Somewhat counterintuitively, cocoa is not born a bean. In order to become the cocoa bean we all know and love so well, the seed of Theobroma cacao must first be fermented and dried. The process looks like this:
First, whole cocoa pods are harvested from the trees. This occurs at various times throughout the year as not all the pods ripen at once. Once harvested, they are transported to a fermenting facility.
Back at the facility, the pods are cut open and the pulp and cocoa seeds are removed and the rind is discarded. The pulp and seeds are piled in heaps, placed in bins, or laid out on grates.
The pulp and seeds ferment in the bins over the course of several days, the pulp liquifying during this time. The liquified pulp is allowed to seep through the bottoms of the bins into the grates where it is drained away. This process of fermentation, called “sweating,” must be monitored carefully, as it is essential to the taste and quality of the cocoa bean.
Once the rind has completely liquified and drained the cocoa seeds remain to be collected. They are spread out over a large surface, exposed to heat (preferably the sun), and raked frequently to speed the drying.
Finally, after this elaborate, several-day process, like an ugly duckling into a swan, a bitter cocoa seed has been transformed into a sweet, mild cocoa bean.