The Different Varieties of Cocoa Trees
I - The history of the cocoa tree
Nobody knows exactly when the cocoa tree, also named “Theobroma cocoa”, was discovered. Scientists say that it could be millions of years old. However, we know that the Olmecs first discovered the gustatory properties of its fruit by seeing rodents eating it vigorously. After that, they decided to consume it in the form of a drink, by crushing the cocoa beans, mixing them with water and spices, chilies, and herbs. The Mayans and the Aztecs then followed this tradition and decided to cultivate the ‘food of the gods’, a symbol of wealth and abundance, and also used it as a currency.
II - The main varieties
There are four main varieties of the cocoa tree: Criollo, Forastero, Trinitario, and Nacional, which are not cultivated in the same proportion.
A – The Criollo
Criollo cocoa represents only 1 to 5% of the production in the world, due to its fragility, its rarity, and its very unique complex flavor. Mostly craft and gourmet chocolate makers use their cocoa beans to have the finest chocolate possible, with a little bitterness, a pronounced fruity taste, and a large number of aromas. Criollo cocoa is generally cultivated in Latin America (Venezuela, Mexico, Peru, Colombia).
B – The Forastero
The Forastero cocoa dominates cocoa production. As well used by low-cost chocolate brands as by luxury and gourmet chocolate makers, this tree is mostly cultivated in West Africa and Brazil, and the large presence of its cocoa in the food market gave him the name of ‘consumer cocoa’ or ‘bulk cocoa’. Its taste is very hardy in comparison with the Criollo cocoa.
C – The Trinitario
The Trinitario cocoa only represents 10% of the international production. It is a hybrid between the Criollo and the Forastero created in the 18th century on the island of Trinidad - from which comes the name - to have a stronger cocoa tree than the Criollo, too frail against the many hurricanes. This variety is mostly grown in Trinidad, Venezuela, Papua New Guinea, Java, and Sri Lanka. Its flavors are fine, but less than the Criollo.
D – The Nacional
Nacional cocoa is the least popular, and it represents less than 1% of the total production. It is worldwide known amidst chocolate makers as the rarest cocoa tree, with fine and sweet flavors as floral notes of Jasmine, cream, or orange flower. It is mostly cultivated in Ecuador and Peru.
III – Other varieties
Even if their production is small, there is a lot of other varieties of cocoa trees in our world, such as Amelonado, Contamana, Curaray, Cacao guiana, Iquitos, Marañon, Nanay, or Purús, which are also very unique and very interesting.
A - The Amelonado
The Amalonado cocoa has dark purple beans, and is mostly found in French Guiana and in West Africa. It is quite fatty, a bit bitter and has aromas of coffee, wood, vanilla and cinnamon. Its name comes from its round melon-shaped pod, and it is gradually replaced by hybrid cocoa trees, much more profitable for farmers.
B - The Contamana
Contamana is close to Nacional cocoa, but more robust and less bitter. Its aromas can be compared with dried brown fruits and flowers. Contamana was discovered by FJ Pound, an agronomist of Trinidad, in 1937 in the Ucayali River Valley in Peru. FJ was looking for a cocoa tree that could resist witches' broom disease, and he found it.
C – The Curaray
Curaray cocoa gets its name from the Peruvian river of the same name. It has similarities with the Nacional, Contamana and Iquitos (in the Amazon region). However, experts have not yet studied it enough and we have not a lot of information about it. Maybe a better use of it could be made in the future.
D – The Guiana
Cocoa farmers do not choose to cultivate the Guiana due to its high number of small seeds, which makes difficult to have a big production. However, Guiana has a very fine taste with a slight bitterness, and a strong aromatic intensity. Guina is mostly found in southeastern French Guyana, and is known for its genetic originality and extreme robustness against diseases.
Today, many of the chocolate makers are using blends to create their own taste and their own recipes, like a perfumer with his fragrances.