On average, Americans eat about ten pounds of chocolate per year! Still, most of us have never seen the cacao bean from which it’s made. We’re hoping to change that.
Special thanks to our partners at Coagricsal in Honduras who grow both coffee and cacao for helping us to share pictures and key differences.
What is the Caffeine Content for Cacao and Coffee?
One serving of snacking cacao contains about half the caffeine of a brewed cup of coffee.
How are Cacao and Coffee Farmed?
Cacao and coffee are primarily grown by smallholder farmers (often defined as <5 hectares / 12 acres). Both crops are hand-harvested to preserve the next harvest because each plant flowers and fruits simultaneously. Coffee and cacao can grow in the same climate and landscapes, but each prefers a different environment.
Coffee prefers higher elevations, with cooler nights, mountainous landscapes with well-drained soil, and lots of shade for fine flavor development.
Cacao prefers the rich and fertile soil of lower elevations, with slightly more sun creating a blanket of warmth both day and night.
Are Cacao and Coffee Genetically Related?
Not tightly. Both are part of a very large clade of flowering plants called core eudicots. There are two clades within:
- Superasterids (more than 122,000 species): including coffee, sweet potatoes and olives.
- Superrosids (more than 88,000 species): including cacao, grapes and strawberries.
How do Cacao and Coffee Plants Grow?
Cacao grows on a vigorous, smooth-branched tree that can reach 30-40 feet height.
Coffee is a large, dense, woody bush that can reach up to 10 feet high by 5 feet wide.
Both cacao trees and coffee bushes take about 3-5 years to start producing fruit and are at peak production for 25 years, but can continue producing for as much as 100 years!
How are Cacao and Coffee Pollinated?
Cacao has a tiny flower that grows on main trunks and branches and must be cross-pollinated with another cacao tree by small midges or by hand to create the cacao pod fruit.
By contrast, coffee is a prolific, white, self-pollinating flower that will produce a cherry for each flower.
What’s the difference between Cacao Fruit [Pods] and Coffee Fruit [Cherries]?
The cacao pod is a large fruit that reaches maturity in 4-6 months. Each pod weighs about one pound and contains between 20-40 seeds per pod, depending upon the variety. Each tree can grow up to 20-30 pods per year, totaling 20-30 pounds of pods to yield just 1-2 pounds of dried cocoa!
Learn more about cacao – follow our journey in pictures From Farm to Snack.
Coffee is a very small fruit, called a cherry, about the size and color of a ripe cranberry. Each cherry contains two seeds and takes nearly nine months to mature from flower. It takes about 2,000 coffee cherries weighing about five pounds to create one pound of roasted coffee! Like cocoa, coffee bushes yield about 1-1.5 pounds of roasted coffee annually.
How are Cacao Beans and Coffee Beans Fermented and Processed?
Fermentation and post-harvest processing is probably where coffee and cacao beans are the most similar.
Smallholder farmers commonly join coops to share the burden of post-harvest efforts. Coops improve market power and increase access to larger buyers that require higher volumes with more uniform quality standards.
For cacao, our coops:
- receive wet beans already removed from their pods, but still in their white, sweet & tangy fruit
- perform centralized fermentation for 4-7 days (depending on cacao type and temperatures)
- sun-dry for another 4-10 days (depending on the weather)
- sell the dried cocoa on behalf of their members to primarily international buyers
- receive ripe coffee cherries from the farmers
- remove the seeds from the cherries via a wet “washed” process
- ferment the beans in a water bath for about 2 days
- sun-dry the coffee beans for 6-8 days (depending on the weather)
- sell the dried coffee on behalf of their members to primarily international buyers
What’s the difference between Cacao Beans and Coffee Beans?
Cocoa beans are the seeds of the cocoa fruit that are typically roasted and ground to make chocolate or processed into cocoa butter and cocoa powder. The beans are about equal parts fat (butter) and mass (solids including carbs, protein and fiber). Their texture is similar to an almond. For snacking cacao, we prefer small cacao beans which are about the size of an almond or ¾” in length. Large cacao beans, preferred by chocolate makers, can be as large as a Brazil Nut or about 1.5” in length.
Coffee beans are the seeds of the coffee fruit that are typically roasted and ground to make brewed coffee drinks. By contrast, coffee beans have only about 15% fat and the remainder is protein and carbs, though brewed coffee is virtually free from calories and nutrients. Their texture is quite durable and crunchy. Coffee beans are significantly smaller than cacao beans: varying between 1/8” and 5/16”.
What are the Health Benefits of Cacao and Coffee?
Cacao beans are packed with health benefits! Studies have shown that cacao consumers have a lower risk of: heart disease, stroke, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Plus, eating cacao has been shown to improve cognitive function (attention, processing speed and working memory), mood, gut health and even reduces wrinkles!
Learn more about cacao health’s benefits and the science behind it here.
Recently, research is finding health benefits in coffee too. Harvard Health Publishing reports “coffee drinkers may have a reduced risk of: cardiovascular disease (including heart attack, heart failure, and stroke), type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, uterine and liver cancer, cirrhosis and gout.”
To maximize the health benefits related to consuming either coffee or cacao, try to minimize the use of dairy ingredients, added fat, sugar and chemical additives. Check out our blog to learn more. Topics include pro tips on spotting the good vs. bad, clean vs. hidden ingredients, and how cacao compares to other healthy snacks.
Can you brew Cacao like Coffee to drink?
Pretty much. Whereas coffee makers have been ideally designed to brew coffee, like tea, cacao can use a little more time to steep.
To brew cacao, grind it coarsely and use a tea bag or sieve to brew it for up to five minutes in boiling water.
For a fun, healthy drink, we love to grind coffee and cacao together. We use [maximum] 1 part cacao for 3 parts coffee. The finished brew smells like a fragrant mocha and tastes mostly like a smooth coffee with some mild dark chocolate notes.
Note: if you grind your coffee finely, do not use a higher proportion of cacao – it creates a messy, sticky paste in your coffee grinder.
What are the sizes of the Cacao and Coffee Global Markets?
Coffee is a significantly larger global industry. In 2019, 10.2 million metric tons of green coffee beans were produced for a total value of $22.84 billion worldwide at an average price of $1.02 per pound.
Cacao, though smaller, ranks in the top 10 of global agricultural commodities. In 2019, the industry was estimated to produce 4.85 million metric tons of cocoa for a total value of $11.85 billion worldwide at an average price of $1.05 per pound. By comparison, our partners earned 3 times more for their shelled cacao beans.
As we follow all of the steps involved in growing, harvesting, and processing coffee and cacao, it’s easy to understand that the work should be worth far more than a dollar per pound. That’s why we’re standing with our growing partners for a more equitable future.