Cocoa trees begin to produce their first fruit at three to five years of age. Cocoa trees produce football-shaped pods that contain the seeds that will become cocoa beans. A shade-grown cocoa tree can produce fruit for 75 to 100 years or more.
Tiny, intricate pink or whitish flowers grow along the trunk and main branches of the cocoa tree. These flowers must be pollinated before the tree can produce the pods that contain the seeds, or cocoa beans. Tiny flies are the main natural pollinators, but less than five percent of the flowers get pollinated. The cocoa farmer can also pollinate the flowers by hand.
There are two main types of cocoa, with thousands of variations within these basic varieties, including some that have grown wild for thousands of years.
Criollo - Sometimes called the prince of cocoas because it is a very high quality grade of cocoa with exceptional flavor and aroma. Less than 15 percent of the world's cocoa is Criollo, grown mainly in Central America and the Caribbean.
Forastero - A much more plentiful variety of high quality cocoa, representing most of the cocoa grown in the world. Grown mainly in Brazil and Africa, it is hardier, more productive (higher yielding) and easier to cultivate than Criollo and is used in just about every blend of chocolate that is made.
A third type of cocoa, Trinitario, originated in Trinidad. It is a cross between strains of the other two types.