The Great Criollo Debate

The Great Criollo Debate

Originally published Nov 4, 2008.

Are chocolates made with Criollo beans automatically good? The Best? 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/Trinitario 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 – 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.

A 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 addressed (if not 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” (e.g., 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/ha @ $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 just 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 an 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 it’s good, I’ll eat it.

Story image: ©2016 Pixtlan, courtesy of CacaoMEX.

Archived Comments

Indeed, I totally agree. It’s time we recognized that there would be no chocolate industry if farmers cannot stay in business. Let’s let the farmer decide what to plant.
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