It seems the best place to start the chocolate journey is at the start of the chocolate: the cocao bean. The theobroma cocao or cocao tree produces pods full of cocoa beans.
Check out a picture of the cocoa tree.
The trees grow best in warm tropical regions 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator, with 70% of the world’s supply coming from Africa. The majority of cocao beans are grown on small plots of land or family farms; something in which we as family chocolatiers often take joy as we are melting and sculpting the final product. To put some numbers on it, there are 15 million acres planted worldwide and 90 percent is grown by families on plots less than twelve acres.
During the growing process there are typically four important steps, harvesting, separating, fermenting, and drying that must occur before the bean is shipped to a manufacturer to become chocolate as we know it. The remote nature of the bean growing certainly adds an element of unpredictability to the process! We’ll cover more on these steps later and touch a little more on the bean and tree today.
There are three main varieties of cocoa grown commercially:
Criollo: The finest quality with great depth of flavor; only makes up about 10% of world production.
Forastero: A tougher variety less prone to disease but also lacking the flavor complexity of criollo; comprises about 70% of world production.
Trinatario: A hybrid of criollo and forastero with some of the strengths of both – makes up about 20% of world production.
Peter Greweling puts it well in his book Chocolates & Confections that you can look at it as 95% of the world’s beans are bulk beans and 5% of beans are flavor beans, which puts a little perspective on why chocolate (good chocolate at least) can be so expensive.
 Mort Rosenblum’s Chocolate, A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light.