The Three (or Four, or Two) Types of Cacao Beans, Part I

While the experts can't quite agree on how many types of cacao beans there are, they do agree that there are more than one. In this two-part article, we'll explore the most commonly-recognized types.

Since there's only one species of Theobroma cacao, the tropical tree that produces chocolate, you might think it unlikely that different types of cacao beans should even exist. Well, think again. Over the years, cacao experts have defined three different varieties. Or four. Or maybe two. It depends on the expert.

Before crying foul, recall that the Chihuahua and the St. Bernard, and all the hundreds of breeds between, all belong to the same species of domestic dog; and the humblest banana pepper is brother to the hottest habanero. With that in mind, let's take a look at variation within the aptly-named "food of the gods."

What's the big deal?

Why should you care that there are different types of cacao beans used to make your chocolate? Why, for the same reason that wine-lovers enjoy vintages made from different types of grapes and coffee-drinkers learn to savor the diverse varieties of beans grown around the world. In a word, flavor.

While some of us are perfectly satisfied with any chocolate we get, true chocolate extremos learn to appreciate the subtle differences in body, aroma, palate, and texture between the different cacao bean varieties. Add in the variations caused by climate, and you've got a rich palette of flavors to choose from.

What everyone agrees on

The two types of cacao beans that everyone agrees upon are the Criollo and Forastero. Criollo was the type originally domesticated by the Mesoamericans, and is widely considered to be the finest in the world. A rich, complex aroma, and a multilayered, mellow flavor delights the tongue.

In many ways, Criollo beans are among the easiest to work with; they need only a short fermentation and brief roasting to bring out the flavors. However, only about 1% of modern chocolate is derived from Criollo beans; they're primarily used to make cheaper chocolate taste better.
The second of the universally-accepted types of cacao beans is the Forastero. A native of the Amazon basin, the Forastero tree is very hardy and productive, which is a plus; however, its beans require a long period of both fermentation and roasting in order to obtain the best possible flavor.

The Forastero variety is the most economically important type of cacao bean, since approximately 80% of all chocolate is Forastero-derived. Many chocolates are pure Forestero in origin. However, Forestero does tend to have a bitter, plain flavor, so it's often mixed with Criollo and other chocolates to improve its taste.

But wait, there's more!

Criollo and Forastero together may be the most wide accepted types of cacao, but don't make the mistake of assuming that's all there is. In Part II of this article, we'll introduce you to Trinitario and Nacional, the two other commonly recognized types of cacao beans.