“Fine Flavor Cacao – FFC”

While the market for “specialty” coffee has been growing steadily over the recent years, fine cacao market has lost a dramatic share to bulk cacao since early 1900’s. The same comparison with wine industry is even more astonishing. Wine industry since the middle ages and early Renaissance, has grown into an exclusively “specialty” sector. That is to say wine is almost exclusively bottled under different premium yielding “Designation of Origin” privileges that are regulated through different governmental and cooperative bodies. What does “fine” cacao mean? The answer to this question might unlock immense potentials for the cacao market. The ensuing article will draw comparison between the three industries, arguing for the necessity to better define the term “fine” cacao. More specifically, the study will briefly analyze the development of knowledge pertinent to “fine flavor”, “specialty”, and “Designation of Origin” in relation to  cacao, coffee, and wine respectively, as a method to better understand the potential contributing factors in the classification of cacao and its flavors.

Valrhona using wine marketing strategies as they reference their company headquarters near Burgundy


The term “fine” or “flavor” cacao – FFC – as described by the International Cocoa Organization, refers to cacao beans produced primarily from Criollo or Trinitario varieties of the plant species Theobroma cacao. (ICCO) This distinction however, is not entirely well-defined, given that there are numerous exceptions to this classification. For instance, Nacional trees in Ecuador and Peru which are a Forastero variety are considered FFC producing sub-varieties. Conversely, Trinitario trees from Cameroon that produce a highly sought after red cocoa power, are classified as bulk cacao.(ICCO) One of the primary issues with the FFC classification is the extreme reliance on flavor and post-harvest testing such as organoleptic quality test as the designating factor, without classification of the underlying conditions that impact the flavor of cacao beans. In comparison, wine industry defines D.O. – Designation of Origin – in relation to cultivar traits of Vitis vinifera species, characteristics of “place” as a result of topographic, atmospheric, and edaphic conditions, and finally post-harvest handling and processing. All of these traits may be combined into what is commonly referred to as Terroir. In other words, the wine industry uses a much more complex set of well-studied characteristics in order to market a range of combinations with regard to flavor, all of which will result in a certain premium.


Terroir has become a marketing tool for the wine industry in order to create a much more complex system of sourcing than that of coffee and cacao.


Coffee industry uses the term “specialty” in a slightly less complex system, and far less regulated. For the most part, “specialty” coffee is the exclusive product of Arabica trees with no specialty classification in the lower quality Robusta trees. Specialty is always a single origin coffee of at least 85 percentile quality that traces back to a specific farm and it is typically grown at an altitude between 2000 to 4000 feet and above. Additionally, there are more well-defined classifications within the specialty category that further categorize fine flavor according to altitude. Coffee that is grown at a higher altitude grows slower, produces harder bean, and results in a cup with much finer flavor profile. As a result, the SCAA, Specialty Coffee Association of America classifies specialty coffee in a spectrum of hardness with Strictly Hard Bean designating the best quality for Arabica trees growing at 3900 feet and above. According to SCAA, specialty coffee currently accounts for only 3 percent of global trade. (SCAA)


Altitude map describing the relationship between flavor and elevation – source: George Howell 


Genetic stability is another factor of importance in relation to all three industries. For wine, the characteristics shared by vines tend to follow an underlying and well understood genetic traits within the Vitis vinifera species. (Nesto, 4) Furthermore, given that vine is propagated through cloning, vine varieties tend to have a highly persistent genetic makeup. Caffea arabica also has a highly stable genetic makeup because it is a self-pollinating species. Cacao tree however, is a highly diverse species with an incredibly varied genetic makeup. Forastero in particular is highly diverse because it is not a self-pollinating plant. Although Criollo is a self-pollinating tree, many Criollo varieties have also lost their capacity to self-pollinate as a result of hybridization with Forastero varieties. (Nesto, 4) Many of these hybridizations are undertaken in order to produce varieties that share the FFC qualities derived from Criollo and disease resistance and high yielding traits from Forastero. The primary downside of these practices is the lack of consistency in the flavor profile of cacao beans. Although no two bottles of wine are exactly the same, bottles from the same year and the same vineyard that have utilized the same grape are typically indiscernible. In cacao farms it is not unusual to have plants of the same variety producing pods with dramatically different colors, and beans that result in different taste profiles. One of the potential solutions as suggested by a study partially sponsored by CIAT, is to look for the right heritage Criollo or Trinitario that is suitable for the particular geographic region in mind, and incorporate practices from wine industry in order to increase yield and reduce diseases as oppose to hybridization with Forastero varieties. (Daniels, 7)


Genetic clusters for Theobroma cacao based on underlying common traits – Source: Motamayor


Furthermore, a comprehensive and more stable classification of Cacao tree based on underlying genetic traits is the first step towards a stable FFC industry. In 2008, Motamayor and colleagues proposed the classification of the cacao plant into ten genetic clusters as Marañon, Curaray, Criollo, Iquitos, Nanay, Contamana, Amelonado, Purús, Nacional, and Guiana. (Motamayor) This categorization may be a first step towards stabilization of a varietal range from the cacao plant.


Ten Genetic Clusters as proposed by Motamayor – Source: Motamayor


 The comparative analysis between cacao and coffee is potentially positive in that the two industries share an overwhelming number of similarities, and they can both benefit from case studies in relation to wine industry which has a more complex system of sourcing. As it is shown in the global map, both crops are cultivated in the tropical belt, with export to countries in the northern hemisphere as the primary consumers. Furthermore, in the past decade, there has been a resurgence of interest in single origin and sourcing within both commodities. In cacao for instance, according to Hershey senior VP Tom Hernquist, the demand for dark chocolate rose from 8 percent in 2004 to 24 percent of the market in 2006.(Daniels, 6) Although this is an estimation by Mr. Hernquist, it highlights the potential role FFC can play in the future of cacao industry. Although the growth of FFC is contingent to the rethinking of the supply chain, and the business model associated with the industry at large, genetic stabilization and better understanding of the underlying genetic and environmental factors that produce flavor are the first crucial steps in the spread of FFC in the global market.


Avelino, Jacques, Bernardo Barboza, Juan Carlos Araya, Carlos Fonseca, Fabrice Davrieux, Bernard Guyot, and Christian Cilas. “Effects of Slope Exposure, Altitude and Yield on Coffee Quality in Two Altitudeterroirs of Costa Rica, Orosi and Santa María De Dota.” Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture J. Sci. Food Agric. 85.11 (2005): 1869-876. Web.

Daniels, Stephanie, Peter Läderach, and Melissa Paschall. “Reaching High-Value Markets: fine flavor cocoa in Ghana”. Sustainable Food Lab (2012). Web.

“ICCO – International Cocoa Organization.” Fine or Flavour Cocoa. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.

Motamayor, Juan C., Philippe Lachenaud, Jay Wallace Da Silva E Mota, Rey Loor, David N. Kuhn, J. Steven Brown, and Raymond J. Schnell. “Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree (Theobroma Cacao L).” PLoS ONE 3.10 (2008). Web.
Mussatto, Solange I., Ercília M. S. Machado, Silvia Martins, and José A. Teixeira. “Production, Composition, and Application of Coffee and Its Industrial Residues.” Food Bioprocess Technol Food and Bioprocess Technology 4.5 (2011): 661-72. Web.
Nesto, Bill. “Discovering Terroir in the World of Chocolate.” Gastronomica 10.1 (2010): 131-35. Web.
“SCAA – Specialty Coffee Association of America.” Specialty Coffee Association of America. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.

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