Cacao grows in pods that sprout directly from the trunk or branches of a tropical evergreen tree from the same family as hibiscus, okra, and cotton. Cocoa pods can be found in a striking array of colors, from deep purples to bright yellows, oranges, and reds. Depending on the varietal and growing conditions, these oblong pods can range up to a length of 14 inches; for flavor-bean cacao, think about the size and shape of a Nerf football.
The pods contain anywhere from 20-60 cocoa beans (with commodity or bulk cacao pushing the top end of that range). Within the pod, the beans are surrounded by a sweet, tangy fruit, or mucilage, which was likely the first part of the plant ever consumed by humans.
The magic happens after the pods are harvested and cut open, when the beans start to ferment in the mucilage. Over a period of a few days, this fermentation essentially begins to develop the chemical compounds that are necessary to make the chocolate taste like, well, chocolate!
Once fermentation is complete, the beans are dried. Bean-to-bar chocolate makers take these dried beans and complete very complex processes that eventually result in the tastes and textures we love to love!