Types of Cacao Beans

Cacao tree (theobroma) ripe beans varieties: trinitario, criollo, trinitario and nacional, isolated hand painted watercolor illustration and inscription

Have you ever wondered where chocolate gets its flavor? Or why some chocolate tastes different from others? The flavor of the chocolate we eat depends on the type of cacao (or cocoa) beans used. More than ten cacao varieties exist, along with many subvarieties. But four main types of cacao beans—forastero, trinitario, criollo, and nacional—are cultivated for use in making chocolate.

Keep reading to learn more about the different types of cacao beans.

Where do cacao beans come from?

Cacao beans grow in football-shaped pods on the Theobroma (or cacao) tree and are native to the Central and South American regions, where Mesoamerican civilizations like the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs recorded the earliest uses for them. Cacao trees flourish in hot, tropical climates and typically grow within 20 miles of the equator in areas where they receive plenty of rainfall and sufficient soil drainage.

Where do they grow today?

Today, the cacao tree grows all over the world. Seventy percent of the world’s cacao beans come from the West African countries of Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana. Cocoa varieties are also grown in southeastern Asia, Central and South America and the Caribbean.

While the US is one of the largest consumers of chocolate, most of its climate is not appropriate for growing cacao trees. Hawaii sits about 20 degrees north of the equator and is the only state with a climate suitable for growing cacao beans commercially.

Types of cacao beans

Cacao trees bloom all year, and pods develop into tropical colors including yellow, red, orange, purple or blue. The type of cacao determines the color of the pod. One cacao tree can produce up to 30-40 cacao pods a year.

The harvesting season for cacao varieties generally runs from November to January and May to July, but cacao beans can be harvested any time of the year.

There are four main types of cacao beans used in making chocolate:

  • Forastero,
  • Trinitario,
  • Criollo, and
  • Nacional.

Each of these cocoa varieties has its own distinct flavor. Other factors that influence flavor include the soil in which the cacao trees are grown, the temperature of the region and the amount sunshine and rainfall received.

Forastero cacao beans

Because forastero cacao beans are so hardy, the forastero variety dominates the world’s chocolate production market. Over 80 percent of the world’s chocolate comes from the forastero cacao beans, which are lower in quality than criollo cacao beans. In addition to producing high yields, forastero cacao is resistant to disease and grows quickly, making it an ideal choice for growers. 

These cacao beans are found primarily in West Africa. The pods are rounder than the criollo, with shallower ridges, and yellow to deep orange in color with purple beans. Forastero cacao beans have a bitter taste and are often combined with other types of cocoa beans to give chocolate a more robust, full-bodied flavor.

Trinitario cacao beans

Trinitario cacao beans are a hybrid between criollo and forastero. This type of cocoa bean was developed on the Island of Trinidad after a hurricane nearly destroyed the criolla trees there in 1727. Farmers planted forastero trees to replace the lost criolla trees, and hybrid versions appeared.

Trinitario beans are a versatile type of cacao bean that contain the best qualities of both the criolla and forastero: they have the fine flavor of criollo cocoa beans with the high yield and hardiness of the forastero beans. This cacao variety makes up less than 10 percent of total cacao production.

Criollo cacao beans

Criollo cacao beans are the first type of cocoa known to have grown in the Amazon basin. Today, criollo cocoa varieties are grown almost exclusively in Venezuela.

Criollo beans are difficult to grow because they are susceptible to disease and other environmental threats like pests, and they do not produce a high yield. Because of this, criollo beans are not a suitable crop for large-scale production and make up only about 5 percent of the world’s market.

Criollo cacao beans are white to pale pink in color, and their pods are red or yellow (or sometimes blue) and elongated and ridged. Criollo beans are high quality and are known for their complex, powerful fruity or spicy flavors. Criollo cocoa has very little bitterness, making the criollo beans the preferred choice of today’s specialty chocolate makers.

Nacional cacao beans

Nacional cacao beans are considered the rarest type of cacao variety and are found in Ecuador and Peru. This variety was rediscovered in Peru in 2011 and is regarded as the finest of the world’s cacao varieties. The cacao trees are carefully cultivated to organic standards in this unpolluted natural environment.

Chocolates made with nacional cacao beans are rich and creamy with very little bitterness. The fragrant aroma and degree of complexity, including floral, nutty, fruity and earthy tones, make nacional cacao beans the most highly prized of all the cacao varieties.

What can you use cacao beans for?

Cacao beans are best known for being used to make chocolate. But these beans have been used for many other purposes for thousands of years—and some of these uses are stranger than others.

  • Currency: Ancient Mayans used cocoa beans as currency.
  • Drink: Both Aztecs and Mayans created a drink made from cacao beans and used it in rituals, for medicinal purposes, and to celebrate weddings and births. Today, the toasted outer shells of cacao beans are often steeped in hot water to create cacao tea.
  • Beauty products: Cocoa butter, the fat left behind after cacao beans are pressed, is used as a base in many beauty products, such as lotions and creams, because of its ability to hydrate the skin. It can also treat wrinkles and stretch marks during pregnancy.
  • Cocoa powder: Cocoa powder, the residue left after the cocoa butter is extracted, is used as an ingredient in a variety of foods like icing, chocolate milk, desserts and sauces.
  • Animal feed: Cocoa pod husks, the waste products created during cocoa processing, are used to make animal feed for pigs and poultry.
  • Mulch: Cocoa bean shells can be used as mulch and soil conditioner.

Which variety of cacao beans should you choose?

Nacional and criollo are considered two of the best cacao varieties. So how can you know which cacao beans a chocolate maker has used? Since some chocolate makers don’t list that information on the bar, the easiest way to find out is to check out their website or send them an email. Better yet, learn about their sourcing practices. This will tell you what you need to know to make an informed decision. At Cococlectic, we list the type of cacao beans on our website for transparency.

Cacao beans are traded as a commodity, with the price fixed by governments or commodity boards. Small-scale farmers do not have the resources to bargain for higher cacao bean prices, which has resulted in a system where low-income farmers exploit child and migrant labor to keep costs down.

Small-batch bean-to-bar chocolate makers do not buy cacao beans from the commodity supply chain. Instead, they source directly or through a co-op that works directly with farmers. They cut out the middlemen, and farmers get paid anywhere from 50 to 300 percent more than those in the commodity market. Bean-to-bar chocolate makers continually work to improve the transparency of the supply chain, increase the quality of the cacao beans available, increase farmers’ pay, and commit to ethical standards.

At Cococlectic, we feature a different American small-batch bean-to-bar chocolate maker each month. These chocolate makers are passionate about their products and create their chocolate bars from scratch using only three main ingredients: cacao beans, sugar and cocoa butter. The chocolates we feature are vegan, non-GMO, fair-trade and ethically sourced. They do not contain any soy, gluten, dairy or nut, but they may be produced in a facility that handles these ingredients.

Sign up for a chocolate-of-the-month subscription club and join us for a free virtual chocolate tasting with our featured chocolate maker of the month.