The Chocolate Life

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The Great Forastero vs Criollo Debate

There is an unquestioned assumption many chocophiles make: because Criollo beans make better (and more expensive) chocolate, doesn't it make the most sense to replace all those "inferior" Forastero and hybrid-Trinitario trees with Criollos? Wouldn't everyone - including the farmers - be better off?

Well, no, actually. And here's why.

Chocolates made with properly fermented and dried (proper fermentation and drying are key to full flavor development) Forastero/Trintario beans taste different from those made with Criollos. Not worse. Just different. To really generalize here, the flavors in chocolate made from Criollos are milder and more delicate, while the flavors in chocolate made with Forastero/Trinitarios are more robust. You may prefer one over the other, but that is a matter of personal taste and not an absolute judgment.

For even the most knowledgeable chocophile, the goal should be to learn to appreciate all the different flavors of chocolate and not to resort to the unthinking snobbery that runs roughshod over the wine world. There is nothing inherently "bad" about the grapes used to make Merlots. They are just grapes. There is nothing inherently "better" about the grapes used to make Pinot Noirs. Nevertheless, a single movie (Sideways) changed the drinking habits of millions worldwide by making it unfashionable, almost overnight, to admit to even liking Merlot let alone drinking it. In the same vein, milk chocolate is not "bad" because it contains milk and dark chocolate does not have to have 70% cocoa content in order to be "good." Yet many people are ashamed to admit they like to eat milk chocolate and won't touch dark chocolate unless it is 70% or more.

One of the great (not just my opinion) dark chocolates in the world produced in the past five years is a 68% bar from Felchlin (their Cru Sauvage) made with beans harvested from Bolivian feral trees (trees that were planted hundreds of years ago that are now "wild") that are genetically Forasteros but that have flavor characteristics associated with Criollos. The chocolate snob, unrepentantly and wrongly fixated on the number 70% and "Criollo" would not deign to stoop so low as to eat a bar with "only" 68% cocoa and made with "only" Forastero beans because it did not meet his or her "standards." In this case, they are arbitrarily cutting themselves off from one of the great chocolate experiences in recent memory. But, as I say to my kids when they turn up their noses at something I really like to eat, "Okay. I guess that means more for me." I don't have any problem with that.

Now that we've dispelled the myth that chocolate made with Criollos is somehow "naturally better" than chocolate made with Forastero/Trinitario beans, the next step is to take a look at what it might mean for a farmer to make the switch.

Perhaps the best example of wrong-o-nomics is the Chuao co-op in Venezuela, a source of very high quality cocoa beans that has for years been hoisted as a poster child to the benefits to farmers of planting Criollos. For close to a decade now, the Amedei company has been paying far above market price for the beans they source from Chuao (reportedly about $9000/tonne as opposed to between $2000-$3000/tonne on the commodities market). The trees planted in Chuao yield on the order of 180kg per hectare (ha; a hectare is 2.54 acres; kg, kilogram - about 2.2 pounds) of dried beans, or about 155 pounds per acre.

In modern industrialized plantations in, for example, Southeast Asia, that grow high-yielding hybrid varieties, yields of up to 3000kg of dried beans per hectare are not unusual. In Western Africa, yields of up to 1500kg/ha are not uncommon as long as the farm is managed sustainably (i.e., there are agricultural inputs - synthetic or natural - to replace the nutrients from the soil that leave the farm in the beans).

This disparity in yield gives us the following economic equation:

Chuao: 100ha @ 180kg/h @ $9/kg = $162,000 gross income/100ha
Southeast Asia: 100ha @ 3000kg/ha @$2/kg = $600,000 gross income/100ha
Western Africa: 100ha @ 1500kg/ha @ $2/kg = $300,000 gross income/100ha

Thus, even though Amedei pays roughly 3 to 4.5 times the market price, the return to the farmer is as little as twenty-five per cent of what could be made if the farmer planted different varieties (i.e., forastero hybrids) of cacao. You can bet that Vietnam - which grew itself into the third-largest coffee exporter in the world from nowhere in twenty years - will be planting high-yielding strains in its attempt to quickly become one of the largest cocoa producers in the world. It can't get there by planting Criollos.

There is another reason not to go down the path of promoting the planting of Criollos at the expense of planting Forastero/Trinitarios. Criollos are products of hundreds if not thousands of years of breeding and inbreeding. Because of this they represent a comparatively narrow gene pool. In addition to being low-yielding and finicky, Criollos are much more vulnerable to diseases and pests, and as we've seen time and again, planting monocultures on a grand scale increases vulnerability in a number of different area. Therefore, betting on the future of chocolate by reducing the genetic diversity of cacao is a very, very bad idea.

One of the things that people cannot truly appreciate until they walk into a cacao farm is the incredible variety of shapes and colors of the pods; bright yellows, greens, oranges to shame anything grown in Florida, reds that would make a fire engine envious, and scarlets worthy of royal attire. The cacao tree provides the genetic template, so all of the pods on the tree are the same basic variety as the tree even though the pods may look very different. However if a flower is fertilized several times with pollen from different sources (and this is a very common occurrence), multiple hybrids will co-exist within the same pod, sort of like fraternal twins or triplets in utero. When the seeds from these pods are scattered by small animals or birds and grow to maturity, new hybrids appear. This process occurs naturally and it this genetic diversity that needs to be preserved and nurtured and that will lead to varieties of cacao that are resistant to the most damaging of diseases - and - that taste good, too.

The key to improving the lives of farmers is not to get them to replace what they are currently growing with low(er)-yielding varieties that require more care and are more susceptible to disease - because the loss in yield doesn't come even close to matching the increase in price. Instead, the key to improving the lives of farmers is to teach them how to manage their trees and farms to reduce losses from diseases and pests and to ferment and dry properly. This will increase their income even if they continue to grow exactly the same cacao they've always been growing, on exactly the same amount of land. By placing on emphasis on quality, and not just quantity, no matter what beans a farmer has, those beans will make better-tasting chocolate so the farmer can charge more for them.

Me? I am an EOCL - Equal Opportunity Chocolate Lover. As long as its good, I'll eat it.


Thanks to ChocolateLife member Sam Madell of TAVA in Australia for inspiring me to write this and pointing me to some of the research to back this up.

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Comment by Mark J Sciscenti on August 3, 2009 at 3:15pm
I agree with Clay on this as well, very good reasoning. I'll add that working to increase habitat for pollinators (which would include some measure and percentage of shade planting) will increase cacao production and genetics, and decrease the need of agricultural and chemical inputs. I do think that at the very least introducing some genetic diversity through better varieties into the makeup of a cacao plantation would increase the overall genetics leading to less susceptibility to diseases. Mono-cropping is never good no matter where and what.
Comment by Volker Lehmann on November 29, 2008 at 9:34am
Clay, congratulations to your blog and the discussion you are starting. As I was very much involved in the "making of" the Cru Sauvage" I am very familiar with this. In the beginning it was a bit of a disappointment that the Wild Cacao from Beni, which is called here "Cacao Nacional" might be a forastero type. Now we have proof.
I am in contact with Dr. Somarriba from CATIE in Costa Rica and he is now helping us to find out more about the variety, how it came to the Bolivian Amazon lowlands etc.
I just came back from Europe to present some of our new findings and techniques in fermentation. The key to any fine chocolate is here, as you well pointed it out. I will make sure that once in a while I let you know about our work in this field.
The production is low, about 100 - 150 kg dried beans/ hectares, but it has to do with the growing pattern. On the other hand, for us it is not so important as we are not farmers, we are gatherers. The production costs are different and the price grew by 200% since I started buying and organizing the people. In terms of money a gatherer gets about 2,5 USD/Kg and his effort is to travel along the rivers, get into the wood for a week and he comes back with some 500 $ (average) in his pocket.
Comment by Bette on November 13, 2008 at 1:51pm
Rajarajeshwari, are you familiar with the World Cocoa Foundation? They are at www.worldcocoafoundation.org Perhaps they can help you get some Criollo seeds or scions.
Comment by Rajarajeshwari Kainthaje on November 12, 2008 at 11:52am
I had been trying to get real Criollo seeds or scions to plant in my Cacoa plantation. But failed , since all the Criollo plants are gone and in my area all Cacoa growers have either Forastero, F1 hybrids or Trinitario plants. So I dropped the idea and now am contented with my old Forastero, F1 hybrid and Trinitario trees.
Comment by Eric Durtschi on November 4, 2008 at 8:49am
I agree whole heartedly. Just because a bean is Forastero does not mean it is not good. It may not have as many flavor compounds but the ones it does have are, often times, stronger. There are some amazing Forastero and Trinatario beans out there that if a good chocolatier used, would be of a much higher quality than many "criollo" varieties.

On another note, it is extremely difficult for anyone to say that they have a 100% criollo or anywhere near this. Due to the natural cross pollination that has been occurring over the past hundreds of years there are almost no plantations that are truly 100% criollo.

It really comes down to the fermentation and processing of the beans. A poorly processed and prepared criollo will, in almost all cases, be inferior to a properly processed Forastero/Trinatario.

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