Have you ever picked up a bar of chocolate and wondered exactly what the label means? Many of us have! Take Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario: the names of three cacao varieties that you might see on the packaging. But what are the differences and why should you care?
Just like in coffee, cacao varieties affect the flavour, price, and production of the chocolate you’re snacking on. And just like in coffee, there are many myths about these varieties – some true, some false.
Take a look at this brief guide to cacao varieties to learn more.
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Cacao pods. Credit: Cocoa Coffee Shop
What Is Cacao Anyway?
Whether you prefer to call it cacao or cocoa, Theobroma cacao is a tropical tree native to the Americas. There are about 20 different species in the Theobroma family, which came from a common ancestor and share many features. Cacao’s siblings Theobroma bicolor and Theobroma grandiflorum are also sometimes used to make a chocolate-like product, as they have similar qualities.
Around ten million years ago cacao diverged from its common ancestor. Since then, evolution and human interference have led to new types and the variation we see today.
The Myth of The Three Varieties
Cacao has long been divided into three varieties: Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario. Conventional wisdom would have you believe that Criollo is the best, Forastero the lowest quality, and Trinitario in the middle. Maybe you dream of a pure Criollo, while dismissing Forastero as the cheap stuff used by the big manufacturers.
But this isn’t the full story. There are at least ten recognised cacao varieties (and probably many more). And what we think we know about the big three isn’t really accurate.
A cacao pod and several cacao beans cut in half so as to inspect their quality.
Criollo may have been considered the food of the gods by the ancient Mayan people, but the tree is rarely found in commercial plantations today. What is known as Criollo and used to make your chocolate is actually a broad spectrum of plants with very different genomes. They generally have white seeds and fruits with Criollo-like shapes, but are genetically different.
Forastero isn’t one variety either. It’s made up of ten distinct genetic groups that have differences in shape, colour, and taste. Amelonado and Nacional are cultivars that are usually classified as Forastero despite producing beans very different in flavour and shape.
Trinitario is thought to result from crossbreeding Amelonado with the ancient Criollo in Trinidad, hence the name. But a lot of modern hybrids are also classified as Trinitarian. Just take a look at TSH clones.
Trinidad Select Hybrids (TSH) clones are cultivated cacao plants commonly grown on Trinidad and Tobago farms that are considered Trinitarian. But they are the result of breeding four parental plants, of which just one is Trinitarian. The other three parents are Forastero, so the TSH clones actually have more genetic material from Forastero than from Trinitarian.
Ripe cacao pods: different varieties, different colours, different sizes. Credit: Arcelia Gallardo
It’s believed that the confusing classification of cacao began with Spanish colonizers. Criollo meant “native” in Spanish, while Forastero means “foreign”. The Spanish named the first cacao they encountered, in Mexico and Central America, Criollo. Cacao from anywhere else was then named Forastero.
But in reality, even Criollo is not native to the region where colonizers first found it.
Cacao originates in the Amazon jungle, probably from the zone where Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil meet. This means that the vast world of cocoa came from one tiny region.
Cacao was then distributed through the Americas by indigenous people and later by colonizers and settlers. Criollo was carried from the Amazon and traded until reaching the hands of the Mayans and Aztecs, who cultivated it and developed chocolate (although not chocolate as we know it today).
You might also like: A History of Chocolate Consumption Around The World
A cacao pod that has been split in half, revealing the white pulp that coats the cacao beans. Credit: Cocoa Coffee Shop
Is Criollo The Best Variety?
For decades, we have heard that Criollo is better than Forastero – but that isn’t necessarily true.
Forastero seeds taken from the Bahia region of Brazil were used to start plantations in Africa and Southeast Asia. This robust variety soon became the dominant cacao on the market. Today, it makes up over 80% of world production.
There are fewer Criollo plantations and they have a lower yield because the plant is less resistant to disease. This makes it rarer and more expensive. Perhaps the abundance of Forastero and the relative scarcity of Criollo influence how we think of the varieties.
Forastero is said to have a powerful, less aromatic flavour that can sometimes be bitter or acidic. But this variety results in a full-bodied chocolate that some prefer.
Criollo is often described as being mildly acidic and rarely bitter. Criollo fans say it has a mild taste with secondary aromas of nuts, caramel, fruit, and tobacco.
As for Trinitario, you’ll often hear that it has most of the powerful cocoa taste of Forastero but is generally less acidic and bitter.
However, we already know that there are far more than just these three varieties. And like wine, coffee, and many other things in life, there are many factors that influence how cacao tastes: the variety, yes, but also the country of origin, the local climate and soil, the farming methods, how the chocolatier roasted and conched it…
Ultimately, which chocolate you prefer comes down to personal preference. But it is worth remembering that the stereotypes may not always be accurate.
Cacao beans. Credit: Arcelia Gallardo
So, Which Variety Should You Choose?
The variety has a large impact on the flavour of a chocolate, but it is just one aspect to consider. Try different chocolates and take note of the variety, but also consider the other ingredients and the origin.
The wider the range you try, the better you will get at identifying which flavours and aromas you like best. If you take notes, you can start to spot patterns in which varieties and origins you keep coming back to. You’ll be able to both buy chocolate you like and appreciate its subtle notes even more. What a great excuse to eat more chocolate!
Enjoyed this? Check out Chocolate Pairings: Tips From a Fine Cacao Expert
Written by Cesar Frizo.
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