It is not only important to understand that there are several grades of cacao within cacao producing countries; these grades are often based on national standards set by government, industry, or a combination of the two. Even more important is the distinction between fine grade and bulk cacao. Depending on the source consulted, “fine or flavor” cacao accounts for as much as 20% of the world’s production, down to as low as 10% to 5%. Herein we’ll refer to “fine or flavor” cacao as fine grade cacao. Nonetheless, what’s important here is to know that Ecuador is the world’s largest producer of fine grade cacao. But what exactly is it?
In general terms, fine grade-also known as fine aroma cacao-is top quality cacao used in fine chocolates such as those used in pastry shops, restaurants, and other upper-tier establishments. Fine grade cacao is also used by many artisan chocolate makers around the world, from small bean-two-bar operations, to mid-size and larger industrial manufacturers such as Valhrona, Guittard, Barry Calllebaut and others. Sometimes it is used alone to produce a high-end product, while other times it is mixed with bulk grade beans to add marketing cachet or to improve on a mediocre product. The world commodity market generally distinguishes fine or flavor cacao beans as those coming from criollo or trinitario cacao tree varieties, as well as Ecuador’s Nacional variety. CCN-51, a hybrid that is increasingly cultivated in Ecuador, can make a good chocolate but is not always considered fine grade.
But is there a strict scientific definition for fine grade cacao? Between 2001 and 2006, the ICCO, or International Cocoa Organization, undertook a study of the chemical, physical and organoleptic parameters to establish the difference between fine and bulk cacao. The study took place in Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela. The study was released in August 2007. The objective of the study was to find universally acceptable parameters to differentiate between fine/flavor and bulk cacao.
Prior to the study, the definition of finer flavor cacao was controversial as no universally accepted criterion existed to classify fine flavor cacao. And measurement of the criteria used (genetic origin of plant material, chemical characteristics of beans, color of beans and nibs, degree of fermentation, drying), do not objectively reflect the cacao quality.
The study’s results were mixed; it added to the knowledge that can be used to distinguish between fine or flavor and bulk cacao, but some of the criteria used were inconclusive in helping distinguish between the two types of cacao. One important observation gain from the study is that the color of the beans is a poor indicator as a parameter for discriminating between fine and bulk cacao. As well, the fermentation index, polyphenol content, and other parameters were seriously influenced by fermentation, and thus are basically useless for distinguishing fine or flavor from bulk cocoa. The world commodities market has to continue to rely on inaccurate and incomplete information for defining fine grade cacao as strict, easily measurable criteria have not been established. For the discerning chocolate maker, having a trustworthy source and a direct relationship with a cacao grower or cooperative is increasingly important.