Cargill Chocolate's Courtney LeDrew explains the three main cacao bean groupings and how they and subsequent hybrids differ in flavor characteristics.

Chocolate production is a complex process, which is part science and part art. But before a single pound of chocolate is produced, packaged or sold to consumers, the cacao bean, with rich and exotic roots, must be cultivated.  Domestication of the cacao bean happened over 3,000 years ago in the tropical lowlands of Central America and southern Mexico.  Today there are hundreds of thousands of cacao farmers on three continents that supply beans to dozens of chocolate manufacturers across the globe. 

Cacao beans have varying flavors from region to region.  How are cacao beans from various origins different?  And how do these differences manifest in various chocolates? 

The three groups in which cacao is most notably classified are Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario. The two original bean genotypes are Criollo and Forastero, grown in South America. Criollo (which means native) beans originated and grew wild in the northern part of South America. Forastero beans began in the Amazon basin.

Criollo beans produce a delicate chocolate flavor when processed. They are white, or at their darkest, a deep purple. When the pods are ripe, the Criollo shell is soft and colored red, with an elongated, “pointy” shape. Each pod contains about 30 beans. Today, Criollo beans are few and far between primarily because of their vulnerability to the climate and disease. Therefore, Forastero beans have become the dominant species.

Those who are familiar with the original Criollos would find that Forastero (which means foreign) beans are significantly different. The fruits have thick skin and some are smooth and round, rather than pointed and rough. The beans within the pods are flatter, versus the original plump shape. The interiors of the beans are a deep purple instead of a milky white color. The chocolate that is made from Forastero beans is strong-flavored and not necessarily as complex as Criollo beans. The hardy Forastero trees produce approximately 40 pods and have a large bean count.

The third species of cacao is the Trinitario species. Trinitarios are a cross between the Criollo and the Forastero species. The species inherited its name from the Spaniards, who grew the beans on the island of Trinidad. In the early days of cacao bean farming, growers noticed that Criollo trees were intolerable to drought and susceptible to disease. Farmers introduced Forastero to Criollo, creating Trinitarios - a hardier variety with higher yields.

Cacao grows within 20 degrees north and south of the equator in Central America, South America, Africa and the Pacific Rim.  Today the bulk of cacao is grown in West Africa, but there are a multitude of origins from which cocoa and chocolate producers can choose. 

For example, Ghanaian cacao beans, which are typically Forastero, are highly sought after and have a nutty flavor and a suggestion of roast coffee. The beans have a strong chocolate flavor and can balance more complex beans from other regions. Annual cacao production is about 650,000 tons.

The world’s largest producer of cacao comes from the African country of Côte d’Ivoire. The beans grown in this region tend to be the Forastero type.  They offer a deep, classic cocoa flavor with some acid and fruity characters, which helps in balancing more complex bean flavors. The annual production is about 1.45 million tons. Côte d’Ivoire beans are the most commonly used in blends because of their flavor consistency.

Peru’s tropical climate makes it an ideal setting for cultivating cacao.  These beans have a slightly bitter taste, but often surprise the palate by offering a fresh, fruity note.  Annual bean production is about 18,000 tons.

In Venezuela, well-fermented and select beans are prized by manufacturers for their complex chocolate flavor, spiciness and characteristic fruitiness, along with a memorable aroma that lingers on the palate. Venezuela is also home to the coveted Criollo tree known as the “Porcelana.”  Today you will find both Criollo and Forastero types in the region. Annual production is about 16,000 tons.

Brazil is another large supplier of the world’s cacao beans, with an annual production of 155,000 tons each year. The beans, which are mainly Forastero, have a well-balanced cocoa flavor, and often have a subtle, fruity note. Cacao beans from the Lower Amazon region provide a clean chocolate flavor, offering no surprises to the palate. These beans, in particular, are favored by many manufacturers because of their neutral acidity.

The Dominican Republic, with an annual production yield of approximately 47,000 tons a year, offers a deep, earthy flavor profile. Some say that the beans are somewhat flavorless or even bitter.  In the same growing region, Jamaican beans bring a bright and fruity flavor to one’s palate, along with appealing aromas reminiscent of pineapples.

Indonesian beans, found in the Pacific Rim, are Criollo and Forastero hybrids.  The beans have a light chocolate flavor and, at times, can be acidic or fruity.  The annual production yield is approximately 500,000 tons.

As a result, manufacturers have a large spectrum of bean origins to choose from, and use those origins to blend and create new and distinct flavors.  Chocolate developed from single origin beans can be rich in flavor complexity and unique to a region, but the flavor can vary from season to season.  For some chocolate manufacturers, flavor consistency is paramount and this consistency is achieved by blending beans.  When one factors in the variety of bean flavors with the numerous ways to formulate and produce chocolate, it’s clear that a skillful chocolate manufacturer can create infinite flavor profiles.