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Know Your Cacao – The Amazing Cacao Race

Ever wondered where cacao comes from? Or how cacao beans transform into chocolate bars? The Chocolate Space brings you the ‘Know Your Cacao!’ series where we feature insights into the world of cacao plantations, the cacao making process and the magic that makes chocolate what it is.

As the saying goes “follow the equator and you will find cacao”. If you look at the map of the world, you will begin to realize that countries that grow cacao lie near the equator. That’s because cacao trees grow in a very limited geographical zone, of about 20 degrees to the north and south of the Equator.

Cacao trees are native to the Americas. During the Spanish colonial era in the 15th century, settlers in the Lower Amazon discovered the first wild cacao trees. Till today, countries in the Americas continue to be producers of cacao, such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Columbia, the Dominican Republic and Brazil, just to name a few. Although these Latin American countries are no longer main cacao-producers, the region continues to be rich in cacao tradition and history. In fact, most boutique chocolatiers continue to source for beans in Latin American for their single-bean origin chocolate production.

But cacao did not stand still in the Americas for long. The lucrative cacao trade pushed eastwards across the Atlantic and before long, there were cacao plantations in the Africa regions, eventually making Africa the largest world supplier of cacao. West Africa now supplies 70% of the world’s cacao production, with the four major producing countries made up of the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon.

The evangelical love for cacao was just too great to be contained in Africa, and continued to spread further eastwards to Asia to countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. While the cacao scene in Asia is relatively quiet, given that most of these countries have no native tradition of cacao growing, you’d be surprised to know that Vietnam is an up-and-coming cacao producing country ever since the move by the Vietnamese government to encourage the development of cacao as a crop in the 1980s. While Vietnam cacao is mainly produced bulk beans for major industry players like Cargill, some chocolatiers like Scharffenberger have experimented with Vietnam cacao beans, making them into fine-flavor chocolates for boutique sales.