No discussion of good chocolate can be complete without delving into the origin of the fruit, and its varieties. A good chocolate maker, like any maker of good wine or coffee, pays attention to the raw beans being used to produce chocolate. More than 80% of the world’s chocolate comes from low quality bulk beans of the forastero variety. Craft chocolate makers use mostly fine, and sometimes rare bean varieties to make some of the amazing chocolate we feature in our boxes.
Cacao Trees and the Origins of Theobroma Cacao
Scientists at the International Center for Agricultural Research and Development (CIRAD) believe that the world’s original Theobroma could be millions of years old, and the particular species we now regard as the cacao tree could be about 10 to 15 thousand years old. The cacao plant first appeared in the Amazon basin, and was likely domesticated by the Olmecs civilization, predating the Mayans.
For the next 3,000 years, the Mesoamerican civilizations including the Mayans and Aztecs cultivated and domesticated the T. Cacao plant extensively. The fermented and dried cacao beans were regarded as “food of the gods,” and also used as a form of currency.
Bulk & Super Fine Bean Varieties
There are four main varieties of the cacao plant: forastero, criollo, trinitario, and nacional.
Both the criollo and forastero variety originated in the Amazon basin. And while the criollo is delicate and difficult to cultivate, the forastero variety being easier and hardier made its way to Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese colonies in west Africa, south Africa, and southeast Asia. The 1700’s brought upon a new variety of cacao beans in the Caribbean islands. Disease and disaster eradicated almost all the criollo cacao plants, until farmers on the islands planted forastero to strengthen what remained. This hybrid strain is now known as trinitario.
Forastero variety still dominates in world chocolate production. The high yielding plants of forastero made it an easy choice for growers, and even up until the mid 20th century, growers replaced the criollo crop with the low quality forastero for this reason. (Think of forastero as your regular grocery store tomato, and the criollo as that heirloom tomato that creates tastes explosions in your mouth. Get it?) Forastero is primarily cultivated in West Africa and is known as bulk cocoa. This cocoa is generally earthy and simple.
Due to its fragile state, susceptibility to disease, and low production, criollo plants now make up less than 1 to 5% (the experts vary on that number) of the total crop production in the world. Partly due to the rarity, and definitely due to its unique, complex flavor, criollo beans are regarded as super fine cocoa and many heirloom varieties are sought after by craft chocolate makers. Within the criollo variety, there are porcelana, chuao, ocumare beans, referencing a particular terroir of the criollo bean. Criollo cocoa is often fruit forward, very aromatic, and has very little bitterness.
Trinitario beans while not as rare as criollo still only make up less than 10% of the total cacao production. This hybrid strain spread from the Caribbean islands to South America in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Trinitario being the least pure has the a wide range of tastes and profiles of any other variety. The ratios of criollo to forastero, and terroir greatly influence the complex flavors found in this bean.
The least known cacao, and fourth variety is nacional. This bean variety was only recently rediscovered in Peru in 2011. In its purest form, it is regarded as the world’s rarest cacao. Chocolates made with nacional beans are rich, creamy, and with little bitterness.