Cacao trees, also known as cocoa trees, only grow in tropical regions, and are commonly grown alongside bananas, coconuts and hardwood trees. While there are four main types of cacao tree, there are a large number of varieties within each of those types. Furthermore, cacao beans have a wide variety of factors affecting how they taste after having been harvested, dried and roasted for processing.
Cacao trees are grown in order to produce cacao beans. Cacao beans are dried, ground and formed into products as diverse as cocoa powder, cocoa butter and chocolate. These products may be used as ingredients in still other items, or may be sold as-is.
Four types of cacao trees currently exist, although there are many varieties within these four basic types. Forastero is the most widely grown, accounting for approximately 80 percent of the world's cacao supply. Criollo trees create a high-quality product, but yields are considerably lower than the volume champion Forastero. The Trinitario is a cross between the above two types, taking positive qualities from each. Finally, the Nacional is very difficult to grow, but the aroma from its beans is unmatched.
Cacao trees require a very specific environment in which to do well. The band around the world that is within about 15 degrees of the equator is where cacao trees thrive. For that reason, it is sometimes called the "Cocoa Belt." Cacao trees are grown in South and Central America, Africa, and parts of Asia, within that specification.
Cacao trees require tropical rainfall and warmth, but also require shade from the sun. When they are young, they do best in deep shade; as they grow older, dappled shade is best. They often grow in the shadow of larger hardwood trees, including breadfruit.
Once cacao trees have begun producing, their periods of productivity can last for 75 to 100 or more years.
Cacao trees can reach 40 feet (or 12 meters) in height when fully grown. The bark is smooth and brown, and the wood inside is very light, nearly white. Younger cacao trees have red, glossy leaves. More mature cacao trees have dark green leaves.
At three to five years of age, they will begin fruiting. Flowers are very small and pink or white. Cacao pods are oblong in shape, similar to a football. They are purplish brown, and contain between 20 and 40 hard, brown cacao beans inside a pinkish, sticky pulp within each pod. Pods may be more than 1 foot (or 30 cm) in length.
Moss and orchids are known to sometimes grow on the trunks and branches of cacao trees.
Cacao trees grown in different regions and under different conditions produce noticeable variations in flavor in their beans. As the world's desire for cacao has increased, some manufacturers now specify that products come from a certain region, rather than mixing and matching cacao beans from various regions. Aspiring cacao afficionados may wish to try various grades and regional styles of cacao to note the differences for themselves.