Serious Chocolate: First Three, Now Ten Genetically Different Kinds of Cacao

Photograph from Eve18 on Flickr

A recent headline in the trade press heralded: "Options for chocolate lovers tripled." Cynically, I thought this was a come-on for the release of a raft of new chocolate products from some mass market candy company. Intrigued nonetheless, I clicked on the link to see that current research into cacao genetics is starting to bear fruit (pun intended).

Juan Carlos Motamayor of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Germplasm Repository and lead scientist of cocoa genetics at Mars, Incorporated, and his group announced recently that ten genetically distinct varieties of cacao actually exist instead of just three, which have been almost universally recognized by the scientific community for at least 40 years.

Chocolate aficionados are probably aware of the two best-known varieties (criollo and forastero) as well as one originating in Ecuador (nacional), and a common hybrid of criollo and forastero called trinitario, named after the island of Trinidad, where it was developed after a blight devastated the cacao crop in the 1700s. This new research, performed by genotyping 1,241 cocoa samples from different geographical origins, resulted in the identification of ten genetically distinct clusters.

The genetic clustering has led scientist Motamayor et al to propose "a new classification of cacao germplasm into 10 major clusters, or groups," which "maintains the terms used to identify the traditional cultivars Amelonado, Criollo, and Nacional, and separates highly differentiated populations within what was previously classified as the Forastero genetic group."

What Does This Mean?

At the classification level, this means the cacao variety previously referred to as "forastero" has been differentiated into eight varieties: Amelonado, Contamana, Curaray, Guiana, Iquitos, Maranon, Nanay, and Purus.

Amelonado, derived from the Spanish word for melon and a reference to the shape and surface texture of the fruit, is a traditional name for a type of forastero cacao. The rest of the new names refer to general geographic origin. These eight join the remaining two, criollo and nacional.

Goals of the Cacao Genotyping Research

The original stated goals of the research were to assist in the hybridization of cacao for the purposes of increasing yield and disease resistance as well as improving flavor. The proposed changes to the classification system are a side benefit as is resolving, once and for all, the origin of cacao: South America.

For many years, some researchers have theorized that cacao originated in Central America and migrated south. This new research confirms an alternate viewpoint, that South America is the ancestral home of cacao and that it migrated north down the Amazon and Orinoco river basins to the northern coast of South America. From there, it was transported into Central America where it was adopted by various Mesoamerican cultures. Reputedly, the Olmecs and the Toltecs were among the first cultures to domesticate cacao.

Originally, according to archaeological evidence recovered from a site near Puerto Escondido, Honduras, Mesoamericans followed the practice of their South American cousins by fermenting the pulp into a mildly alcoholic (about five per cent) lightly effervescent beverage. Cacao "wine" as it is now called, is still made throughout Central and South America. One researcher involved in analyzing potshards recovered from the dig described the beverage as having, "an unusual, slightly sweet taste," that, "doesn't taste like anything else."

On a trip to the Toledo District of Southern Belize last May, I tried cacao "wine" for the first time. It had a distinct crisp bubble but it wasn't really fizzy. Nor was it refined or filtered like most beers are, so it had a distinct alcoholic kick. Served cold, it was very refreshing.

At some point, cacao use in Central America diverged from that in South America, and Mesoamericans began cultivating, breeding, and using the beans instead of the pulp. If Columbus had anchored off the coast of what is now Venezuela, instead of off the island of Guanaja in the Gulf of Honduras, the Spanish might have returned to Spain with a new form of alcoholic beverage, not the dark, bitter, spicy concoction that eventually became the chocolate we know and love today.

Cacoa Beverages Today

For the past 500 years, very little has been made of beverages fermented from cacao pulp. There has been no intersection of these beverages with chocolate, until recently.

Earlier this year, Claudio Corallo (pronounced coe-RAW-low) started producing a chocolate bar with an unusual inclusion. (Inclusions are chocolate-speak for solid stuff that get mixed into chocolate such as nuts and dried fruits.) In this bar, the inclusion is raisins that have been soaked in the distillate of fermented cacao pulp. In other words, Corallo takes cacao wine and distills it into cacao eau de vie, then soaks the raisins in this before mixing in chocolate he makes from beans he grows on the island of Sao Tome.

Taste Test

This is one of the most unusual chocolates I have ever tasted—unusually good, though somewhat of an acquired taste. The taste of the raisins is alcohol-y, yeasty, fruity, musty, vinegary, and sweet all at the same time and the aroma reminds me of the smell coming off a pile of fermenting cacao beans. Which is a good thing. Really. You can have your offal (shudder), I want these raisins.