Chocolate-Myth Busters #3: Criollo Cacao Tastes Better Than Other Types?

Potential Myth To Be Busted:

Chocolate made from Criollo cacao tastes better than chocolate made with other types of cacao.

Response:

Often sound bytes and catch phrases are latched onto. These condensed bits of seeming wisdom make us feel comfortable that we really have an understanding of something. When it comes to chocolate, “Criollo is the best type of cacao” is one of the little oft-repeated phrases that can be found plastered all over the internet. The problem is that most people repeating it don’t really know what Criollo is. The question is whether any of us really know.

Historically, Criollo was the type of cacao grown and consumed by the native peoples of Central America and southern Mexico–notably, the Olmecs, and later the Maya, amongst others. This is probably the type of cacao that the Spanish first encountered, and this is the type of cacao that has generally been held in high regard ever since. It is now held that Criollo cacao broke away, at some point, from one of the populations of what is called Forastero cacao that originated in South America in the Amazonian region. At what point this sub-population of Forastero became different enough, some might say inbred enough, to be referred to as a different type of cacao is hard to say. Were people involved in the change during this early development of Criollo? We have no historical record, but considering the skill with which other plants were domesticated, there is a good chance that people were involved in the breeding of this offshoot, and that they did so for some specific reason. It is posited that the reason would be related to the lack of bitterness and astringency in Criollo due to the relative lack of polyphenols, something which also explains the light color of the cotyledon and Criollo trees’ relative fragility when compared to the susceptibility to insect attack and various diseases of Forastero populations.

In fact, the reason that this is all important is because the Criollo is so fragile that it has basically, some might say entirely, been destroyed by diseases that impact cacao. Because of this, Criollo has been hybridized, probably starting in the 1700’s, with Forastero populations to strengthen it, while maintaining a somewhat moderate level of bitterness and astringency, though there are certainly very vigorous hybrids that don’t seem to have this low-bitterness Criollo characteristic at all. As of the 21st century, there are literally thousands of hybrids with bean colors ranging from white to deep purple, and bitter and astringency qualities from low to quite high. Additionally, we now know that there are some Forastero populations that have white beans. So what?…you might wonder. What does this have to do with the potential myth above?

The point is that Criollo, as it once existed, no longer does, and if it does exist at all in its pure state, probably only does so in the middle of long-abandoned indigenous communities and/or cacao groves. Though there are some companies using the term “Criollo” on their bars, until DNA testing can be done that rules out hybridization of any kind, something that was more likely to happen than not, the term Criollo should just be seen as a relative. In other words, something is “Criollo-like” or “Criollo-type” or “Criollo-heavy” etc., but pure Criollo?? I wouldn’t bet my money on it. That said, we can see the vast majority of all cacao in the world as a spectrum, with Criollo-heavy on one side, Forastero populations on the other, and hybrids mostly in the middle. I say mostly in the middle because it depends upon the Forastero populations that we are considering. After all, Criollo and Forastero are still the same species, i.e. Theobroma cacao. They aren’t even two different subspecies. This being the case, and considering that Forastero is a very general umbrella term that is used to identify many different populations, there are certainly some Forastero populations that are more similar in characteristics to Criollo, than some hybrid cacao populations are. All of this depends on the genetic stock that was hybridized in the first place. I know that it seems that I am getting further and further off track here, but bear with me and I’ll jump right back into flavor in a moment. The point is that there is so much complexity in the cacao world that saying that Criollo tastes better than Forastero is a problematic statement. First, there is the question of whether Criollo really even exists anymore. Next there is the question of what Forastero is really signifying, and finally there is the fact that hybrid cacao populations are all over the map, with some being very Criollo-like, and some being less like Criollo than some Forastero populations are. That said…

We are still only talking about bitterness and astringency here, and there is much more to flavor than that–much, much more. Bitterness and astringency both impact flavor, but neither is an aromatic quality. Cacao has aromatic qualities even prior to fermentation and roasting, but after these two complex processes, the flavor of cacao becomes so complex that some argue, based upon scientific studies, that it has more flavor components than any other food in the world. Some of these flavor compounds are due to internal chemical changes occurring during fermentation and drying of the cacao, but others have to do with flavor compounds created by the yeast and bacteria that are then absorbed by the cacao. These absorbed flavors have more to do with the microbes that are active during fermentation than they have to do with the genetics of the cacao, and the types of microbes are dependent upon the climate, microclimate, weather patterns, and other things that would be classified as terroir. Still, there are even further changes that the cacao undergoes during roasting, and dependent upon the roast profile and the chemical compounds present within the bean, some of which are due to fermentation and drying, and others of which are due to genetics, we end up with a sum total of flavor that is difficult to decode or classify.

Have I boggled your mind yet by getting you to think about the complexity of cacao? I hope that I have, because that is the very point of this rant. And believe it or not, what I have written above is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to decoding cacao flavor. So, does Criollo cacao taste better than other cacao? Well…

If it exists, and it is fermented and dried properly, and it is then roasted properly and skillfully turned into chocolate, then…maybe. It may have lower amounts of bitterness and astringency than other cacao, but that certainly isn’t all that there is to flavor. Some people believe, though admittedly they are still mostly in the minority, that some Forastero and/or hybrid populations will give, when well-fermented and properly dried, cacao that is incredibly complex in flavor, if perhaps somewhat more bitter. What is more important? Complexity or bitterness? And are these two qualities mutually exclusive?

And here we are with more questions than answers again. Maybe that is because, at the end of the day, when it comes to foods it all boils down to personal taste. So, here is my answer in short.

In Short:

Does chocolate made from Criollo cacao taste better that chocolate made with other types of cacao?

You be the judge, and I mean this literally. Buy chocolate made by companies that take chocolate seriously. Taste it and decide if you like it. Whether it says Criollo on the label or not, and whether it really is Criollo or not, you’ll either like the chocolate, or you won’t. As you get more serious about chocolate, you’ll begin to figure out with increasing precision what it is that really draws you to a chocolate–what qualities you like most in a chocolate. Who cares what the cacao is called at that point. Enjoy your chocolate, that is the whole reason for its existence.

Very best,

Alan
Chocolate maker and myth buster

Got some chocolate myths that need busting? Send them my way by posting a comment below (even anonymously), or emailing me directly at:
customer.service@patric-chocolate.com

1 reply
  1. James
    James says:

    Excellent post. I don’t buy into Criollo as the best. There are, as you’ve pointed out, too many variables that go into chocolate’s flavor and unfortunately, it seems that there is no standard as of yet to identify which combination of variables will produce what. Plus, the whole point is sort of moot. Do we discuss are Red Delicious better than Gala apples? It may depend on its application (in a Waldorf salad vs a baked pie), but it also depends on who’s eating it. I look forward to a day with well defined chocolate that can be taylored to my (and anyone’s) olfactory & taste palate.

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