Plus Cacao

Understanding the Cacao Bean Fermentation Process

Why Are Cacao Beans Fermented?

Cacao bean fermentation is a critical step in chocolate and Pure Cacao production, essential for developing the rich and complex flavors characteristic of high-quality chocolate. By fermenting the beans, organic acids are converted using naturally occuring processes under anaerobic conditions, enhancing the flavor profile of the beans.

The Process of Fermenting Cacao Beans

The fermentation process begins shortly after the Cacao pods are harvested. To extract the Cacao pulp, the pods are split open with wooden mallets, and the beans along with the surrounding pulp are removed by hand. This step must occur within four days of harvesting to prevent spoilage.

Fermentation techniques vary depending on the region and type of Cacao beans.
Common methods include:

Wooden Boxes Covered with Banana Leaves: Beans are placed in these boxes, covered with banana leaves, and turned periodically.
Mats or Buckets: Beans can also be spread on mats or placed in buckets, often with banana leaves or reeds on top for protection.

As the beans ferment, the alcohol in the beans is converted to acetic or lactic acid. Holes in the buckets or mats allow the acids to seep out, enhancing the flavor of the beans. Regular turning or mixing of the beans over several days, typically a week, maximizes flavor development.
Using wooden boxes for fermentation offers better control over the process. The boxes, equipped with holes for acid drainage and legs to elevate them off the ground, allow for easier rotation of the beans, preventing them from sitting in residual acids.

Importance of Fermentation

Fermentation not only develops the beans’ flavor but also helps eliminate germs present in the pods. The process activates the microorganisms and yeasts in the pulp, which play a crucial role in breaking down sugars and other compounds within the beans.

Drying the Beans

After fermentation, which lasts between four to ten days, the beans must be dried. They are typically spread on raised boards to allow airflow underneath and dried in the sun for five to ten days. Proper rotation during drying ensures uniform quality. In moist climates, drying can be challenging, and alternative methods such as using cement slabs with fires underneath are employed.

Sorting and Storing Dry Beans

Once dried, the beans are sorted by size and quality. Flat, moldy, broken, or germinated beans are discarded. The sorted beans are stored in bags in a dry and clean environment until ready for sale.

Microbiology of Cacao Fermentation
The fermentation process involves several stages, each dominated by different microbial communities:

Day 1: Yeasts, lactic acid bacteria, and acetic acid bacteria start growing, raising the temperature to 45-50°C.
Days 2-3: The temperature peaks at 50-55°C, favoring the growth of acetic acid bacteria.
Days 4-5: The temperature begins to drop, and lactic acid bacteria become more dominant, increasing lactic acid production and contributing to the sour taste of chocolate.
Days 6-7: The production of organic acids, including acetic and lactic acid, peaks. The beans reach a pH of around 5.5, and the fermentation process is complete.

The fermentation of Cacao beans is a complex process that significantly impacts the final quality of chocolate. Through careful management of microbial activity, temperature, and environmental conditions, the beans are transformed, developing the flavors that make chocolate so beloved worldwide. Whether using traditional spontaneous fermentation or more controlled starter culture methods, the journey from Cacao pod to Pure Cacao chunk is one of intricate science and art.