Bean Varietal: Complex Family Dynamics
Cut open a pod from the Cacao tree and you find beans coated in a sweet white pulp. The genetic make-up of these beans can vary from pod to pod, even on the same tree. Theobroma Cacao’s flowers can be promiscuous cross-pollinators and a single tree’s fruit often shows characteristics of more than one variety.
Although there are just three main varieties, there are literally thousands of variations, each with its unique genetic profile and flavor distinctions. This wasn’t always the case. For centuries, the two original strains, Criollo and Forastero, inhabited virtually separate universes in South America until the 18th century when they were planted in proximity for the first time in Trinidad. The unplanned result was Trinitario, blending characteristics from both parents.
Since then, a million permutations, crossings and re-crossings have made the chocolate landscape extremely complex. However, a pattern of genetic dominance quickly emerged, and now more than 90% of the cacao used worldwide is Forastero.
The Venezuelan foothills of the Andes are thought to be the home of the most delicate, rare and flavorful strain of cacao. Revered by indigenous cultures, Criollo was discovered by the Conquistadors and cultivation spread to other tropical regions. Thin-skinned pods contain light pink or white beans (known as Porcelana) that create a mellow, complex chocolate. Criollo is now grown primarily in the Caribbean and South America.
Originally growing lush and free in the rainforests of the Amazon River basin, Forastero has a relatively hearty constitution. Its thick-skinned fruit is fairly prolific and yields flatter, dark purple beans whose natural acidity helps ward off pests. However, unless its wild character is tamed, this strength can tend toward harshness. Forastero thrives in Africa and Brazil.
Forastero’s natural resistance became essential after a series of diseases ruined cacao plantations in the 1720’s. When farmers on the island of Trinidad planted Forastero seedlings hoping to strengthen their crop, the strain soon crossed with the few surviving Criollo trees. Trinitario blends the best of its parents: a strong constitution and a multi-dimensional flavor.