There are three main varieties of the Theobroma cacao: Forastero, Criollo, and Trinitario. The first comprises 95% of the world production of cacao, and is the most widely used. Overall, the highest quality of cacao comes from the Criollo variety and is considered a delicacy; however, Criollo is harder to produce, hence very few countries produce it, with the majority of production coming from Venezuela (Chuao and Porcelana). The Trinitario is a mix between Criollo and Forastero.
The Netherlands is the leading cocoa processing country, followed by the U.S..
Cocoa pods in various stages of ripeningWhen the pods ripen, they are harvested from the trunks and branches of the Cocoa tree with a curved knife on a long pole. The pod itself is green when ready to harvest, rather than red or orange. Normally, red or orange pods are considered of a lesser quality because their flavors and aromas are poorer; these are used for industrial chocolate. The pods are either opened on the field and the seeds extracted and carried to the fermentation area on the plantation, or the whole pods are taken to the fermentation area.
The harvested pods are opened with a machete, the pulp and cocoa seeds are removed and the rind is discarded. The pulp and seeds are then piled in heaps, placed in bins, or laid out on grates for several days. During this time, the seeds and pulp undergo "sweating", where the thick pulp liquifies as it ferments. The fermented pulp trickles away, leaving cocoa seeds behind to be collected. Sweating is important for the quality of the beans, which originally have a strong bitter taste. If sweating is interrupted, the resulting cocoa may be ruined; if underdone the cocoa seed maintains a flavor similar to raw potatoes and becomes susceptible to mildew.
The liquified pulp is used by some cocoa producing countries to distill alcoholic spirits.
The fermented beans are dried by spreading them out over a large surface and constantly raking them. In large plantations, this is done on huge trays under the sun or by using artificial heat. Small plantations may dry their harvest on little trays or on cowhides. Finally, the beans are trodden and shuffled about (often using bare human feet) and sometimes, during this process, red clay mixed with water is sprinkled over the beans to obtain a finer color, polish, and protection against molds during shipment to factories in the United States, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and other countries. Drying in the sun is preferable to drying by artificial means, as no extraneous flavors such as smoke or oil are introduced which might otherwise taint the flavor.