Before we begin, we must make the distinction between cacao and cocoa.
Cacao is the raw unprocessed beans.
Cocoa is the fermented, dried and processed bean. It is the finished product that we use as cocoa butter, cocoa powder and chocolate.
Cacao beans are grown in tropical climates in South America, the Caribbean, some Pacific islands and Africa. These areas are all within the “cacao belt,” about 20 degrees (1,380 Miles) north and south of the equator. There are three types of cacao beans typically grown today. Each with its own distinct qualities and flavors.
Criollo cacao beans are the rarest of the three. These beans are quite susceptible to disease making growing them a challenge. The beans from the criollo trees are the highest quality beans of the three types. They produce much milder flavors than the more robust forastero and trinitario cacao beans. These are the original cacao trees originating in Mexico. Most of these cacao trees can be found in Venezuela today.
Forastero is by far the most prominent cacao bean grown. It is grown mostly for bunk production but certain varieties are used for small batch productions. These small production batches are well known and full of desirable characteristics. Most people know this kind of chocolate today from major producers like Hershey's and Mars. It can be found all over the world from Africa to the Andes Mountains.
The third and most recent addition to cacao beans is the Trinitario cacao bean. This bean is a cross-bread between the criollo and forastero beans. Trinitario beans originated during the 1750s in Trinidad after a possible disease or natural disaster decimated the crop of criollo and the more robust forastero trees were planted to help rebuild the industry. The resulting crop was a blend of the two.
Although there are three types of cacao beans throughout the world, the subspecies that these beans come from play a role in their overall taste. Criollo cacaos have been known to have many subtle flavors, but much of the flavor comes from the fermentation and roasting processes. If these two processes are not done correctly, then as long as the beans have desirable qualities, then the chocolate will be good.
There are other factors as well that give cacao beans their flavor. Much like wine, cacao beans are susceptible to the weather, climate, sunlight and the ground (or terroir) they are grown in. The environment that cacao is grown in plays a role in its flavor development. Much like wine vintners, cacao estates have to consider the ground that their cacao trees are planted and the environmental impacts when the beans are growing.
Each of these estates grows a cacao bean either from the forastero, criollo, or trinitario family. But, it is the varieties of these subspecies that make each estate unique. Our chocolate makers source their cacao beans from estates that have their own unique qualities from their own variety of cacao bean. With each estate and bean come different characteristics and qualities. We encourage you to try different chocolate makers and bars to find the one that you like the best.