Have you ever wondered what makes some chocolate bars taste better than others? Many factors influence the final flavor and texture of chocolate, but one of the fundamental elements is the type of cacao beans used to make the chocolate. Cacao beans come in at least ten different varieties with several subvarieties, but most farmers and cultivators consider the three main types to be forastero, criollo and trinitario.
So what are the best cocoa beans in the world? Keep reading to find out.
What Are the Best Cocoa Beans in the World?
Chocolate’s story began thousands of years ago in Mesoamerica (present day Central and South America). The first Theobroma (cacao) trees were found over 4,000 years ago in what is now Mexico and Central America.
The ancient Olmec people in southeast Mexico were probably the first ones to consume cacao beans. The Aztecs used cacao beans to create a bitter chocolate drink called Xocoatl. This thick, foamy drink was made by grinding roasted cacao beans into a paste that they then mixed with water, vanilla, chili peppers and other spices. The Mayans also used cacao beans as currency and in rituals. These ancient civilizations believed cacao beans were more valuable than gold, and chocolate played an important economic, spiritual and political role in their cultures.
Today, cacao trees are grown in around the world in counties with a tropical climate—counties like West Africa, Central and South America and Southeast Asia. In fact, most of the world’s cacao beans, around 75 percent, are currently grown in West Africa.
Cacao trees are planted close together under the shelter of taller trees that provide protection from excessive wind and rain. The cacao tree produces a football-shaped fruit (or pod) that grows on branches and the trunk and can make up to 2,000 pods per year. Cacao pods are harvested all year long.
What makes cacao beans the best? A variety of factors play a role, including the following:
- Soil and climate. The terroir, or environment, influences the final flavor profile of the cacao beans. This includes the nutrients in the soil, the amount of rainfall, the amount of sunlight, wind and temperature.
- Flavor profile. The primary flavors of chocolate should include a mix of bitterness with the right amount of acidity, with fruity, nutty, spicy or floral notes.
- Processing. The way cacao beans are processed also influences the final outcome. Cacao beans that are fermented incorrectly, roasted too long or not enough and many other variables all influence the final flavor and texture of the chocolate bar.
The three main types of cacao beans include the forastero, criollo and trinitario. Of these, which are the best cocoa beans? Which is preferred by craft chocolate makers and connoisseurs? And which makes the best cacao powder in the world?
- Forastero is the most widely grown and robust of the varieties.
- Criollo is a higher quality full of flavor bean but more expensive to grow.
- Trinitario is a hybrid of the other two with the best qualities of each one.
Each type of cacao bean also has several subvarieties. Porcelana, the purest form of criollo cocoa, and the Nacional, a type of forastero cacao bean, are both considered to be some of the best cocoa beans in the world.
What are the differences in all these varieties? Let’s dive into each type to learn more.
The Porcelana cacao bean is so named because the pod it grows in is ivory colored and has a soft, smooth, almost translucent skin. It is a type of criollo cacao bean, which we will discuss in more detail below, and one of the world’s most coveted cocoa varieties due to its refined flavor profile that gives it lower levels of astringency and bitterness that are balanced with fruity notes.
Trinitario cacao beans got their start on the Caribbean island of Trinidad—hence the name. After a hurricane nearly destroyed the criollo cacao crop in Trinidad in 1727, a new type of cacao bean variety grew back in its place—the trinitario, which is a hybrid between criollo and forastero. It can now be found in Mexico, the Caribbean islands, Colombia, Venezuela and in parts of Southeast Asia.
The trinitario grows in pods that turn red or orange when mature. It gets its hardiness, resistance to disease and high yield from the forastero and its complex, flavorful aroma from the criollo. Trinitario cacao beans need to be fermented from a short to medium amount of time to bring out the best flavors.
Trinitario cacao beans are used to make some of the best cocoa powder in the world, which is then used to make confections and milk chocolate drinks. This variety makes up about 10 percent of the world’s cacao beans.
Criollo is one of the rarest cacao beans, known for its rich, intricate aroma and profound, smooth flavor. Preferred by craft chocolate makers, it is used to create some of the world’s best chocolate. Because the cacao bean is susceptible to disease and other environmental threats like pests, it is a difficult variety to grow, and it is not a suitable crop for large-scale production. Criollo beans make up only about 3 to 5 percent of the world’s market.
In Spanish, criollo means local or native to the area. This variety is native to Central and South America as well as the Caribbean islands and Sri Lanka, and they are cultivated in Venezuela in well-known subvarieties such as Carupano, Chuao, Porcelana and Puerto Cabello.
Criollo beans are white to pale pink in color and require little fermentation and a short roasting time to draw out the flavors. These high-quality cacao beans have a complex flavor profile with powerful fruity or spicy flavors and very little bitterness. These cacao beans are usually mixed with other varieties because they are rare and expensive.
Forastero means foreigner in Spanish and is made up of varieties native to South America. Today, forastero is grown primarily in West Africa (especially in the high producing countries of Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Ghana), Ecuador and Brazil. This versatile cacao bean provides a higher yield than any other kind of cacao variety and is resistant to pests and diseases. This makes it a popular cacao bean that is used in the production of about 80 percent of all chocolate in the world.
This variety grows in smooth yellow and green pods and has a strong, acidic aroma. Each pod contains about 30 to 40 purple cacao beans. Forastero cacao beans are high in tannins, which give them a bitter taste. The forastero requires a long period of both fermentation and roasting bring out its full-bodied flavors, and these cacao beans are often combined with other varieties during the production process to give chocolate a more robust flavor.
Of all the cocoa varieties, criollo is the most expensive due to several factors: It has a distinct reddish color and complex flavor profile that includes nutty, caramel, vanilla and tobacco notes, and its scarcity due to its lack of resistance to disease has made this a rare and highly coveted cacao variety.
Each month at Cococlectic, we feature a different American small-batch bean-to-bar chocolate maker who is passionate about producing their chocolate from scratch using only three main ingredients: cacao beans, sugar and cocoa butter.
The chocolates sold at Cococlectic 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.
We sell only dark chocolate bars in our chocolate shop. Monthly subscription boxes, one-time gift boxes or corporate gift boxes containing your choice of dark bars only or mixed bars with inclusions of fruits and nuts are available with the purchase of the Office Box. Each chocolate box comes with 4 full-size dark chocolate bars that are made in the US.
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