August 27, 2018

Getting to know the three main cacao varieties


Have you ever picked up a bar of chocolate and wondered exactly what the label means? Many of us have! Take Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario: the names of three cacao varieties that you might see on the packaging. But what are the differences and why should you care?

Just like in coffee, cacao varieties affect the flavour, price, and production of the chocolate you’re snacking on. And just like in coffee, there are many myths about these varieties – some true, some false.

Take a look at this brief guide to cacao varieties to learn more.

Lee este artículo en español El Mito de Las 3 Variedades de Cacao

cacao pods

Cacao pods. Credit: Cocoa Coffee Shop

What is Cacao anyway?

Whether you prefer to call it cacao or cocoa, Theobroma cacao is a tropical tree native to the Americas. There are about 20 different species in the Theobroma family, which came from a common ancestor and share many features. Cacao’s siblings Theobroma bicolor and Theobroma grandiflorum can create a product similar to chocolate.

Around ten million years ago cacao diverged from its common ancestor. Since then, evolution and human interference have led to new types and the variation we see today.


Fruits of four Theobroma species. Credit: Roy Bateman via Wikipedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The myth of the three varieties

Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario are cacao’s three dominant varieties. Conventional wisdom would have you believe that Criollo is the best, Forastero the lowest quality, and Trinitario in the middle. Maybe you dream of a pure Criollo, while dismissing Forastero as the cheap stuff used by the big manufacturers.

But this isn’t the full story. At least ten recognised cacao varieties exist and what we think we know about the big three isn’t really accurate.

You might also like: Understanding The Ingredients List on Your Fine Chocolate Bar

Open cacao pod

A cacao pod and several cacao beans cut in half so as to inspect their quality.

Ancient Mayans saw Criollo as the food of the gods. These days, commercial farmers rarely grow it. Criollo and consumable chocolate have very different genomes. They generally have white seeds and fruits with Criollo-like shapes, but are genetically different.

Forastero isn’t one variety either. Each distinct genetic group has a different shape, colour, and taste. Amelonado and Nacional are cultivars that are usually classified as Forastero despite producing beans very different in flavour and shape.

Trinitario is thought to result from crossbreeding Amelonado with the ancient Criollo in Trinidad, hence the name. But a lot of modern hybrids are also classified as Trinitarian. Just take a look at TSH clones.

Trinidad Select Hybrids (TSH) clones are cultivated cacao plants commonly grown on Trinidad and Tobago farms that are considered Trinitarian. But they are the result of breeding four parental plants, of which just one is Trinitarian. The other three parents are Forastero, so the TSH clones actually have more genetic material from Forastero than from Trinitarian.

Ripe cacao

Ripe cacao pods: different varieties, different colours, different sizes. Credit: Arcelia Gallardo

Colonial confusions

It’s believed that the confusing classification of cacao began with Spanish colonizers. Criollo meant “native” in Spanish, while Forastero means “foreign”. The Spanish named the first cacao they encountered, in Mexico and Central America, Criollo. Cacao from anywhere else was then named Forastero.

But in reality, even Criollo is not native to the region where colonizers first found it.

Cacao originates in the Amazon jungle, probably from the zone where Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil meet. This means that the vast world of cocoa came from one tiny region.

Cacao was then distributed through the Americas by indigenous people and later by colonizers and settlers. Criollo was carried from the Amazon and traded until reaching the hands of the Mayans and Aztecs, who cultivated it and developed chocolate (although not chocolate as we know it today).

You might also like: A History of Chocolate Consumption Around The World


A cacao pod that has been split in half, revealing the white pulp that coats the cacao beans. Credit: Cocoa Coffee Shop

Is criollo the best variety?

For decades, we have heard that Criollo is better than Forastero – but that isn’t necessarily true.

Forastero seeds taken from the Bahia region of Brazil were used to start plantations in Africa and Southeast Asia. This robust variety soon became the dominant cacao on the market. Today, it makes up over 80% of world production.

There are fewer Criollo plantations and they have a lower yield because the plant is less resistant to disease. This makes it rarer and more expensive. Perhaps the abundance of Forastero and the relative scarcity of Criollo influence how we think of the varieties.

Forastero is said to have a powerful, less aromatic flavour that can sometimes be bitter or acidic. But this variety results in a full-bodied chocolate that some prefer.

Criollo is often described as being mildly acidic and rarely bitter. Criollo fans say it has a mild taste with secondary aromas of nuts, caramel, fruit, and tobacco.

As for Trinitario, you’ll often hear that it has most of the powerful cocoa taste of Forastero but is generally less acidic and bitter.

However, we already know that there are far more than just these three varieties. And like wine, coffee, and many other things in life, there are many factors that influence how cacao tastes: the variety, yes, but also the country of origin, the local climate and soil, the farming methods, how the chocolatier roasted and conched it

Ultimately, which chocolate you prefer comes down to personal preference. But it is worth remembering that the stereotypes may not always be accurate.

Discover more! Read A Beginner’s Guide to Cacao & Chocolate Flavour Profiles

Cacao Beans

Cacao beans. Credit: Arcelia Gallardo

So, which variety should you choose?

The variety has a large impact on the flavour of a chocolate, but it is just one aspect to consider. Try different chocolates and take note of the variety, but also consider the other ingredients and the origin.

The wider the range you try, the better you will get at identifying which flavours and aromas you like best. If you take notes, you can start to spot patterns in which varieties and origins you keep coming back to. You’ll be able to both buy chocolate you like and appreciate its subtle notes even more. What a great excuse to eat more chocolate!

Enjoyed this? Check out Chocolate Pairings: Tips From a Fine Cacao Expert

Written by Cesar Frizo.

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