02/07/2014 05:01 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2014

Fermenting Chocolate

By Meradith Hoddinott, HRN Staffer

Chocolate, that Valentine's Day staple, owes its flavor to microbes. The same microbes that make wine, cheese, and vinegar so delicious are also responsible for making chocolate irresistible. Before it's tied up in a heart-shaped box, chocolate starts off as fermenting cocoa pods on small farms or sprawling plantations all along the equator.

Cocoa pods are green, yellow, or red football shaped fruits. Inside, a thick sweet pulp surrounds bitter seeds. The harvested pods are cracked open, piled into large heaps, and left to sit in the tropical sun. Over the next two to eight days, tiny microbes shape those bland, bitter seeds into the beginnings of rich cocoa flavor. In these piles, different yeasts and bacteria work together in an elaborate dance to change the chemical environment of the cocoa pulp.

This is not a carefully controlled environment. There are no microbiologists taking measurements and adjusting levels of bacteria. These transformative microbes come from the cocoa trees, the ground, and the farmer's hands and tools. The bean flavor changes not just on a country or region or even farm basis, but on a heap-to-heap level. Every heap has its own bustling microbe community, and so every heap produces unique cocoa flavors.

When you are enjoying your dessert this Valentine's Day, think about the fascinating microbes that made it all possible.

To delve further into the world of chocolate, fermentation and more, tune in to

Fermenting Chocolate: Science & Tech - Play episode
Follow the hidden life of microbes that make delicious chocolate possible. Chocolate owes its deep, complex flavors to fermentation. The same microbes in cheese, beer, and vinegar are responsible for this Valentine's Day staple.

Solbeso: The Speakeasy, Episode 115 - Play episode
Clay Gordon, an expert on chocolate and cacao, explains what goes into making Solbeso, a new beverage by New World Spirits made from distilled fresh cacao fruit for the first time.

Jacques Torres: Chef's Story, Episode 27 - Play episode
Jacques Torres, also known as "Mr. Chocolate", is a master pastry chef, and a teacher of the pastry arts. Hear Jacques talk about his experiences cooking for Pope John Paul II, and why he decided to leave the kitchen and start a chocolate shop.