Cocoa beans are the primary ingredient in chocolate making, but have you ever wondered where these beans actually come from? Cocoa beans typically grow within 20 degrees of the equator. This distinctive growing region is commonly referred to as the “cocoa belt.”
Where does cocoa come from?
Cocoa beans, or cacao beans, come from the Theobroma cacao tree. The Theobroma cacao tree is a fruit tree, whose name means “food of the gods”. The cacao beans, which are technically seeds, grow inside pods surrounded by a white fleshy pulp known as Baba. The Theobroma cacao tree flourishes in hotter tropical climates (65-90°F) at lower elevations (<2,000ft). It needs a growing area where there is ample rainfall, yet sufficient soil drainage. Because the cacao tree also requires an abundance of shade, it is often planted with other, larger fruit trees (like mangoes) or hardwoods.
Cacao trees are relatively short, only growing to be about 15-25 feet tall. It takes about 5 years (from seed) for a cacao tree to grow mature and start producing cacao pods. The beans grow in football-shaped pods on the trunk of the tree and from larger branches. The average cacao tree produces 30-40 cacao pods a year. These pods are typically harvested two times a year and can be green, yellow, orange, or red, depending on the variety of the cacao tree.
Like grapes and wine, cocoa beans can have different flavors depending on the variety of the bean and the location where the bean is grown (commonly known as terroir). The Forastero variety has a smoother, more rounded shape cacao pod with a thicker shell wall and produces cocoa with more classic chocolate flavor characteristics. The Criollo variety has a knobby, more elongated pod shape with a thinner shell wall and produces cocoa with more floral, fruity and nutty flavors. The Trinitario variety is a hybrid of the Forastero and Criollo.
In what countries is cocoa produced?
The Theobroma cacao tree originated in the upper Amazon basin region (Brazil, Colombia, and Peru). Today, cacao is grown by 40-50 million cocoa farmers in more than 50 countries around the world. 90% of the world’s cocoa is grown on small family farms, while only 5% is grown on larger commercial plantations. For the majority of these farmers, cacao is their primary source of income. Many make less than $1USD a day for their hard work growing and harvesting cacao — so supporting sustainable farming practices and fair trade chocolate is more important than ever!
Cocoa Producing Countries
Côte d’Ivorie Nigeria Ecuador Colombia Mexico India Guatemala Liberia Nicaragua Republic of Congo Vanuatu Grenada Costa Rica Guyana Trinidad and Tobago Belize Gabon Saint Lucia Fiji
Ghana Cameroon Peru Papua New Guinea Venezuela Sierra Leone Madagascar Tanzania Bolivia Democratic Republic of Congo Sri Lanka Honduras Samoa Equatorial Guinea Dominica Cuba Central African Republic Comoros Suriname
Indonesia Brazil Dominican Republic Uganda Togo Haiti Guinea Philippines Solomon Islands Sao Tome and Principe Malaysia Panama Angola El Salvador Jamaica Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Thailand Micronesia American Samoa
While this list might seem long, many of these countries only produce a small amount of cocoa. More than half of the world’s cocoa comes from only two countries: the Ivory Coast and Ghana. The countries at the bottom (listed in green) produce less than a thousand metric tons of cocoa a year.
Does Cocoa Grow in the United States?
Because this delicate fruit tree requires such a distinct climate, it can only successfully grow in select areas. While the United States is one of the top ten chocolate consuming countries, the majority of the country does not have the optimal cacao-growing climate. Hawaii is the only state that can sustain commercial cacao production.
Cocoa at Lake Champlain Chocolates
As a certified B Corporation®, we are dedicated to using business as a force for good. For us, this means being committed to sustainability and transparency in our supply chain. Our organic chocolate is made with cocoa grown by farmer co-ops in the Dominican Republic and Peru. Our conventional (non-organic) chocolate is a blend of fair trade cocoa grown in West Africa. 100% of the chocolate we use is fair trade certified!