You probably don’t need another reason to love your local craft chocolate maker, but here’s one just in case: his continual quest for great-tasting cocoa beans.  The flavor of chocolate depends largely on the cocoa beans used to make it, so finding beans that express the craft maker’s artistic vision is important.


But how hard can it be, you ask?  Aren’t cocoa beans all the same?  Thank goodness, no!  Like coffee beans or wine grapes, the variations are amazing.  (This is often how I justify the purchase and consumption of my next bar of craft chocolate: “Ooh! I’ve never tried those beans before!”)


And some beans are just better than others.  You can certainly ruin fine beans and make mediocre chocolate from them, but average beans will never make exceptional chocolate.  Your craft chocolate maker wants to make exceptional chocolate for you, and that drives her on-going search for flavorful cocoa beans.


With coffee beans, you have your Arabica and Robusta varieties, and each variety is impacted (taste-wise) by where it is grown.  With wine grapes, you have many varieties – such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, again with the flavor of the wine being influenced by the geographic region, soil type and climate where the grape grows.  With the large number of varieties, and the wide variations in locale, the array of potential coffees or wines is virtually endless.  That’s where the skill of the coffee roaster or the artistry of the winemaker plays its part.


So it is with chocolate.  There are varieties of cacao, and a range of locations where it is grown.  Add to these the variables of post-harvest handling, roasting and grinding, and it’s easy to see why the range of fine chocolate flavors is so broad!


So how does your craft chocolate maker find great cocoa beans?  This is where slick detective skills come in handy!  And to answer the question, it helps to know a little bit about what he is hunting for.


The plant we sometimes call cocoa goes by the scientific name “theobroma cacao,” meaning "food of the gods"; from “theos” (or god), and “broma” (or food).  Wikipedia tells us that theobroma cacao is a small (13–26 ft tall) evergreen tree, native to the deep tropical regions of Central and South America. Its fruit, called a cacao pod, is a little smaller than an American football, ripening yellow to orange, and weighing about one pound when ripe. The pods contain 20 to 60 seeds embedded in a white pulp. The seeds become the main ingredient of chocolate (cocoa beans), while the pulp is used in some countries to prepare a refreshing juice.




Historically, the world of theobroma cacao has been divided into three major varieties.  The Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) explains the origins.  Although the exact location is debated, theobroma cacao started in the wild, somewhere in the canopies below the tropical forests of South America, and spread throughout Central America and Mexico.  From these regions, the name of the original strain, Criollo or “born in the New World,” was taken.  Another strain, Forestero (or “foreign”) is thought to have originated in the Amazon basin.  A third variety of cacao, called Trinitario, is believed to be a hybrid of the other two varieties.


‘Only three?  This is going to be easy!  Which one tastes best?  Let’s make chocolate out of that one!’  If only it were that simple.  Yes, the Criollo variety – which represents only about 5 - 10% of the world’s cacao production – is thought have superior characteristics of taste, aroma and astringency.  Forestero – representing about 80% of cacao – is often said to taste like chocolate, but only chocolate – a monotone note.  (Forestero was likely used to make that cheap bar of industrial chocolate you recently bought on impulse at the grocery store checkout line.) 


And purity of variety is hard to find.  Let’s just say theobroma cacao gets around.  Cacao trees cross-pollinate readily, so it can be very difficult to determine the exact genetics of a particular bean without DNA testing!


The three historic types of cacao are gradually giving way to a more sophisticated genome-typing system.  The new world of cacao has about ten clusters - rather than three types - and will help us tie a particular bean more closely with its actual origin.    





Cacao grows generally within 20 degrees latitude either side of the equator.  Cacao thrives in countries like Venezuela, Columbia, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, The Ivory Coast of Africa, Madagascar, Indonesia and even Hawaii (which is just slightly north of the border at 23 degrees).  While the crop is naturally a rainforest understory plant, requiring high humidity, fertile soils, rainfall and warm temperatures it has also been grown successfully in drier, poorer conditions under irrigation.


Since soil conditions vary widely throughout the equatorial zone, the “terroir’ or specific geography, soil and climatic conditions of a region can add distinction to the character and flavor of the cacao, according to the FCIA.  Perhaps like the viticultural regions in wine, the flavors of fine chocolate will become tied more closely with place.


Want to know more?  A great resource comes from Ecole Chocolat: their new book, Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate.  Learn more about the book here:


And in the meantime, seek out your local craft chocolate maker and see what terroir she has up her sleeve! 


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