What You Should Know About Cocoa Beans

March 30, 2011

Here in the Pacific Northwest, it’s practically heretical to buy a fish, a loaf and a bottle of wine without considering their origin and varietal.  Farm raised, or wild caught?  Chinook, Chum, Coho or Sockeye?  Red Wheat or White Wheat?  Soft Spring or Hard Winter?  Single estate or second label?  Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon? Now this same attention to gastronomic detail has extended to chocolate, where knowing not just where and how the cocoa bean was grown is the mark of a connoisseur, but so is knowing what varietal of bean has gone into making the chocolate.  There are three main varietals, or types, of cocoa bean:

During the 19th and into the 20th centuries, colonial governments seized land of subsistence farmers throughout the tropical world and compelled indigenous people to convert their communal land holdings to single-crop plantation production.  Among the most marketable and profitable crops for the colonial powers was the forastero cacoa tree.  It was a robust crop that withstood battering climates, pests and diseases, and better yet, it produced a high yield.  For that reason, forastero remains the principle source of cocoa beans for most chocolate purchased on the market today.  Unfortunately, it is the least aromatic of all cocoa beans, and lacks the fruitiness associated with better chocolates, but it does produce a clean tasting chocolate with low acidity.

The criollo, produced primarily in Latin America, is the most aromatic and fruity of all cocoa beans, but the tree produces a low yield and is very vulnerable to pests and disease.  Consequently, only one to five percent of all cocoa production is criollo.

The trinitario is a hybrid of the forastero and criollo.  It produces an average yield, but is quite robust and aromatic.  The trinitario takes its name from the Caribbean island of Trinidad, where it was first grown.  Its taste can range from earthy to spicy and can be highly acidic.  Many chocolate makers combine beans to include the bulk forastero beans and one or both of the more flavorful criollo or trinitario.  When buying chocolate, the greater the proportion of aromatic or “flavor” beans, the better the chocolate.  But of course, like good wine or coffee, there is more to a good chocolate than just its beans.  Where it is grown, the soil, the climate, the method of production, all contribute to the making of a good chocolate.  But ultimately, the test of a good chocolate is your own palate.  Buy and serve the chocolate that brings you, and your guests, the greatest pleasure, whether it comes from a single estate criollo or the check out aisle of your local supermarket.  After all, the whole point of chocolate is pleasure, n’est pas?



veena's picture

I loved learning about cocoa harvesting while traveling in Guatemala but didn't know that these were the varietals and their differences. I guess that's what happens when a class is in Spanish and you're not fluent! Thanks and you bet I'll be reading labels closely now.