First things first – what is the difference between chocolate, cocoa and cacao? Cacao is the name used to describe the plant and its fruit. Cocoa is a somewhat generic term and without qualifiers can be confused with cacao. Cocoa powder is raw cacao beans that have been roasted and then pressed through high pressure cylinders to create a fine powder. The by-product of this process is cocoa butter – the fat naturally found in the cacao beans. Chocolate is another generic term, but generally it refers to cacao beans that have been roasted and ground and smoothed into a consistent texture and formed into a mold of some sort. Sometimes sugar is added to the chocolate sometimes it is not.
In this segment, we are talking strictly about the cacao plant and the primary varieties found in the world. The full species name of the cacao plant is Theobroma Cacao. There are two very general subspecies that are commonly referred to: Criollo and Forastero. The Trinitario variety is a hybrid that is frequently referred to as the third subspecies but it belongs to a much larger group of hybrids that have occurred both naturally and with agricultural influence over many years of cultivation. Each variety has distinct characteristics regarding cultivation, production, aroma, texture and taste.
The word criollo comes from the Spanish word creola meaning native and was used by conquistador Hernán Cortés to describe the delicious chocolate mixture enjoyed by the Aztecs in what is today’s southern Mexico. This delicate tree produces some of the world’s most prized cacao but it is also a difficult plant to grow on any great scale. The tree is not prolific and it is more susceptible to disease than other varieties. As a result, this cacao variety represents just 5% – 10% of the world’s production.
In Spanish, forastero means foreigner or stranger and originates from the upper Amazon region. It is tends to have a more robust flavor than the Criollo. Forastero grows quickly and produces an excellent quantity of fruit and as a result is the preferred industrial cacao variety. It represents 80% of the world’s production.
This hybrid cacao is a cross between Criollo and a Forastero. Originally from La Trinidad, Venezuela from which this sub-species takes its name. The coastal plantations of Venezuela (Chuao being the first in the Americas) originally cultivated only the Criollo variety but in the early 1700s a cyclone ruined most of the important plantations. During the replanting, the inhabitants started cultivating Forastero cacao imported from Venezuela’s Orinoco valley. Since some of the original Criollo trees survived, a natural hybrid came about. Offering some of the characteristics of both parent varieties, the Trinitario offers balanced flavors and fair cultivation properties. Today, it represents roughly 10% – 15% of the world’s production.
There are literally thousands of varieties such as the highly regarded Criollo Porcelana or Forastero Arriba. You can also consider the region in which the cacao is produced as a factor in its characteristics. Due to the highly distributed nature of cacao processing and the fact that most chocolates are blends of different subspecies and perhaps numerous varieties, chocolate is not as terroir-driven as an appellation-controlled wine, but ultimately, where the cacao is grown does play a role in the organoleptic characteristics of the chocolate.