Sophie opening cacao pods last year.

As I write, I am smelling cacao nibs roasting.  It’s a rich earthy chocolatey smell, like super dark triple chocolate brownies baking.  When I started roasting the beans, the first smell held a hint of fermentation, as if I had mixed some dark red wine or balsamic vinegar with the cacao.  As the roasting proceeds (which it has done slowly, because the pilot light blew out there for awhile) the chocolate is taking over the slightly alcoholic smell.  It’s a very very good smell.

This is how I made delicious cacao nibs from ~10 of our cacao pods.


Here is our cacao harvest, picked on March 27th. The yellow pods that look almost rotten were just right for harvest.  The dark red pods are not yet ripe; they need to turn orange, more like the one at 10:00.

Cacao beans are wrapped in a sweet, white cottony fiber in their pod.  The white stuff is delicious to eat and we often do just that (spitting out the beans and saving them to plant).  It also is important to the fermentation.  I also have heard you want the beans to have contact with the outside of pods to pick up yeast that causes the natural fermentation.

1)  Open the pods by either scoring with a knife and then cracking open or banging against a rock. The goal is to not cut through the seeds.

Looks like a larva doesn’t it?

2)  Place the beans in a large mason jar, leaving all the white cottony goo intact. Sprinkle in around 1 teaspoon of Brewer’s yeast (I used Red Star because it is gluten and corn free). Gently stir it in with a spoon. The added yeast helps ensure that fermentation will happen.  You can also try using the bloom off banana leaves or fermenting them in banana leaves; the white bloom on the leaves is a yeast that aides fermentation.  I want to try this next time instead of purchased yeast. (Update 1-25-14:  I have used banana leaves several times successfully.  Now I am wondering if I really need any “starter” at all – next trial will be to not even use banana leaves and see if they self-ferment.)

March 28th – the next day.

3)  Put a cheesecloth held in place with a rubber band (or canning jar ring) around the top of the jar.  Place the jar where it will be quite warm – I used our oven, which has a strong pilot light that kept it around 90 degrees.  After a day, fermentation is already visible.

Super frothy!

4)  Stir the beans gently every day. The first time I did this there were active bubbles that rose an inch above the beans! It smelled like baking bread.  Towards the end of a week I tested a bean to see if the inside was turning brown.

April 1 – Day 6

It was still too pale, so I left the jar in the oven to continue to ferment.  When I needed to use the oven, I put the cacao jar in a cooler with two sealed jars of hot water and the lid on to keep them comfy.

There was a very thin layer of white mold on the beans on days 6, 7, and 8, which I stirred in.  This layer was so thin it trapped the fermentation bubbles.

Day 8. Turned dark after exposure to air.

On the 8th day I cut open another bean, which was darker purple and turned brown after a few minutes.  The beans were starting to smell lightly alcoholic, a change from the yeasty smell.  You don’t want them to smell like ammonia.

Before spreading them out to dry, I tried to wipe a little of the gooey fuzz off on this kitchen towel (I know someone who washes them at this point).  Toweling certainly wasn’t very effective but I didn’t want to get them all wet just to dry them again!

In this photo the bean doesn’t look as dark as it was – but in several hours it became dry and crumbly and tasted like a cacao nib!  (I think it is the same exact bean pictured above).  They are supposed to look dark purple to brown when ready to dry.

5)  Spread the beans out one layer thick on drying racks. I made these by taping 1/8 inch pet screen over some grills I found lying around.  You want to keep the bugs out, therefore the pet screen makes a good base.

6)  Put in a sunny, well-ventilated place, protected from bugs, mice, and birds.  I started drying these outside but, let’s be real, this is the Hamakua coast and it started to rain within a few hours.  I moved them inside to a storage room and set up a dehydrator.  But it was nice to get them dried initially in the sunshine!

7)  Stir the seeds around every day.  This seems most important at first to keep them from sticking.  After one day in the sun and one day in the dehumidified room they looked like this (above).  They started to get a light white bloom.

After 6 days of drying, they look like this (above). The light bloom never grew into a fuzzy mold.

The ~10 pods provided a little over 2 cups of dried beans.

8)  Roast the beans.  Preheat oven to 275, place on a baking sheet for ~30-45 minutes; keep a close eye so as not to burn them!

This is when they smell sooooooooo divine.

9) Separate the beans from the thin shells with a mortar and pestle, or a rolling pin.

See the thin shell in the middle?  It is much lighter than the bean, that is, as long as the bean isn’t broken up into tiny tiny pieces.  Now the aim is to separate this chaff from the beans, because it is bitter and dry.

I crunched them up in this little mortar and pestle.  If there were more than 2 cups this would have been quite tedious.

10) Next, separate the skin from the toasted cacao.  I lay a sheet on the floor and set up a fan.  I put around a half-cup of the cacao in a bowl, set another bowl on the floor, and poured them against the current of the fan, letting the chaff blow onto the sheet and the nibs fall into the bowl.  I did this over and over until there were no more obvious chaff pieces.  Not perfect – you lose some cacao and there are some small pieces of skin left – but better than hand-picking it all out!

Final product …  delicious dark chocolate nibs that can be ground and pressed into a bar, or mixed with coconut and sweetener, baked with, or just nibbled on.

Made 2 cups.

References I used:

Making Chocolate from Scratch – Skip Bittenbender, Cooperative Extension in Hawaii, Jan. 2009

Harvesting, post-harvest handling, fermenting, and drying for small farms in Hawaii –  Skip Bittenbender and Tom Sharkey, powerpoint

Now fermenting cacao beans, Dokmai dogma blog from Thailand