Cacao Bean Varieties
The three cacao varieties—Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario—demonstrate more where cacao has been than where it is now, because the names no longer correspond to pure genetic strains. Purity disappeared many hundreds of years ago as a result of cacao's penchant for spontaneous cross-pollination. Deliberate hybridization has also occurred on numerous occasions in the four hundred plus years of cacao's history as a cash crop. This means that any relationship between variety and flavor is so general as to be almost useless.
Criollo was the predominant cacao of Central and northern South America, but because of its low productivity and susceptibility to disease it now represents approximately 0.1% of the world's crop. Porcelana, the best known example of Criollo, retains the signature mild fruitiness attributed to the variety, although it is even rarer than Criollo.
Forastero, by far the most common of the three varieties, is believed to be indigenous to the northern Amazon River basin. As a result of its disease resistance and high productivity, it represents close to 90% of the world crop. It tends to have earthy, relatively simple flavors with moderate acidity, and is known as "bulk" cacao. Depending on the quality of the bean (pod ripeness at harvest and the degree of care taken in fermenting and drying the beans), Forastero can add extremely desirable elements to a blend, or add little more than color.
Trinitario, a spontaneous hybrid of Forastero and Criollo, appeared in Trinidad in the mid-1700's. Trinitario may be the most difficult to define in terms of flavor, due to widely varying ratios of Forastero and Criollo. Flavor notes range from spicy to earthy to fruity to highly acidic. Even Trinitario beans that physically resemble Criollo, suggesting a high percentage of Criollo genes, often exhibit little of its characteristic taste profile.
Several countries maintain living gene banks of cacao strains. The challenge is that no consistent attempt has been made to create certifiable bean types on a commercial basis. Thus, when a label states that the cacao variety of a particular bar of chocolate is Criollo or Trinitario, it is difficult, if not impossible, to calculate the significance of that claim. Manufacturers rarely boast about using Forastero cacao, but most chocolates contain these beans and are quite good in quality. The ultimate danger in the careless use of labels, aside from the confusion it creates, is that genetic diversity may disappear before anyone realizes that its existence is at risk. When diversity departs, flavor goes with it.