At the end of this month, the festival of Easter will begin. Aside from the religious connotations, many people automatically associate Easter with the legend of the Easter bunny delivering chocolate Easter eggs to children. I, for one, am a big chocolate lover, so I am fascinated by this amazing supply chain.
Originally, eggs were included in ancient pagan practices and these have, to some degree, been adapted to create some Christian Easter traditions with the egg symbolizing new life. Chocolate Easter eggs are more of a modern tradition and somewhat of a substitute for the former custom of decorating Easter eggs by dyeing and painting chicken eggs in bright colors using vegetable dye or charcoal.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, new traditions arose – egg-shaped toys were manufactured with some being filled with Easter gifts and chocolates before being gifted to children.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that chocolate Easter eggs finally made their way into the European market with France and Germany pioneering this artistic confectionery. The first solid chocolate Easter egg was produced in 1873 but the production processes have developed over the years thanks to technology and natural ingredients like pure cocoa.
Every year, roughly 80 million Easter eggs are purchased in the UK alone. To accommodate this huge demand, Easter eggs, for example from the popular British brand Cadbury’s, are produced for approximately eight months of the year and are placed in stores earlier and earlier – last year they were seen in supermarkets before Christmas. The chocolate eggs have travelled some distance before appearing on the shelves of your local stores.
The cocoa pods’ journey typically begins on plantations or small family farms in tropical areas, such as South and Central America and West Africa – where over 70% of cocoa production takes place, with the Ivory Coast being the world’s leading producer. And some of the best quality cocoa originates from Ghana. Asia is also becoming an important growing region, with cocoa being a relatively new crop.
The supply chain process of chocolate has 8 stages of production: cultivating, harvesting and splitting, with the remaining 5 stages being part of processing: fermentation, drying, winnowing, roasting, and grinding. After this, the production process of the chocolate eggs begins. The entire supply chain is then extended further with transportation and retailers to help provide customers worldwide with this traditional seasonal product.
The journey begins with cocoa tree plantations being established: this is done by either scattering young cocoa trees amongst new shade trees, such as coconut or banana, or by planting the cocoa trees between established trees. These are planted in humid tropical climates, with temperatures between 21 and 23 degrees Celsius, consistent rainfall periods and a short dry season because these conditions provide good quality cocoa.
Each tree produces 20-30 cocoa pods a year, which grow straight out of the tree’s trunk and main branches. With this tree also yielding fruit, the crop is carefully pruned, and as a result, it is easier to harvest the cocoa pods. The next step is the labor-intensive task of harvesting the crop. The harvest is a whole community affair on small West African farms. To complete this task, large knives are used to detach the pods from the trees and placed in large baskets on workers’ heads. The pods are then manually split open to remove the beans so they are ready for the two-step curing process. Each pod contains approximately 20-40 purple cocoa beans.
The curing process consists of fermenting and drying the beans to develop the chocolate flavor. There are several fermentation methods, but the most traditional is the heap method. This technique requires placing mounds of wet cocoa beans in between layers of banana leaves on the ground for 5-6 days. Following this, the drying stage begins. This involves the wet bunch of beans being spread out in the sun or using a more advanced method of special drying equipment.
From Plantation to Factory
Typically with the next step, a lot of big chocolate brands buy the cocoa through intermediaries and then the beans are packed into sacks ready to be exported to the brands processing facilities in other locations around the world.
Upon arrival, the beans are cleaned and quality inspected. Then, the winnowing stage takes place. So the dried beans are cracked to separate the shell from the nib – the tiny chunks used to produce chocolate. Afterwards, the roasting phase begins in which the nibs are baked at high temperatures reaching 120 degrees Celsius in special ovens. This is where the color and flavor is acquired.
The following stage is grinding, which creates the basis of all chocolate products. The roasted nibs are ground in stone mills until a thick liquid chocolate consistency is achieved.
Chocolate to Egg
Last but not least, the final step is creating the chocolate egg masterpiece using highly efficient computer-operated technology which has been used since the mid-20th century. The molten chocolate is placed in heated egg molds which are rotated so there is an even thickness. After this process, the eggs are left to cool and then removed from the molds. Once cooled, the eggs are wrapped in colored foil and packaged into individual boxes.
After all this preparation, the chocolate eggs are set for retail. The transportation and exportation throughout the various supply chain stages are critical features in this industry seeing as it is delivering seasonal products. Therefore, they are heavily relied upon for their timings to deliver to large supermarkets or independent stores.
Chocolate, a craveable comfort food that hits peak sales during Christmas and Easter festivities, could see a shortage as soon as 2020 with demand rising against an unpredictable and decreasing supply caused by insect damage and climate change. The increased awareness of the health benefits of, for example, dark chocolate alongside growth in Asian Pacific countries has sparked even more popularity of the product globally.
Chocolate Easter eggs are now consumed worldwide with more and more countries integrating them into normal customs and the Easter egg market is also attracting more consumers each year with new ranges.
To meet this increasing global demand, the complex supply chain needs to run smoothly and be well-coordinated. Large companies and brands could help with the chocolate shortage by making supply chain operations more sustainable.