A silky-smooth Ecuadorian. A rich Madagascan. An aromatic Papua New Guinean. What’s the difference between these three chocolate bars, really?
There are so many factors that influence the taste of a chocolate bar: terroir, drying, roasting, production, processing… and origin. Yes, the country and region where the cacao in your chocolate bar was grown and harvested really does affect its flavor.
I spoke to several fine cacao and chocolate experts about the cacao origins around the world. Join me on my tour.
You might also like: Understanding The Ingredients List on Your Fine Chocolate Bar
Why Is Country of Origin So Important?
Cacao beans, the primary ingredient in our favorite sweet snack, can grow between 20 degrees north and south of the equator. Although that might not seem like a lot, it includes many countries.
In fact, according to the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO), 23 countries were recognized as fine cacao exporters in 2016.
And different origins have different cacao varieties, climates, terroir, production practices, and more – which, in turn, all affect the flavor and aroma of the chocolate.
Find out more! Check out What Is Terroir & Why Does It Matter?
However, it’s important to not overestimate the importance of origin. Estelle Tracy, a chocolate educator and the voice of 37 Chocolates, tells me, “Origin is a really complicated topic, because the flavor of cacao will come from genetics, processing and crafting. Origin has a big impact, of course, but it’s important not to associate origin as the only responsible factor for flavor.”
In other words: origin, it’s important, but not the only element.
So, with that in mind, let’s explore some of the cacao-producing origins around the world.
Discover the world’s coffee origins! Read What Do Coffees From Around The World Taste Like – & Why?
A freshly opened cacao pod from Santa Barbara, Honduras; the cacao beans are covered in white pulp.
70% of the world’s cacao beans come from Africa – and, in a continent so large, you can expect a wide variety of flavors.
However, Spencer Hyman, Founder of chocolate subscription service Cocoa Runners, tells me that “over 60% of cocoa grown in the world comes from Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana… these countries largely/almost entirely grow cocoa for ‘mass’-processed confectionery and chocolate.”
Despite this, you will find fine cacao originating from the region. Here are a couple of the African countries most-known for their high-quality beans:
Spencer says, “A big percentage of fine cacao comes from Madagascar.”
But while it’s a common origin, there aren’t very many traders that offer it. Spencer continues, “There may be around 400+ chocolatiers crafting bars from… Madagascar. However, it’s important to know that there are only around five people selling beans from [this country].”
So, what sets Madagascan chocolate apart? Estelle tells me, “Madagascar is a small island and we can draw conclusions that [its] cacao tastes like berry or citrus.” She emphasizes that its distinctive taste may also be because “where the cacao is growing is very localized.”
Tasting notes: Red berries and fruits, especially citrus*
Tanzania is another one of the countries that Spencer highlighted as producing fine cacao. The Chocolate Journalist reports that cacao plants were first introduced here in the 1880s. At that time, buyers were commodity companies that prized quantity over quality.
However, with time, this has started to change. Entrepreneurs like Kokoa Kamili, a premium cacao exporter, have led immense quality improvements. Infrastructure still causes issues, but you can find fine-quality cacao in this East African country.
Tasting notes: Roasted*
Dick Taylor craft chocolate from Toledo, Belize and Sambirano, Madagascar. Credit: Cocoa Runners
In the Americas, different harvesting and processing methods, varieties, and more give us a strikingly diverse range of cacao flavors. And many countries here produce fine cacao: Spencer lists Peru, Bolivia, Belize, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and more.
Mexico has a long history of chocolate production and consumption – after all, this is the country of the Aztecs, where cacao pods functioned as currency and people drank spiced chocolate before being ritually sacrificed.
Today, chocolate is still produced across the country and chocolatiers are working to blend traditional recipes with fine cacao. The number of fine chocolatiers is limited: Spencer says, “There may be only three or four fine chocolate-makers… I’ve tasted maybe less than 10 [bars].” Yet and more makers are turning to this North American origin.
And when a precious treat is this scarce, it’s all the more reason to treasure it.
Tasting notes: Earthy*
Three fine chocolate bars made with Mexican cacao. Credit: Ana Valencia
Hawaii, “the north pole of cacao”: the US state lies on the extreme northern edge of the cacao-growing band. Nonetheless, fine cacao can grow and thrive here.
Ecole Chocolate reports that the cacao industry in Hawaii is pretty new. One of the advantages of this is a lack of pests. However, the pests that the cacao might attract are a concern, not only for the cacao industry, but for Hawaiian ecosystems as a whole.
Tasting notes: Fruity*
In the 1930-40s, cacao was Venezuela’s number one export. And even though things are different in the 21st century, the country still produces excellent cacao.
Large parts of the country are suitable for growing this crop, especially in the north and west, where you might find Forastero, Trinitario, and Criollo. Megan Giller, author of Bean to Bar Chocolate – America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution, tells me, “You’ll find amazing beans from the Ocumare region as well as the Maracaibo region.”
Tasting notes: Nutty*
Around 40,000 hectares of cacao grow in Peru’s Eastern Andes, and the flavors vary enormously.
Estelle tells me that even when tasting samples, it’s difficult to identify Peruvian chocolate, simply because of the diversity of flavors. “[It] is an exciting country; it always surprises me,” she says.
Tasting: Be open-minded! You may come across fruity notes, floral notes, earthy notes…
100% Venezuelan, 60% cacao: a fine chocolate bar. Credit: Cinco Cafetería
Some say Ecuador is home to some of the “world’s best chocolate”. For example, the chocolatier Pacari, which specializes in Ecuadorian bars, has won multiple awards. And the country – also known as “the country of Arriba cacao” – boasts bean-to-bar chocolatiers and fine cacao producers.
Still, the country’s cacao industry faces challenges: As the Royal Tropical Institute 2013 Market Study states, “the Nacional cacao variety suffers from low productivity levels and lack of resistance to disease and pests.” Luckily, the government has invested “over 80 million USD to support the sector of ‘Nacional’ fine cacao.”
Tasting notes: Earthy, vegetal notes (especially if from Los Rios or Nacional)*
Brazil has a growing internal fine cacao market, as well as benefiting from external demand. And locations like the State of Bahia offer great conditions for cacao production.
The main cacao variety produced in Brazil is the Forastero. Since it is one of the most resistant varieties, it’s great for productivity.
Tasting notes: Fruity
Southeast Asia produces around 14% of the world’s cacao supply. And although countries like Malaysia and Indonesia are new to the cacao scene, they are rapidly becoming an important region.
Vietnam’s cacao market was initially slow to grow, but Marou Chocolate states that production is rising. And according to Spencer, this is another origin for its fine cacao. Its spicy flavor makes Vietnamese chocolate unique.
Tasting notes: Gently spiced – although some provinces, such as Ba Ria, may be more marked by red fruits*
Cacao beans, ready to be turned into chocolate.
Papua New Guinea
With excellent soil and rainforest conditions, Papua New Guinea is an ideal location for cacao production.
Paga Hill Estate lists some of the areas in Papua New Guinea where cacao is grown:
- East New Britain Province
- East Sepik Province
- Autonomous Region of Bougainville
Spencer says the region’s cacao flavor usually has a “smoky characteristic because of how they dry it. However, you can always conch it differently if the chocolatier wants to get rid of that.”
Tasting notes: Smokiness*
Spencer tells me that Indonesia has been growing cacao for a while, and cannot be overlooked. It mainly produces commodity-grade chocolate, but he says that Krakakoa has been leading the way in making fine chocolate. Bali is a notable Indonesian origin, he adds. However, you’ll also find examples of fine chocolate from Sumatra, Sulawesi, and other islands.
Ripe cacao pods; different varieties are different colors when ripe. Credit: Arcellia Gallardo
We’ve come to the end of our whistle-stop tour of fine cacao origins. These are just a glimpse of the countries that produce exceptional cacao; there are many more worth trying. But now you have an insight into some of the main regions across Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
So, before you bite into that delicious chocolate bar, check the label. Look for the country and region of origin. And see what you can taste.
*Just like in coffee, these tasting notes characterize a region – but you will always find a chocolate bar that bucks the trend, whether because of it’s variety, unique micro climate, or production and processing methods.
Enjoyed this? Check out: Understanding The Ingredients List on Your Fine Chocolate Bar
Written by Julio Guevara.
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