How Cacao (and Chocolate) Gets Its Flavor

Last week, we started talking about the "food of the gods" - cacao… which is the main ingredient in chocolate.

If you're a curious chocolate lover, you've got to know a few things about this amazing fruit.

This week and next, we'll talk about the three top contributors to cacao's flavors. If you've ever wondered why dark chocolates with similar percentages of cacao taste so different, you're in the right place.

This week, we'll start with what is likely the single biggest factor in the flavor of cacao - genetics...

Cacao Genetics

Most folks classify cacao in three genetic groups: Forastero, Criollo (pronounced "cree-oh-yo"), and Trinitario.

By Tamorlan - Wikimedia Commons License

(Scientists have expanded that number to 10-12 groups. But they still don't know much about them. We'll stick to the main three for now. Also, this isn't an academic paper. So we're going to generalize a little in this section.)

Forastero cacao trees produce large pods with big seeds. They can grow in relatively harsh conditions (like a lack of shade and less rain). And of the three, they are the most resistant to diseases. (Disease is a major problem with cacao.) These are great qualities.

But Forastero cacao isn't known for its flavor. So it's inexpensive... and a great choice for commercial chocolate companies to use in candy. Ingredients like (lots of) sugar and dairy products cover up off flavors.

Criollo cacao offers diverse and appealing flavors. Craft chocolate makers want to use Criollo cacao... And they usually want the best they can get their hands on. The most dedicated travel the world searching for it.

But as you may have guessed, Criollo cacao is finicky. It's susceptible to diseases and only produces well in ideal conditions. Criollo cacao pods aren't as large, either. This all makes it riskier and more expensive for farmers to grow. So most don't even bother.

Trinitario cacao is a hybrid of Forastero and Criollo cacao. It has some of the positive qualities of each... but none of the best qualities of either.

Now keep in mind, more than 14,000 varieties of cacao exist. They grow in different countries at different altitudes. They are different sizes, different shapes, and different colors.

And just like wine grapes or coffee beans, different varieties of cacao have different flavors.

Only genetic testing can verify which group a certain cacao tree belongs to. And few chocolate makers test. So they (and marketers) don't always get it right. Bold "Criollo cacao" claims aren't always accurate.

(You can learn more about the "diamonds" of the cacao world at the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund's website.)

So… Now you know a thing or two about how cacao and chocolate gets its unique flavors from the cacao tree's genetics.

Next week, we'll share factors number 2 and 3. Stay tuned.

As we say in Costa Rica, pura vida,

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