforest and ‘Criollo’ from germplasm collections could be clearly distinguished. These studies used dominant markers (RAPD), and the relatedness between what was called Criollo and what was called ‘wild’ (individuals from the Lacandona rainforest) was not clearly established, in contrast to the present study. They too found that samples from the Lacandona rainforest and those from the sinkholes of the Yucatan were clearly different.

In the present study, we analysed seven individuals from three sinkholes from Yucatan (near the towns of Yaxcaba, Tixcacaltuyub and Chechmil). Using 25 RFLP probes and 16 microsatellites we found that these seven individuals shared an identical genotype. Contrary to the findings of De la Cruz et al (1995) and Whitkus et al. (1998) little differentiation was observed between individuals from Yucatan and the Lacandona rainforest: The genotype found in the seven individuals from Yaxcaba, Tixcacaltuyub and Chechmil was also found in nine out of 13 individuals from the Lacandona rainforest.

The origin of the cacao cultivated by the Mayas

Very low diversity (Figure 1, Tables 2 and 3) was found within the Ancient Criollo group comprising individuals from the Lacandona rainforest, even though some of them were obtained from distant sites. It has been suggested that the Criollo group originated in the Lacandona rainforest where such trees are apparently present in the wild state (Miranda, 1962; Cuatrecasas, 1964; Gómez-Pompa et al, 1990 and De la Cruz et al, 1995). This hypothesis does not agree with the results present here. Indeed, a wild population should exhibit levels of genetic diversity similar to that observed within geographic areas (for example, in Peru or Colombia-Ecuador, Table 4). This was not the case; very low diversity associated with high homozygosity was observed in Central America (including the Lacandona rainforest). Moreover, cacao from the Lacandona rainforest was found to be identical at a molecular level to individuals putatively cultivated by the Mayas (those found in sinkholes, the Pacific Coast of Mexico and Belize) and to individuals from the regions of southwestern Venezuela and northeastern Colombia. Therefore, the population consisting of trees found at the Lacandona rainforest should neither be considered wild nor as originating from this region. Another element that must be considered is the absence of palynological evidence of the presence of Theobroma in the forests of Chiapas before the human colonization. Pollen of genera belonging to the modern vegetation of Chiapas has been observed from Tertiary deposits, but not Theobroma or related genera such as Herrania (Graham, 1999). In addition, in the Lacandona rainforest, where material was sampled, vestiges of the Mayan civilization were frequently found. Thus, the presence of Criollo cacao trees in the Lacandona rainforest may be a remnant of cacao cultivation by the Mayas.

Our results contradict Cuatrecasas’ (1964) hypothesis that Criollo is a separate subspecies that evolved independently to South American populations in Central America, and suggest rather that the Criollo group had a South American origin. If Cuatrecasas’ hypothesis is true, all wild Forastero individuals should be clustered independently of Criollo in the analysis of genetic relatedness between individuals (Figure 2). In contrast, Ancient Criollo individuals are more related to Forastero from Colombia and Ecuador (EBC 5, EBC 6, EBC 10, Lcteen 37 and Lcteen 355) than the latter are to other Forastero individuals from French Guiana, the Orinoco, the Lower Amazon or some from Peru (ie, GU154, Matina 1-6, Venc 4, PA 107). Consequently, the Criollo group does not form a separate subspecies (ssp. cacao) from the one comprising individuals from South America (ssp. sphaerocarpum). Moreover, since microsatellite mutations tend to change allelic size by small amounts (Schlötterer and Tautz, 1992), the low allele size variance found for Ancient Criollo (0.08) compared to Forastero (14.02) also indicates a recent origin for this group.

Classification within the species

Since genetic distances between some Forastero individuals are equivalent to that observed between some Forastero and Ancient Criollo, a classification of cacao based on two main populations (Criollo and Forastero) has no genetic base. Indeed, the classification based on Criollo and Forastero mentioned by Cheesman (1944) and first proposed by Morris (1882) was simply based on the terms used by the Venezuelan cacao producers of the central coastal zone. At the time of Morris, the terms Criollo and Forastero were employed to distinguish the local cultivated trees (with a specific pod morphology) from the introduced foreign material.

Evolution and domestication

Allopatric divergence of cacao populations is suggested by the clustering pattern of individuals (Figure 2). Clear divergence of cacao from specific origins such as French Guiana and Ecuador has been reported (Lanaud, 1987; Laurent et al, 1994; Sounigo et al, 1996; Lerceteau et al, 1997). Although a reduced number of Forastero genotypes for each South American region were studied (Table 3), RFLP and microsatellite alleles, specific (allelic frequency higher than 0.05) to groups of individuals from different geographic areas were identified. Furthermore, mitotypes as well as rDNA alleles specific to different geographic origins have been observed (Laurent et al, 1993a, b). Collection expeditions in Amazonia (Allen and Lass, 1983; Young, 1994) revealed striking differences in morphology among populations from different river tributaries or other topographic features. Patterns of genetic diversity in other Amazonian plant species, eg Hevea brasiliensis (Seguin et al, 1999) and Elaeis oleifera (Barcelos, 1998), have also been reported as being associated with streams and explained according to ‘refuge’ theory (Simpson and Haffer, 1978; Haffer, 1982). The geological changes on which the ‘refuge’ theory is based could also explain divergence among T. cacao populations (including the population at the origin of Criollo individuals). Isolated cacao populations in constricted forest ‘refuges’, possibly in contracted gallery forest along scattered tributaries, could have survived during the adverse climatic conditions that occurred during the Quaternary period. These populations could then have evolved independently into different variants prior to a subsequent phase of forest expansion (Lanaud, 1987; Young, 1994). Stepwise founder events over repeated cycles of forest contraction and expansion could have then led to the loss of much natural genetic diversity in Criollo prior to domestication.

Subsequently, bottlenecks could have occurred during domestication. The intervention of man through selection during cultivation could also have reduced the effective number of individuals of the original Criollo population. People would then have been able to fix and maintain the extreme phenotypes that could have appeared due to mutations in a few genes, and spread the crop into Central America. Some cacao types may have been of special interest to people and therefore selected through collection, maintenance and use. Indeed, such extremely different phenotypes as Porcelana and Pentagona (one very smooth and the other very rough) contrast strongly with other pod types. The Pentagona or Lagarto type, for example, has the finest pod cortex, increasing the bean weight to pod weight ratio and facilitating the extraction of the beans from the fruit. Characteristic traits of Criollo trees such as the sweet pulp of its beans and the fact that it needs less fermentation, could be seen as targets of selection by man during more than 1500 years of cultivation.

The results of the present study, combined with the evidence presented above, uphold the theories of Van Hall (1914), Cheesman (1944) and Schultes (1984), that cacao originated in South America, and was later introduced by man in Central America.

Cacao vs. Cocoa: What’s the Difference?

Despite the similarities in their spelling, cacao and cocoa are two very different ingredients. All of the chocolate products you eat are derived from cacao seeds in some form or another, which are derived from the cacao plant — an evergreen tree that grows in South America and West Africa. Cacao seeds grow in large pods on the trunks of these trees.

But Not All that Glitters is Cacao

Despite coming from the same plant, cacao and cocoa have numerous differences. Cacao is a pure form of chocolate that comes very close to the raw and natural state in which it is harvested (One Green Planet, n.d.). While the natural nature of cacao would seem to limit its versatility, the product actually comes in several forms.

When the cacao beans are released from their pods, they are sometimes blended into cacao butter. Cacao butter contains the fatty part of the cacao fruit and is white in color. The remainder of the fruit is used to make raw cacao powder. It is also possible to purchase cacao nibs, which are cacao beans that have been chopped into smaller pieces. These are similar to chocolate chips although much more intense in their chocolatey flavor.

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So, if it’s possible to process the seeds and still call it cacao then what change draws the distinction between this natural food and the more-common cacoa? The answer is simple: cocoa has been processed with high heat.

Cocoa refers to the powder that is commonly seen in American supermarkets and stirred into beverages. The process used to create cocoa entails applying high heat to raw cacao, which destroys some of the beneficial nutrients it contains. However, even after this process, cocoa still has several beneficial nutritional properties (One Green Planet, n.d.).

One concern to watch out for when seeking these benefits, however, is the way in which many manufacturers supplement their cocoa powder with added sugar, oil, or milk fat. Be sure to seek out cocoa products have little or no added ingredients.

So, What Exactly ARE the Benefits of Raw Cacao?

Because they come from a seed, both cocoa and cacao are excellent sources of fiber. They also contain some protein while having relatively low fat content. Although cocoa has some nutritional benefits, they are far outweighed by the nutritional properties of raw cacao (Menato, 2016).

Cacao Can Mitigate Risk of Diabetes, Hypertension and More

Raw cacao is an excellent source of magnesium. Getting enough magnesium is not only associated with lower risk of diabetes, but it also healthy blood pressure, strong bones, lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and healthy nervous system activity (Volpe, 2014).

It Can Reduce Inflammation and Support Heart Health

Flavonoids are a class of antioxidants that are abundant in both cacao and cocoa powder. Flavonoids inhibit pro-inflammatory enzymes in the body, meaning that they have a widespread anti-inflammatory effect (WHFoods, 2014). Additionally, flavonoids have been associated with higher levels of “healthy” HDL cholesterol and better overall cardiovascular health (Menato, 2016).

Eating More Can Help You Meet Your Dietary Iron Needs

Cacao is a great source of iron, which helps your body transport oxygen molecules to your tissue.

Eating More Cacao Can Improve Your Mood

Cacao contains phenylethylamine (PEA), which is sometimes known as a “love drug.” Although PEA cannot technically make you fall in love, it is associated with elevated mood and higher energy levels. This is thought to be due to the interaction between PEA and the neurotransmitter dopamine, which regulates the brain’s reward response (Menato, 2016).

So, cacao and cocoa can support your wellbeing, but is eating cocoa in chocolate bars really good for your health?

What Are the Healthiest Ways to Enjoy Cacao and Cocoa?

Cacao and cocoa are both excellent additions to your diet because of their nutritional qualities. There are several ways to use these forms of chocolate:

  • Baked goods. Raw cacao powder and cocoa powder can be used interchangeably in baked goods, so swapping out cocoa for the more healthsome cacao can help keep your desserts healthy. Just one or two tablespoons go a long way toward adding an intense chocolate flavor to your brownies or cakes.
  • Smoothies. Raw cacao nibs are excellent when blended into smoothies. Add a heaping spoonful of the nibs to your favorite fruit smoothie for a chocolatey treat that supports your health goals.
  • Snack mix. The slightly bitter taste of cacao makes a great counterpart to the sweetness of dried fruits. Toss together your favorite nuts, dried fruits, and a small handful of cacao nibs for an antioxidant-rich snack.
  • Homemade coffee drinks. Craving some caffeine but trying to avoid the sugary drinks at your local coffeeshop? Cacao powder is a fantastic addition to your favorite coffee beverage, creating a chocolatey mocha without a lot of added sugar.
  • Dairy-free chocolate ice cream. When blended, frozen bananas create a creamy, dairy-free treat that is very similar in texture to regular ice cream. Adding cacao or cocoa powder to your blender with the bananas makes an excellent ice cream. Check out our cacao and cocoa recipes below for two delectable varieties that put cacao to good use!

Cacao and Cocoa Recipes

Check out these recipes that make use of that superbly rich cacao as nibs or powder for a chocolatey treat that will make your tastebuds say “Wow!”

Matcha Green Tea Pancakes Recipe {gluten-free}

Cocao powder is blended with maple syrup and coconut oil to create a sweet chocolate syrup that perfectly complements the surprising savor of these potent matcha pancakes. Its quick 15 minute cook time also ensures you can wake up with this sweet treat any day!
Ingredients: Almond milk, brown rice flour, egg, sugar, coconut oil, matcha green tea powder, hemp protein powder, butter, greek yogurt, walnuts, almonds, banana chips, cranberries, golden raisins, maple syrup, cacao powder, baking powder.
Total Time: 15 minutes | Yield: 9-10 pancakes

Healthy Vegan Chocolate Truffle Recipe

We all love the succulence of a good chocolate truffle. With these date-based truffles, you can enjoy that same saturated savor without the guilt! Enjoy the chocolate taste offered by two helpings of cacao powder as part of the base and a delightful coating!
Ingredients: Jumbo Mejdool dates, almond flour, chia seeds, flaxseed meal, cacao powder, agave or maple syrup, almond milk, unsweetened shredded coconut.
Total Time: 15 minutes | Yield: 24 truffles

No-Bake Cheesecake Bites Recipe {gluten-free}

Another dessert that is surprisingly wholesome, this decadent dessert pairs the potent palate of cocoa powder with the piquant spice of pumpkin. The resulting taste is enough to transcend seasons with a rich flavor you’re sure to love!
Ingredients: Pitted dates, almond flour, cacao powder, vanilla extract, almond milk, raw cashews, maple syrup, canned pumpkin, pumpkin spice.
Total Time: 20 minutes | Yield: 16 – 20 squares

Spirulina Ice Cream Recipe {gluten-free}

Searching for the more robust version of cacao? Discover the powerful sensation of raw cacao nibs in this wholesome alternative to standard ice creams. Spirulina also supplies a wealth of nutrients to offer a health boost that will have you reaching for seconds!
Ingredients: Full fat coconut milk, agave syrup, spirulina, cacao nibs.
Total Time: 10 minutes | Yield: 4 servings

Blueberry Chia Jam Bars Recipe {gluten-free, vegan}

These bars make a great snack for anytime with its sweet savors offset by a savory base. The sugary jam of which the surface of the bar consists melds together perfectly with the cocoa savor in the crumbly base of the bar. Try this scrumptious snack today!
Ingredients: Raw almonds, gluten-free rolled oats, chia seeds, maple syrup, water, vanilla or almond extract, blueberries, cacao powder, coconut oil.
Total Time: 30 minutes | Yield: 16 mini bars

Mint Chocolate Popsicle Recipe {vegan}

Specks of whole cacao nibs and cacao powder spread throughout the mint body of the pop offer the perfect pairing of the classic combination. Dark chocolate chips also add even more chocolate to the mix with a luscious coating that will drive you wild!
Ingredients: Coconut cream, cacao powder, cacao nibs, maple syrup, spirulina, mint extract, coconut oil, dark chocolate chips (vegan)
Total Time: 30 minutes | Yield: 7 popsicles

Chocolate Cake Recipe {gluten-free}

This rich chocolate cake offers the ideal taste to suit your palate with a half cup of cacao powder combined with two types of wholesome flours. The cake is also laden with hazelnuts to your liking so that you can enjoy an added crunch in an otherwise moist treat.
Ingredients: Almond flour, brown rice flour, cacao powder, eggs, almond milk, coconut oil, unrefined sugar, vanilla extract, baking powder, baking soda, hazelnuts.
Total Time: 1 hour | Yield: 8 servings

Cacao and Cocoa Products

Whether you’re searching for something a little sweeter or for the pure and unadulterated palate of cacao, these products offer everything along the spectrum of chocolate sensation to treat you to your perfect fit.

Organic Cacao Nibs (Raw)


Like our organic cacao beans, our raw cacao nibs have been dried, fermented, and cut to present the beans in a form that is ready to be added to your favorite baked goods, smoothies, and trail mixes.

Organic Cacao Paste


If cacao nibs are a bit unwieldy for your purpose, our cacao paste offers a perfect blend of the beans to be used for treats that need an even distribution. Try this paste when making your favorite fudge recipes!

Organic Cacao Powder (Raw)


For another option that blends well in different desserts, this palatable powder is ideal for sprinkling atop puddings and oatmeals, or it can also be used as an ingredient in a wide variety of scrumptious confections.

Premium Dutch Cocoa Powder


Searching for a more traditional taste? Cocoa is the way to go, and our dutch cocoa powder is perfect for smoothies, cookies, and other baked goods. Be sure to add baking powder when baking confections that rise!

Dark Chocolate Chips (Sugar-Free)


These delectable chocolate chips are made with 45% cocoa. These chips can be eaten on their own in small amounts for a sweet treat, added to your oatmeal or yogurt, or used to complement raw cacao in your favorite desserts for a double dose of chocolatey flavors.

Organic Dark Chocolate Chips

Hoping to enjoy the double chocolate goodies while retaining that dark, rich flavor? These dark chocolate chips are made with a higher concentration of cocoa to offer an impressive palate that is sure to hit the sweet spot!

Introducing The Different Fine Cacao Origins Around The World

A silky-smooth Ecuadorian. A rich Madagascan. An aromatic Papua New Guinean. What’s the difference between these three chocolate bars, really?

There are so many factors that influence the taste of a chocolate bar: terroir, drying, roasting, production, processing… and origin. Yes, the country and region where the cacao in your chocolate bar was grown and harvested really does affect its flavor.

I spoke to several fine cacao and chocolate experts about the cacao origins around the world. Join me on my tour.

Lee este artículo en español Conoce Los Diferentes Orígenes de Cacao Fino En Todo El Mundo

Bean-to-bar Peruvian chocolate bars made by Chocolates Innato. Credit: Cocoa Runners

Why Is Country of Origin So Important?

Cacao beans, the primary ingredient in our favorite sweet snack, can grow between 20 degrees north and south of the equator. Although that might not seem like a lot, it includes many countries.

In fact, according to the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO), 23 countries were recognized as fine cacao exporters in 2016.

And different origins have different cacao varieties, climates, terroir, production practices, and more – which, in turn, all affect the flavor and aroma of the chocolate.

Find out more! Check out What Is Terroir & Why Does It Matter?

However, it’s important to not overestimate the importance of origin. Estelle Tracy, a chocolate educator and the voice of 37 Chocolates, tells me, “Origin is a really complicated topic, because the flavor of cacao will come from genetics, processing and crafting. Origin has a big impact, of course, but it’s important not to associate origin as the only responsible factor for flavor.”

In other words: origin, it’s important, but not the only element.

So, with that in mind, let’s explore some of the cacao-producing origins around the world.

Discover the world’s coffee origins! Read What Do Coffees From Around The World Taste Like – & Why?

A freshly opened cacao pod from Santa Barbara, Honduras; the cacao beans are covered in white pulp.


70% of the world’s cacao beans come from Africa – and, in a continent so large, you can expect a wide variety of flavors.

However, Spencer Hyman, Founder of chocolate subscription service Cocoa Runners, tells me that “over 60% of cocoa grown in the world comes from Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana… these countries largely/almost entirely grow cocoa for ‘mass’-processed confectionery and chocolate.”

Despite this, you will find fine cacao originating from the region. Here are a couple of the African countries most-known for their high-quality beans:

  • Madagascar

Spencer says, “A big percentage of fine cacao comes from Madagascar.”

But while it’s a common origin, there aren’t very many traders that offer it. Spencer continues, “There may be around 400+ chocolatiers crafting bars from… Madagascar. However, it’s important to know that there are only around five people selling beans from .”

You might also like: Understanding The Ingredients List on Your Fine Chocolate Bar

So, what sets Madagascan chocolate apart? Estelle tells me, “Madagascar is a small island and we can draw conclusions that cacao tastes like berry or citrus.” She emphasizes that its distinctive taste may also be because “where the cacao is growing is very localized.”

Tasting notes: Red berries and fruits, especially citrus*

  • Tanzania

Tanzania is another one of the countries that Spencer highlighted as producing fine cacao. The Chocolate Journalist reports that cacao plants were first introduced here in the 1880s. At that time, buyers were commodity companies that prized quantity over quality.

However, with time, this has started to change. Entrepreneurs like Kokoa Kamili, a premium cacao exporter, have led immense quality improvements. Infrastructure still causes issues, but you can find fine-quality cacao in this East African country.

Tasting notes: Roasted*

Dick Taylor craft chocolate from Toledo, Belize and Sambirano, Madagascar. Credit: Cocoa Runners

The Americas

In the Americas, different harvesting and processing methods, varieties, and more give us a strikingly diverse range of cacao flavors. And many countries here produce fine cacao: Spencer lists Peru, Bolivia, Belize, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and more.

  • Mexico

Mexico has a long history of chocolate production and consumption – after all, this is the country of the Aztecs, where cacao pods functioned as currency and people drank spiced chocolate before being ritually sacrificed.

Today, chocolate is still produced across the country and chocolatiers are working to blend traditional recipes with fine cacao. The number of fine chocolatiers is limited: Spencer says, “There may be only three or four fine chocolate-makers… I’ve tasted maybe less than 10 .” Yet and more makers are turning to this North American origin.

And when a precious treat is this scarce, it’s all the more reason to treasure it.

Tasting notes: Earthy*

Three fine chocolate bars made with Mexican cacao. Credit: Ana Valencia

  • Hawaii

Hawaii, “the north pole of cacao”: the US state lies on the extreme northern edge of the cacao-growing band. Nonetheless, fine cacao can grow and thrive here.

Ecole Chocolate reports that the cacao industry in Hawaii is pretty new. One of the advantages of this is a lack of pests. However, the pests that the cacao might attract are a concern, not only for the cacao industry, but for Hawaiian ecosystems as a whole.

Tasting notes: Fruity*

  • Venezuela

In the 1930-40s, cacao was Venezuela’s number one export. And even though things are different in the 21st century, the country still produces excellent cacao.

Large parts of the country are suitable for growing this crop, especially in the north and west, where you might find Forastero, Trinitario, and Criollo. Megan Giller, author of Bean to Bar Chocolate – America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution, tells me, “You’ll find amazing beans from the Ocumare region as well as the Maracaibo region.”

Tasting notes: Nutty*

  • Peru

Around 40,000 hectares of cacao grow in Peru’s Eastern Andes, and the flavors vary enormously.

Estelle tells me that even when tasting samples, it’s difficult to identify Peruvian chocolate, simply because of the diversity of flavors. “ is an exciting country; it always surprises me,” she says.

Tasting: Be open-minded! You may come across fruity notes, floral notes, earthy notes…

100% Venezuelan, 60% cacao: a fine chocolate bar. Credit: Cinco Cafetería

  • Ecuador

Some say Ecuador is home to some of the “world’s best chocolate”. For example, the chocolatier Pacari, which specializes in Ecuadorian bars, has won multiple awards. And the country – also known as “the country of Arriba cacao” – boasts bean-to-bar chocolatiers and fine cacao producers.

Still, the country’s cacao industry faces challenges: As the Royal Tropical Institute 2013 Market Study states, “the Nacional cacao variety suffers from low productivity levels and lack of resistance to disease and pests.” Luckily, the government has invested “over 80 million USD to support the sector of ‘Nacional’ fine cacao.”

Tasting notes: Earthy, vegetal notes (especially if from Los Rios or Nacional)*

  • Brazil

Brazil has a growing internal fine cacao market, as well as benefiting from external demand. And locations like the State of Bahia offer great conditions for cacao production.

The main cacao variety produced in Brazil is the Forastero. Since it is one of the most resistant varieties, it’s great for productivity.

Tasting notes: Fruity

Craft chocolate bars from Italian chocolatier Ruket Chocolate. Credit: Cocoa Runners


Southeast Asia produces around 14% of the world’s cacao supply. And although countries like Malaysia and Indonesia are new to the cacao scene, they are rapidly becoming an important region.

  • Vietnam

Vietnam’s cacao market was initially slow to grow, but Marou Chocolate states that production is rising. And according to Spencer, this is another origin for its fine cacao. Its spicy flavor makes Vietnamese chocolate unique.

Tasting notes: Gently spiced – although some provinces, such as Ba Ria, may be more marked by red fruits*

Cacao beans, ready to be turned into chocolate.

  • Papua New Guinea

With excellent soil and rainforest conditions, Papua New Guinea is an ideal location for cacao production.

Paga Hill Estate lists some of the areas in Papua New Guinea where cacao is grown:

  • East New Britain Province
  • East Sepik Province
  • Madang
  • Autonomous Region of Bougainville

Spencer says the region’s cacao flavor usually has a “smoky characteristic because of how they dry it. However, you can always conch it differently if the chocolatier wants to get rid of that.”

Tasting notes: Smokiness*

  • Indonesia

Spencer tells me that Indonesia has been growing cacao for a while, and cannot be overlooked. It mainly produces commodity-grade chocolate, but he says that Krakakoa has been leading the way in making fine chocolate. Bali is a notable Indonesian origin, he adds. However, you’ll also find examples of fine chocolate from Sumatra, Sulawesi, and other islands.

Ripe cacao pods; different varieties are different colors when ripe. Credit: Arcellia Gallardo

We’ve come to the end of our whistle-stop tour of fine cacao origins. These are just a glimpse of the countries that produce exceptional cacao; there are many more worth trying. But now you have an insight into some of the main regions across Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

So, before you bite into that delicious chocolate bar, check the label. Look for the country and region of origin. And see what you can taste.

*Just like in coffee, these tasting notes characterize a region – but you will always find a chocolate bar that bucks the trend, whether because of it’s variety, unique micro climate, or production and processing methods.

Enjoyed this? Check out: Understanding The Ingredients List on Your Fine Chocolate Bar

Written by Julio Guevara.

PDG Cacao

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Growing a Cacao Tree Indoors

The journey from waxy white bean to rich, smooth chocolate is a complex and interesting one, but it all starts with the pods of the Theobroma cacao tree. Cacao is used in all kinds of savory sauces and sweet treats, and the plant it comes from is native to Mexico, Central, and South America. Nowadays, cacao is more commonly referred to as cocoa: the official word for the powdery substance created from the beans inside cacao tree seed pods. And with a multi-billion dollar industry riding on these pods, the prospect of growing them in your own home seems even more exciting.

While it’s fun to daydream about having one’s very own chocolate factory, growing these trees indoors isn’t exactly easy, and you aren’t likely to be rolling in chocolatey glory any time soon. Many people who grow cacao indoors and outside of tropical climates do so for the plant’s exotic look and the challenge of helping it thrive — not for the harvest. Of course, if you get some seed pods out of it, there will certainly be some added cause for celebration!

Getting Started

Getting a cacao seed started can often be the hardest part. For one thing, it must be treated very carefully once it’s out of the pod, as it’ll likely be soft and sappy. Germinating these seeds also requires a lot of luck, speed, and humidity, so it’s often best to search the nurseries in your area for a cacao sapling.

Cacao saplings grow well in clay pots, and the most essential ingredient to their growth is high humidity (at least 70 percent). The ideal thing is to maintain a hot greenhouse over the winter, but some growers just put a clear plastic bag over the entire plant — one that also contains a small water source to keep the evaporated water content within it high.

Light, Soil, and Fertilizer

You’ll want to use a light soil that drains quickly, but only rarely should you allow it to become completely dry (if at all). After all, you’ll be mimicking the climate of tropical rainforest, which is almost always granted enough water to stay moist. Because cacao usually grows below the canopy, however, you can still get away with small amounts of direct and filtered sunlight, though you’ll find plentiful indirect sunlight to be extremely valuable. Remember that too much unfiltered sunlight can also cause leaf scorching.

Make sure you use a balanced fertilizer on your cacao tree to keep it well-fed throughout the season. They’re accustomed to the nutrient-rich soil of the tropics, so it only makes sense to recreate those conditions as well as you possibly can.

Unique Aspects of Cacao

An interesting fact about cacao plants is that although every one contains both male and female reproductive organs, only some of them can successfully self-propagate. If you aren’t sure about your particular variety but definitely want to try for some seed pods, you’ll want to grow at least two trees. Cacao often produces far fewer pods when grown indoors, but there have still been some cases where an indoor plant has produced around three or four pods per year. The plant is aesthetically pleasing by itself, but harvesting its pods and making your own cacao powder from them is a truly fun and rewarding experience.

The trees are a little slow to grow, but they’ll eventually grow too large for your home if given the opportunity, so make sure to prune them occasionally (but not too much at a time). This allows you to shape the plant to a desired look over time and make sure the old growth is being replaced with new growth, keeping the leaves looking fresh all year long. Older parts of the plant are prone to tip burn, which is a natural part of the growing process but a less beautiful feature than you might hope for.

Look Out for Pests and Diseases

Without a lot of cross-contamination from outdoor plants taking place, very few pests are likely get to your indoor cacao tree. Of course, mealybugs and aphids do both like this plant a lot, so you may have to treat for them if an infestation becomes apparent. You’ll also want to check for root disease (as you would with any plant) and make a point to transfer the plant to larger pots as needed over time.

By following these careful steps, you’re sure to grow a truly impressive and beautiful cacao tree that will wow your guests — especially if they’re horticulturists like yourself. The pay-off of seeing your tropical tree thriving in a non-tropical environment is well worth the trial and error that’s often necessary to make it feel at home in your living space.

Theobroma COCOA / CHOCOLATE TREE (5 seeds)

Theobroma cacao, cocoa or chocolate tree is a small evergreen tree of the family Sterculiaceae.
Its yellow or red fruits grow directly on the trunk and branches of the tree.
Cocoa flowers are white with yellow in the middle.
Cocoa tree is a tropical species native to Mexico domesticated about 3,000 years ago, most likely initially for the making of an alcoholic beverage and then for the manufacture of chocolate.

Theobroma cacao was traditionally used by the Aztecs of Mexico to make chocolate, a mixture of cocoa, water and spices, used especially during ethnic ceremonies.
After the Spanish invasions, it will be imported to Europe, and mixed with milk, to give another drink that will also be called chocolate.
His success was immediate.

Stimulant and anti-depressant natural as the kola nut or Griffonia, the cocoa contains theobromine (an alkaloid present of 1.5 to 3% in the bean) and anandamide, nevertheless the quantities are weak.
The magnesium it contains would fight against depression.

Sowing of chocolate tree seeds:
Begin by preparing pots of potting soil with acidic seed previously moistened.
Then plant your cocoa beans under 1 cm of substrate.
water copiously at the plantation, then leave your crop in a very hot and humid place, if possible at a temperature of 35 to 40 ° c.
Use a greenhouse or mini-greenhouse to accelerate germination.
Cocoa seeds usually germinate after 2 to 4 weeks.

– Very beautiful exotic plant.
– Seeds producing cocoa then chocolate.
– Culture and germination relatively difficult.

Exotic and tropical plant seeds to grow in greenhouse or indoors.
Can not withstand temperatures below 15 ° C.

Theobroma Cacao, the Aztec’s Food of the Gods, is one of the trickier plants to grow. Cacao plants are quite rare in the United States, and viable seeds are even rarer. This is because the seeds have an extremely short viability. Only seeds obtained in the fruit or those that have been recently removed are suitable for growing. Dried cocoa beans are often sold for edible and aromatic applications, but do not be fooled into thinking you will be able to grow these. More importantly, beware of vendors selling these seeds for growing. If the beans are dry when you get them, they are no good.

So you’ll need to find a fresh fruit. It is important to slice around the perimeter of the fruit so that you do not damage the cocoa seeds in the center. It is a good idea to squeeze the sliced cacao pod to break it fully apart rather than slicing too deep. Once you have the two halves, you will seed a conglomeration of about 20-40 cocoa beans (depending on variety) stuck together with each individual seed coated by a white fruity material. This material is one of the things that makes growing cacao tricky.

The white fleshy material on the outside of the cacao seeds is problematic because it is an ideal place to harbor molds and disease that could harm the seed during germination. You may want to suck off the white fruit pulp as it can be extremely delicious. Afterwards, a tooth or sharp kitchen knife can be used to scratch the outer skin covering of the seed. That’s what you want to remove since it attaches to the pulp. Once, the skin has been breached in one area, you should be able to peel off the entire skin, revealing just the dark purple/brown seed inside. While one seed was being worked on, the other seeds should be put in water to keep from drying out and to keep any of the remaining fruit material workable. Leave them to soak overnight.

The following day you will want to wipe each seed dry and clean with a paper towel. Often, you will be wiping off pieces of clear inner skin and other pieces of outer skin you may have missed when peeling the seeds. Be sure to thoroughly clean off anything you can without breaking the seed. Especially when they’ve been soaking,cocoa seeds can be soft. You also want to make sure not to damage any roots that may have already begun to emerge. if you break off the root, then it will not be able to grow. If you break the dark part of the seed, it should still be able to grow as long as the root inside was not broken in any way.

Once the seeds have been cleaned, place them in a bed of moist spagnum moss or in a damp paper towel. If you use moss, use the long-fiber kind sold in craft stores and used for hanging baskets. This should not be confused with peat moss that is used as a soil component. We usually recommend very lightly moist paper towels because they harbor less mold/ bacteria. Keep the seeds in this medium until the tap roots are significantly developed. It is better to wait than to rush them into soil since soil is a dirtier environment. Clean each seed every day or two by wiping them down and changing the medium. If you’ve bought seeds from us, then you’ll likely have gotten them somewhere in this stage.

Eventually, you want to move them into a light airy mix, such as jiffy mix. Ideally, you want the root to be at least half an inch before sowing. This way, you can put the seed itself just above the soil line. By minimizing contact between the seed ans soil you minimize the risk of a mold outbreak. Place some moist spagnum moss around the top to keep the seed head from drying out. This acts almost like a little layer of mulch. But make sure it does not develop mold. Place the planted seed directly under a grow light. If you see mold, be sure to wipe the seed down with water or a mild peroxide solution and dry the surface of the seed out for a day or two. That doesn’t mean taking the seed out of the soil. But if you can remove the layer of spagnum moss and do not mist. A fan may be helpful in this case too. Mold is acceptable as long as it does not get out of hand or attack the root. It is common that you would see some mold in growing these seeds, but you must also be diligent in managing it. Once the seed heads arise above the jiffy mix, be sure to spray it regularly so it can open. Otherwise, it could prevent the leaves from ever popping out. These seeds may sprout slowly, so be patient.

If you’re growing indoors and looking for a good grow light system for you plant collection, we recommend Electric Sky.

Tutorials/Cocoa bean farming

Cocoa beans can grow on the sides of any jungle log, regardless of light level, requiring 1 empty air block in the space it will occupy. The jungle log does not need to be attached to a living tree, only any harvested jungle log, therefore it is easy to create large farms for cocoa beans by chopping down jungle trees and arranging the wood to optimize growing space.



An optimal arrangement for a non-automated cocoa bean farm is:

This can be repeated vertically and horizontally (overlap by 1 square horizontally or laterally when repeating this pattern) to create larger farms. Vertical farms are more space and yield efficient, however they are progressively more difficult to replant and harvest the taller they are. Bear in mind in your farm design that you cannot reach more than 6 blocks up and 4 blocks down from the block on which you are standing, so balancing simplicity of planting/harvesting and maximum yield involves a trench 4 blocks deep and jungle wood blocks protruding 6 blocks above ground.

Cocoa beans will break if the bean itself is hit by the player or a piston, if the jungle wood itself is pushed by a piston, if water occupies the same space as the growing bean, or if the jungle wood block is destroyed. All automated harvesting relies on these methods. Theoretically, TNT would also remove the beans but would be costly to implement and difficult to replant.

Alternatively, a slightly less growing space efficient but overall easier and higher yield design is to build a wall of any arbitrary width, covering both sides with cocoa plants. This is simpler to plant and harvest, as you are only working in 2 dimensions.

Bear in mind that extremely large farms are impractical and unnecessary given the speed at which cocoa pods grow and the overall yield of beans from a relatively small planting. Pods grow quickly, achieving maturity in minutes, each yielding up to 3 beans, each bean making 8 cookies or dying 1 wool brown. At about 80% pod maturity you will almost always see at least a 200% return on your planting, making it almost trivial to obtain all the beans you may want.


No designs for a fully automatic farm are available at this time, as you are required to manually place cocoa beans on the jungle log to plant pods, however semi-automatic farms that harvest automatically but still require manual planting are possible and relatively cheap to build.

Currently there is only one major variation of the semi-automatic farm: piston-harvested. Formerly, there was another major variation of the semi-automatic farm: water-harvested, it was broken as of the Update Aquatic due to the waterlogging mechanics, as water can now pass though cocoa without breaking it.

Piston harvested farms use a single line of jungle logs, planted on all 4 sides with cocoa plants. Pistons either push the trunk, causing the grown beans to be removed, or scrape the beans from the trunk. (Other designs raise and lower the trunk in rapid succession; but these utilize more complex redstone circuits and are not significantly more useful, cheap or efficient than simpler designs.) Piston designs suffer from universally low yields, somewhat expensive and complex circuit design (compared to alternatives) and general space inefficiency.

Water-harvested farms may also have a single block trunk of some height, but a much higher yield is possible by building walls and allowing the water to cascade over them to scrape off the pods.

Simple Water Flush Design

Fully-grown cocoa beans planted on a slate of jungle wood can be flushed using water for a clean and fast harvest. This design is polished, compact and clean yet simple and easy to build.

Wall design

Planting cocoa beans on the 4 sides of a log makes it harder to replant, so a wall of jungle wood makes the fastest design possible. For a compact design, the wall must be also partially underground so as to make the most out of your planting reach. This design uses dispensers, that are cheaper than other design’s pistons, and the use of redstone is minimum. The design is modular, with units of one dispenser and 3 blocks wide wall.

Piston column design

This design by MonkeyFarm uses pistons to harvest the cocoa beans. A piston moves the wood column up while another moves it back down, removing the cocoa beans from the tree. It is a bit more resource expensive however equally compact.

Note: The top repeater needs to be on the last tick for it to work.

Wall design with water

This design is theoretically scalable to any size wall and utilizing only one piston and a number of redstone torches equivalent to half the wall. The example uses two 7×7 walls placed in a 3x17x1 ditch to catch water runoff. There are 210 possible growth locations, yielding nearly 10 stacks of beans at maximum growth.

This design exploits the fact that water will propagate infinitely so long as it flows downhill first, allowing a single water block and single piston to cover any width of wall. This is based on MinecraftMaximizer’s design at the bottom of this page, but is considerably more space and material efficient, using a piston rather than a dispenser to release the water. This is because dispenser designs require 2 toggles: 1 to release the water and 1 to stop it; piston designs can work by a single button press. It does require more redstone than Maximizer’s, which only uses 1 dust in the dispenser, with the advantage to this design being that it can be triggered from the ground.

Bulky efficient design

A large and rather bulky mechanism may be created in a 7x7x3 with an inner stem of three jungle logs all covered with planted cocoa plants. Four three-block tall towers of pistons on the corners of the logs facing the plants with NOT gates connected to the bottom torches may be used to create a peak efficient farm. The downside is that the harvest will fly away from the center, making it harder to collect.

Compact design

A more compact 3x4x4 mechanism, but with 3/4 of the efficiency of the 7x7x3 model, may be made with a three-jungle-log stem. However, one side of the log stem is connected to sticky pistons with a block on the side of the middle piston. A torch is placed under the block and redstone is placed on top, then a lever is added to the block under the torch. To complete, plant cocoa plants on the three remaining sides of the jungle log stem and wait for them to grow. A flip of the lever and the cocoa beans can be harvested.

Water column design

For efficiency of space, as jungle logs are very common in a jungle biome, there is no reason to make a farm solely based on wood surface efficiency. The efficiency should rather be of space, and amount of materials used. Using water as a harvesting mechanism provides a far more compact solution, uses less materials, and can extend the farm beyond the single-column versions seen above. A great example of this type of farm can be seen in MinecraftMaximizer’s and MikiMiner’s designs.

Simple water flush design

This design has a low resource cost and does not take up much space, making it good for underground farming.

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Vermont’s not exactly known for its tropical weather, but even with our long cold winters, you can still grow and harvest your own chocolate indoors. The cacao trees below were grown from a pod harvested New Hampshire, and germinated in my Vermont home, both zone 4.

The New Hampshire parent tree grown by a friend is about 6 feet tall, and produces a crop of 2 to 5 pods per year, blooming in the summer and ripening mid-winter. That’s not bad, when you consider a tree growing outdoors in the tropics produces only 20 pods a year.

On our homestead, we love the novelty of growing our own tropical edibles. We’ve already had success with homegrown ginger, turmeric, mango trees, coffee, vanilla, lemons and oranges…why not add chocolate to the mix?

A few years back, I asked my cacao growing friend to save me a pod. Mid-February I got a call that my pod was ripe and ready to go. When I arrived, I found that they’d literally written my name on it to prevent anyone else from claiming it.

Since not everyone has a friend that happens to be growing cacao, you can order your own cacao pod online here

If you want to skip the germination steps, and get right to growing your own tree indoors, cacao trees are available here.

Cacao pod with my name on it (literally).

A bit of nomenclature, Theobroma Cacao is the tree name, spelled cacao. The processed chocolate, or cocoa mass, switches the last two letters and adds an o at the beginning. So a cacao tree is needed to grown your own cocoa or chocolate.

It’s important that the seeds are fresh, inside an intact pod. Once the pod is opened they rapidly spoil, and they’ll only germinate while fresh. Seeds cannot be dried and stored like garden vegetable seed packets. As a tropical plant, in nature the seeds would be kept warm and moist, and they wouldn’t have the opportunity to dry down like a package of typical garden seeds.

Each cacao bean is coated in a sticky sweet coating that tempts tropical animals to crack open the tough pods and gorge on the interior nectar. The beans themselves are then discarded as the animal moves throughout the canopy, planting the next generation of cacao trees.

The first step in growing chocolate from seed is to crack open the seed pod, which is roughly 1 centimeter thick. It takes a good butcher knife or chefs knife and quite a bit of elbow grease, so be careful with your fingers.

Avoid cutting into the seeds, because they’re surprisingly soft, gummy and fragile. Whole cacao beans or cacao nibs you buy from health food stores have been first fermented to remove the white nectar around the beans, and then dried and roasted to get a hard, crunchy texture.

Cacao pod sliced in half, with a damaged seed as a result. Note the interior seed is purple. Neat, right?

To prepare the seeds, you’ll need a few adventurous friends. I invited over just about everyone I knew when we cut it open, because it’s not everyday that you get to taste fresh grown raw chocolate.

The most efficient way to clean and prepare the seeds is by placing them into your mouth and sucking off the white cacao nectar. It’s sweet and fruity, and in the group I assembled every single person loved it.

In the tropics, they ferment it into a liquor and since the coating spoils so quickly, if you don’t grow your own your only chance to taste it fresh would involve a very expensive plane ride.

Friends gathered to enjoy fresh raw cacao straight from the pod!

For germination, the seeds want to be kept warm and moist. My drafty 1850’s schoolhouse in February didn’t seem like it fit the bill, but I created a hot water bottle for them with a Ziploc bag filled with warm water, wrapped in a wet towel. I then placed the freshly cleaned seeds in a wet paper towel, and put that on top of the water filled bag.

I put the whole setup into my oven with the oven light on for a small amount of extra heat. After just a few days, the seeds had begun to germinate and I transferred them to soil. With this method, I had a roughly 50% germination rate. Not bad for a cheap hacked setup.

Mature cacao tree leaves in the palm of my hand.

If you’re investing in buying a cacao pod and having it shipped to you, you might as well try a small counter top seed germination setup or at least invest in a seedling heat mat to better insure success.

Once you’ve got healthy cacao trees, either by germinating your own cacao pods or by starting with a live cacao tree, all you have left to do is wait.

Mature and productive tree in a New Hampshire greenhouse. It’s only about 6 feet tall, but producing well.

In nature, cacao trees are a zone 10 plant, so they want to be kept warm, but room temperature, keeping them consistently between 65 and 70 degrees is sufficient for them to thrive. They’re an under story plant, so filtered light indoors is actually ideal, and they grow wonderfully even in northern climates near a south facing window or in a sun room.

It takes 5-6 years from germination to see your first crop. The flowers will appear directly out of the stem, and though the plant will produce hundreds of tiny flowers, only a few will actually go on to produce cacao pods even in ideal conditions.

Cacao tree flowers growing directly out of the trunk. This tree flower and bears pods indoors in zone 4.

The fruit will begin to form, and will grow slowly for 6 to 8 months. Harvest happens in February or March for northern grown indoor cacao trees.

Be sure to have plenty of friends on hand for the harvest, to share in your success, and help you enjoy the sticky sweet cacao seed coating. When you harvest, you can continue to propagate from the seeds, or you can try eating the fresh raw seeds themselves. They have a unique flavor, and texture somewhat like a very firm grape or kiwi.

It really is a rare treat to get to enjoy your own fresh, raw chocolate from a homegrown tree. Best of luck, and get growing!

Grow Your Own Delicious Chocolate (Theobroma cacao)

By Laurelynn Martin and Byron Martin

Cacao pods and chocolate bars

Logee’s Chocolate Tree

Cocoa (Theobroma cacao)

Chocolate, originally found in South America, is known as “The Food of the Gods.” The first record of chocolate or cocoa dates back to 1900 BC and the Aztec people used chocolate seeds as a form of currency. Chocolate was served as a bitter beverage in the early days and was believed to be an aphrodisiac and have super powers. Later in Spain, and throughout Europe, sugar was added to the beverage and hot chocolate became a preferred drink even surpassing coffee. Chocolate is well loved today not only as a beverage but also when it’s made into candy bars and used in baking. Today, the health craze has brought us back to its natural form of consuming organic raw cacao nibs known for their antioxidant compounds called polyphenols as well as other health benefits. Growing your own chocolate tree is a relatively easy undertaking if you follow a few cultural requirements.

Tree Size
The chocolate tree is a small-to-medium sized tree and grows as an understory species in the rainforest so it tolerates and even thrives under dappled light or partial sun conditions.

Container Grown Chocolate
As a cultivated plant for the container gardener, the chocolate tree is easy to grow but it needs a bit of room to produce fruit. Plants are generally grown from seed and need 3-4 years to reach fruiting size. This means the tree will be 5-6’ in height with a trunk caliber of 1-1/2 to 2” in diameter. So to grow chocolate inside, a large, sunny and warm spot is needed.

Light Requirements
A chocolate plant needs a warm growing area that stays, for the most part, above 60°F, preferably with higher daytime temperatures and good quality light with some direct sunlight. This would be a large, south-facing window, a sunroom, greenhouse or conservatory. Chocolate plants also benefit from being grown outside during the summer months.

The flowers form along the woody trunks and branches in clusters from spring through fall. Some flowers may pop their heads out in the winter as well with good growing conditions.

Fruit set occurs once the tree has reached a size that’s large enough to fruit. This usually happens at 5-6’ in height. Initially, the potted plant will produce 3-4 chocolate pods. The fruit develops as a small green pod and grows for many months until it reaches maturity. Mature fruit is anywhere from 4 to 8” long, at which time it ripens to a yellow or yellow-orange color. The ripening process takes 5-6 months. After this, it is ready to pick.

Once or twice a year, for container grown cocoa trees, prune out the top of the plant to maintain height. It grows rapidly in the summer, especially when moved outside for the growing season. It can easily add an extra 2-3’ of height during the summer and you might need to prune the top so the plant will fit in the designated indoor growing area for the winter months. If more room is available, then the plant can be allowed to grow taller, which in turn, will produce a stronger plant with more fruiting potential.

For the most part, insects do not bother with the chocolate tree. We do see aphids on the soft growth at times and if a mealybug infestation is nearby, they can get onto the plant. However, container plants are susceptible to root disease so it needs to be grown in such a way as to mitigate disease.

How to prevent Root Disease
We recommend growing chocolate in clay pots and allowing the surface of the potting media to dry down between waterings. Also, fertilize at moderate levels during the growing season and discontinue your fertilization program in the winter. This helps to prevent root disease. Winter is a time to maintain your plants and keep them healthy not put on new soft growth. Unless optimal growing conditions with light, warmth and day length are present it is best to simply focus on getting your chocolate plant through the winter with healthy roots.

Leaf Edge Burn

Open Cocoa Pod

Chocolate plants need to be fertilized with a balanced fertilizer throughout their growing season, spring to fall.
Do not over feed. A feeding schedule of every two weeks with a soluble fertilizer or top dressing with an organic granular every 6 weeks is sufficient.

Leaf Edge Burn
One cultural issue that persists is leaf edge burn or the browning of the leaf tips and edges. This happens on the older leaves and, as far as we know, is part of the growing cycle of the plant. All cacao trees that we have observed, in many different growing environments, have this symptom on the older leaves. For the most part you can ignore it; the trees will still produce fruit and new growth will refresh the look of the plant in spring.

Most standard potting mixes are fine for the chocolate plant. It needs good drainage and a pH of 5 to 6 works well.

The thrill of growing your own chocolate fruit and watching them ripen on your tree can be a rewarding experience. Who knows? It may inspire you to become a chocolatier.

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