* N. American cocoa grind up 4.4 pct in Q4 - NCA
* U.S. 2013 cocoa grind highest on record - analyst
By Marcy Nicholson
NEW YORK, Jan 16 North American cocoa bean grindings rose by 4.4 percent in the fourth quarter and processing for the full year grew at its fastest pace in three years, data showed on Thursday, reinforcing confidence about chocolate demand in 2014.
The rising amount of cocoa processing was driven by increased interest in butter, a byproduct of grinding beans that gives chocolate its melt-in-the-mouth texture, while powder sales lagged, dealers said.
The grind data, a traditional gauge of demand for chocolate's key ingredient, climbed to 125,332 tonnes, up 4.37 percent from the fourth quarter of 2012, National Confectioners Association (NCA) data showed.
That was slightly below the estimated 5 percent to 7.4 percent rise. One U.S. trader said most forecasts were at the upper end of the range around 7 percent.
On the surface that could be bearish, but it was the fifth straight quarter of gains and the total was the highest for the fourth quarter in North America since at least 2009, when the NCA first added Canadian and Mexican to its data.
"It's still showing growth in the market here," the trader said.
The slower-than-expected rate may indicate that some grinders curbed processing capacity to deal with a slump in powder demand.
For the full-year North American grindings rose 7.5 percent to 509,237 tonnes from 2012, the fastest pace of growth in three years.
"By my estimates that's the highest grind we've ever had in the United States," said Steven Haws of Commodities Risk Analysis based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, referring to the total 2013 grinding figure.
The United States is the world's No. 1 chocolate consumer.
Earlier this week, luxury chocolate maker Lindt & Spruengli forecast double-digit sales growth in North America this year and Barry Callebaut, which makes chocolate for the likes of Nestle and Mondelez, said consumers in the Americas were flocking to premium chocolates.
U.S. Halloween chocolate sales in October, the biggest U.S. chocolate-selling holiday, were surprisingly strong at 5.5 percent higher than 2012 versus the expectation for a 1 percent rise.
Firm demand was also seen in Europe, the world's biggest cocoa processing region, where the fourth-quarter grind jumped 6.2 percent to 348,406 tonnes, approaching the record for the same period in 2009 at 351,316 tonnes.
Cocoa grinding in Malaysia moved in the other direction, falling 9 percent to 70,064 tonnes in the quarter and 4.6 percent to 285,608 tonnes in 2013, data showed Wednesday.
The NCA revised fourth-quarter 2012 grinding volume to 120,085 tonnes from 120,053 tonnes.
The 11 companies that took part in the North American survey are: ADM Cocoa, Barry Callebaut, Blommer Chocolate Co, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate Co, ECOM, Ghirardelli Chocolate Co, Guittard Chocolate Co, Hershey Co, Mars Chocolate North America, Nestle Chocolate & Confections and World's Finest Chocolate Inc.