The Chocolate Life

Discover Chocolate and Live La Vida Cocoa!

I am recently back from 3 months in Nicaragua and southern Mexico, my secondary goal being to understand more about cacao, and make better chocolate. In the past 5 years I've been trucking around Nicaraguan cacao farms, and making chocolate-- only dark, and uncontaminated by ingredients other than sugar, fat and occasionally vanilla.

My science is practical but I love the harder stuff too. I'm interested in the basics and would like to venture what I have learned so far. Please feel free to correct or add to this.
Part 1) Fermentation vs Non-Fermentation-- to my understanding, the Olmecs and Mayas fermented their cacao; so it has a basis in tradition, and likely some reason for it. For me the reason is simple: I've made delicious chocolate (according to all my friends, and me) from fermented beans; and using the same process made chocolate from Unfermented beans that was absolutely inedible, acid, acrid, sour, I'm not sure how to describe it.
In Nicaragua, about half the cacao grown is Fermented, which fetches about a U$.40/lb bonus. Nearly all fermented cacao is exported. Big time European chocobiz will not fool with unfermented, for very good reason in my opinion. The other half of Nica cacao is unfermented and sold only on the national market.
In Mexico, the birthplace of proud chocolate tradition, almost all cacao is NOT fermented. And yet it was routinely fermented up until 40? 50? Years ago, I'm not sure.
The reason they quit fermenting there is doubtless that it is less work. And certainly today there is no premium offered for fermented cacao in Mexico. Since the Mexican national market abosrbs all production, no need for it.
So how do the local Nicas and Mexis make it edible? I have observed closely, several times, twice with a laser thermometer (it was not actually necessary) to learn, and confirm that they roast it to the point of NEARLY BURNING it. They get away with it for the simple fact that all the cacao served in these countries is served as a Chocolate Drink. These drinks are diluted with additives such as cinnamon, milk, other spices and usually lots of sugar. The near-burn allows a lot of very simple chocolate taste from very little prime material.
When you look at the little chocolate balls these folks make (made for drink, but sometimes chewed by choco-starved gringos), you can see by color comparison with my chocolate that the color is way darker. And of course the taste, burnt, it makes me weep.

Fermentation is done on the farm, and at least two in Nicaragua will stick in their thermometers to show you it is really fermenting, usually between 130 and 140F. Ritter (german), the main buyer in the north specifies 8 days of ferment, passing thru the classical 3 boxes. I have made very tasty chocolate out of this but I think it is another case that 8 day ferment tries to maximize the Quantity of taste.
Of course I'd love to try someones raw unfermented chocolate, and ready to be amazed at their art if it can be made to taste good.

Part 2-- Varieties and flavors: this is my real interest. I have seen on this site that folks are trying to divvy up the obsolete triad of Criollo, Forestero and Trinitario into 10 different types.
I can only speak for Nicaragua, a few guesses therefrom. There are a number of different types of cacao, bred over the centuries but-- up until recently-- we assume they are all based on the Criollo type. Lagarto, Papayon, Manzana, Amelonado, the more recent ones (within the last few centuries). I assume they are all criollo types, with who-knows-what other genes mixed in. But the growers have a sense, and some decent agreement about the really old types.
First the most common is the cacao Indio, also sometimes called Criollo (or so-called Criollo). This is still somewhat common but under attack by the much heralded higher producing Trinitario Acriollizado. Much field grafting going on. This was shown to me in Mexico as the old stuff, Criollo, with a pink interior, not purple. This is a smallish, yellow, rounded pod (not so round as the Amelonado), with good resistance to the dread disease Monilia, and also decently productive.
In Nicaragua, I dealt with farmers who were rather more sophisticated and said this may be an old type but the real Criollo is somewhat bigger (also yellow) and has a purple seed interior. Which they showed me. What the Mexicans call Criollo is the Indio in Nicaragua. Same stuff, different name.
But the one they think is surely old is the White Cacao, whose young leaves are light green, not reddish like all the others. And of course the seeds are white on the inside.

Most farmers have had no incentive to separate the different varieties. I've had the pleasure of making chocolate of the Indio and it is very different than the mixed cacao universally sold, and utterly delicious, smooth tasting, could almost be mistaken for a milk chocolate.
I'm looking forward to trying the others, which should be in my grasp by next harvest.

Love to hear more about what are really the ancient and original cacaos, if anyone knows.
Meanwhile, an Opportunity: We have identified three sites in Nicaragua with very old or interesting types of cacao. There are interested people at these sites, willing to assisit and abet a Biologist who would like to study any and all biological aspects of cacao, in its native habitat. Obviously such a Biologist must have interest and some plan, perhaps as part of some higher educational program.

J Sandy Hepler, Whitleyville, TN

Views: 305

Replies to This Discussion

Great article and details Sandy. In Mumbai India, where i live, there is no opportunity to experience what you have explained.

I am no botanist, but would love an opportunity to visit and learn at your mentioned places.

May be, some one can design a "Cacao" Tourism, like there is "Medical Tourism" that India is offering.

then, lay people like me would have an chance to visit cacao growing locations like Nicaragua.

Hello JSandy,

I just read your article and I am very curious!! I am wondering what you mean by unfermented cacao? If it is the natural seed took straight from the fruit, how do they peal it?

I can not imagine how they get their flavor of the seed once they don´t allow the maillard reaction. And the taste must be so very different from what we know as chocolate...

I can say I've tried using the natural seed in several different ways but never got to a pleasant flavor...

In Brazil what I have learned as Criollo is a smaller seed with a white-yellow interior without the violet shades.
Yes, thanks
Arun, maybe there is a Nicaraguan Chocolate adventure in the offing

Samantha-- my knowledge is soooo spotty and you have just added something of which i find other evidence. Yes, some of the seeds of these varieties are smaller; and of course the legnedary white cacao. Some others are pinkish. An hour ago I saw a chart that conflated the purple coloring with Forastero...... Thats why i came here.

Regarding fermentation: as I said, I'd like to try state of the art raw chocolate from Chocolatiers as on this website but my hopes are not hihgh.
As I said in my posting, the way the Locals get away with unfermented is almost burn it in the roasting, then dilute it with lots of other stuff including sugar.
My own experiment with unfermented was unqualified failure. There remains a remote possibility that 50 yrs of aging will make it tasty. certainly time improrves every chocolate I've ever made.
Hi John,
I am really interested in your topic. I am just learning to process our very small cocoa crop and successfully fermented, what I believe to be Trinitario cocoa. The trees are very old . We work on family land and when they were producing cocoa as a commercial enterprise, my husband's family only ever sold wet beans to the local cocoa association. Consequently, my husband had never heard of fermenting the beans prior to roasting. When I asked our neighbour about fermentation, he knew it as 'sweating' the cocoa and he said " you more get that up country", which suggests it was done here historically. So I am thinking that the fermentation process almost died out when people stopped processing their own cocoa. My mother in law prefers the 'burnt' taste of non-fermented beans, but does not the extreme roasting destroy the beneficial properties of the cocoa?
I have been cavalier in my usage of the term "criollo types" of cacao, my apologies. It is more clear and correct to call them "criollo-based hybrids", I think. These are the mixed cacao beans I get from two sources, one near Matiguas, north middle Nicaragua; and one on Mt Mombacho. These are mixed, unsorted cacaos that have a mellow character, readily noted by everyone who tastes it, as compared to store-bought commercial types.

I am by NO means saying anything against store-bought commercial types of cacao. Some are terrific. I have been assuming that this mellow, lighter chocolate (of which I have eaten and shared a lot) is the criollo "type"
Now that I have seen and identified the native whites and pinks (colors of the beans, inside the shell), I believe that these are pretty close to the original stuff.
However, I have not so far tasted pure pink or white beans. This we will be doing October/November.

When I have gotten sorted, selected cacao-- some call it "indio" and some call "criollo", the beans are still purple-colored, surely have forastero influence but they are very mellow, with this broader spectrum of tastes. Obviously different by taste from other cacaos I've had. But I've had almost no other criollo or supposed criollo, so I am not the best guy to compare with other alleged criollos.

Bottom line: in Nicaragua, I'm seeing a number of old-timey bred cacaos with old names like Lagarto and Manzana, besides the old standard Indio. These are mostly purple seeded, but mellow, distinctive. We'll find one to two hundred pounds of the white seeded. (So far I have only seen quantities of the pink in southern Mexico) The mixed together stuff can be bought by the ton, really well-cleaned and dried, certified organic.

I'm not an expert, so feel free to set me right,

J Sandy Hepler
Hi John and J Sandy,

Great blog, and I am totally aligned with your quest to promote "heirloom" cacao from Nicaragua. Just to add a few facts that we in my company, Xoco (, have learned over the past years:

Today most cacao in Nicaragua is "bulk"; we actually tested a large number of trees, and inspected more than 90% of existing trees in Nicaragua, and they are mostly forastero-varieties, imported after the second world war. The original Criollos actually come from Central America, and some genetic scientists speculate that the orginal Criollo-13 may come from Nicaragua and that some of the Venezuelan Criollos have Nicaraguan Criollos as their great great grandfathers.

Farmers in Nicaragua tend to call their trees "Criollos" but they do not refer to genetics, but simply call the tree Criollo because it is old and indigenous to them. Some of the forasteros, called Katongas, have white seeds, but that in itself doesn´t make them genetically Criollos.

The few remaining "fine" trees in Nicaragua, probably less than 2% of all trees, are best called Trinitarios because even they have been mixed up with hybrids. Or we could call them "modern Criollos". We selected a few of these, the ones with the most interesting flavour/aroma, as "mother-trees" for reproduction.

Xoco is reproducing quite a fair amount of trees based on the mother-trees we identified. So we hope to re-create the heirloom varieties. You should check us out, and you are welcome to visit our Sebaco (Matagalpa) facilities.


Member Marketplace

Promote TheChocolateLife

Bookmark and Share

Follow Clay on:
Twitter :: @DiscoverChoc
F'Book :: TheChocolateLife
F'Book Group :: LaVidaCocoa :: @DiscoverChoc

© 2014   Created by Clay Gordon.

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service