From Bean to Bar – The Meticulous Chocolate Supply Chain

Chocolate is a beloved treat enjoyed by millions around the world, including our country, and has a tiresome journey before it reaches our taste buds. It is one of the most complex and intricate supply chains and involves multiple stages, from the cultivation to the manufacturing, and distribution of the final product.

As we celebrate World Chocolate Day today, come take a peek into its bittersweet supply chain.

The chocolate supply chain begins with cacao trees’ cultivation in tropical regions. Cacao farmers carefully nurture the trees, providing them with the ideal conditions of temperature, rainfall, and soil quality. Globally, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa are the largest producers, while in India, cacao plantations can be found across Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. The highest yield, on average, comes from Kerala, according to the Union Government’s Directorate of Cashewnut and Cocoa Development (DCCD).

According to a study by Euromonitor, India’s chocolate market is projected to grow 8% annually between 2016-21 to reach USD 2.5 billion. As a result of this growing demand, both public and private initiatives are trying to grow the size of the domestic production of cacao, boost the quality of yield, and improve processing techniques. As one of the traditional cacao-growing areas, Kerala is an obvious focus.

Simultaneously, the traditional cacao farms of Idukki are also the center of a small but growing bean-to-bar movement. This is chocolate that is as much about the bean, its processing, and place of origin as it is about the farmers who grow it.

Once the cacao pods ripen, they are handpicked to ensure optimal quality, and this stage is one that needs extreme precision and care while handling, in order to avoid damage to the beans. Once harvested, the beans are fermented in containers or on banana leaves for a few days – a step that helps develop the flavors of chocolate by initiating biochemical changes within the beans. The next step includes drying and sorting the fermented beans, which is followed by roasting and grinding. In fact, roasting is a crucial process that brings out the rich flavors of the cacao beans, when done at specific temperatures to enhance aromatic profiles.

After roasting, the beans are cooled and ground into a paste called chocolate liquor, which is basically part cocoa solids and cocoa butter, the two main components of chocolate. It is then processed through a ‘conch’ for hours to get a smooth and velvety texture. Following conching, other ingredients such as sugar, milk powder, and flavorings may be added to create different varieties of chocolate.

Representative supply chain flow for Côte d’Ivoire

Next comes an important part – moving out the product to various factories and processing centers across the world. The packaging of these freshly made chocolates needs to be extremely protective in order to avoid damage and spoilage due to moisture, heat, and light.

The final stage of the chocolate supply chain involves distributing chocolate products to retailers and consumers worldwide. Manufacturers collaborate with distributors, wholesalers, and retailers to ensure the timely and efficient delivery of their products. Once in stores, consumers can finally indulge in the delectable flavors of chocolate, savoring the fruits of an intricate supply chain that spans continents.

On the importing side, Europe and the United States are the biggest importers of the production that comes from West Africa and and Central America. Similarly, Mars, Nestlé and Hersheys are the largest manufacturers of processed chocolate. Since none of the world’s biggest producers of chocolate actually grow cacao beans, the industry relies significantly on international trade. 

A major challenge for the chocolate supply chain is that it softens at 29 degrees C, melts at 33 degrees C, and typically won’t survive more than three days in transit. To ensure safe delivery, most orders are shipped out after extensive quality assurance. In warm regions, and as e-commerce demand picks up by the day, even with the use of expensive foam coolers, dry ice, and gel packs, this shipping process can still be precarious. Given the high stakes, many luxury chocolate makers won’t make deliveries during the summer months or deliver to consistently warm locations at all.

Lately, there has also been an increased focus on improving visibility and traceability in the cacao supply chain. As manufacturers partner with technology companies and the farmers on a ground level, they aim to establish intensive visibility starting with the first mile itself. The software used generates a unique barcode to stick on to each bag of cacao and trace it – inducting technology like RFID into the supply chain.

In fact, last year, Harold Poelma (President, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate) divulged the following in a statement released by the company –

“To date, the cocoa in our direct supply chain is traceable to the first point of purchase. This year, 117,111 farmers in our direct supply chain are delivering cocoa through first-mile digital traceability systems, up from 89,399 last year. Additionally, we continue to lead in sourcing certified sustainable cocoa, which represents almost half of all the cocoa we source.33 Our reporting tools, such as CocoaWise™, provide visibility on provenance and impact and have been enriched with more features, such as cocoa and chocolate product carbon footprints.”

The supply chain of chocolate is a remarkable journey that intertwines nature, skilled farming, meticulous processing, and efficient distribution. From the cacao farms in tropical regions to the delightful chocolate bars on store shelves, each step contributes to the creation of this beloved treat. On World Chocolate Day, let’s appreciate the efforts of countless individuals involved in the supply chain of chocolate, making it possible for us to enjoy this heavenly delight with every bite.

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