Fermentation has a critical importance in the cocoa post-harvest process. Some traders go to extreme lengths to help farmers produce well-fermented beans, even if it’s not commercial viable. Another idiosyncrasy of cocoa as compared to other agricultural commodities.
If you were to eat raw cocoa beans plucked fresh out of the pod, you’d grimace in disgust.
Raw cocoa beans are bitter and evoke no resemblance to the rich, buttery flavor of chocolate.
In the post-harvest process, fermentation is the critical step that gives chocolate its indelible flavor.
Fermentation can take different forms, but in West Africa, it is an unsophisticated procedure.
Farmers pile cocoa beans, still covered in a sweet sticky fruit, under banana leaves, creating the perfect humid environment for the proliferation of microorganisms.
These microscopic critters break down the white pulpy mass, leading to fermentation and bestowing the chocolate flavor to cocoa beans.
But, the post-harvest process is not yet finished.
Every day, farmers turn the beans so that they are evenly fermented. Once fermentation is over, the cocoa is placed in the sun to dry, ideally on drying racks. Again, they are turned every couple days.
The whole post-harvest process takes 7-10 days, from collecting pods and slicing them open to drying beans.
The cocoa post-harvest process is fussy
But, there can be significant hiccups to the production of dry, well-fermented cocoa, depending on the microclimate.
Some regions of Côte d’Ivoire are so wet that cocoa never reaches the required 9% humidity level.
This is especially a problem in the southwest surrounding the thrumming cocoa port of San Pedro.
Rains frequently batter this region of Côte d’Ivoire, complicating the drying process.
To make matters worse, the southwest does not follow the regular cocoa harvest due to its unique microclimate.
Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa season has two distinct periods.
The main crop, running from October to March, produces more than 2/3 of the total harvest. Its large beans, rich in fat content, are ideal for processing into semi-finished products, especially cocoa butter, the key ingredient in chocolate bars.
The April to September mid-crop only yields less than 1/3 of the crop and beans are typically smaller.
In the southwest, the harvest is flipped on its head with the main crop taking place in April to September.
Since this period coincides with the harvest of cassava, a major staple food, farmers are too busy assuring their basic needs to deal with the fussy cocoa post-harvest.
A hurried fermentation and drying process compromises the quality of the dried cocoa sold to processors.
Therefore, three cocoa processors united to form the PACT (Processors Alliance for Cocoa Traceability and Sustainability) program to support farmers and improve cocoa quality.
Under the initiative, these processors buy wet cocoa beans from farmers, which they ferment and dry.
Price negotiations with farmers is no simple task
Since the processors are buying wet beans, they have to negotiate a discount with farmers, which is no easy task.
The PACT processors base the reduction on the weight difference between wet and dry beans.
As 300kg of wet beans is roughly equivalent to 100kg of dry beans, the PACT processors pay one-third of the minimum farmgate price to farmers for the wet beans.
Initially, wary farmers, used to being ripped off, refused the price cut.
Introducing the bucket test
The program had to come up with a way to demonstrate to farmers the weight discrepancy, thereby justifying the discount.
“We call it the bucket test,” explained an employee associated with the program as he sipped his coffee.
“It sounds weird in English,” he said, his brow furrowed.
In the bucket test (test de sceau), three buckets are filled to the brim with wet beans, which are then poured into a fermentation pit.
Over a period of six to seven days, the beans are mixed every two days to ensure an even fermentation before they are tossed into an artificial dryer.
At the end, the processors measure the quantity of beans by pouring them back into buckets. The final yield comes out to 27% of the original total weight.
“But we still pay farmers one-third of the set price,” he emphasized.
Despite encompassing a large area, the PACT program produces tiny amounts of cocoa.
This rigmarole of purchasing, fermenting, and drying raw cocoa beans only yields about 400-500 MT of dry cocoa – not even equal to a half of a percent of Cote d’Ivoire’s 2014/15 bumper crop of 1.74mn MT.
The cocoa is well fermented but expensive.
Given the high costs, it is difficult to scale up. And, this is just Forastero bulk cocoa used in any mass-market chocolate bar, not fine flavor cocoa for bean-to-bar chocolate makers in Brooklyn, New York.
It is difficult to think of another commodity where buyers bend over backwards to improve quality of a tiny volume.
This is one of the many idiosyncrasies of cocoa.
For readers in the industry, what are other examples of the finicky nature of cocoa? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comment section below.