Cacao and its Varieties

Cacao products come in many varieties, some of which begin with the beans themselves. While not always immediately distinct, the seeds and the trees from which they are obtained both display considerable diversity. This diversity is of considerable importance both in study of the tree and to the industry surrounding its products. Generally, a few major variants of cacao are commercially recognized. This text aims to provide an overview of the major varieties of Theobroma cacao, of their significance to the groups involved in their utilization, and on how these groups are themselves important in defining these varieties. The different varieties of cacao are often presented as definite categories, even as specific cultivars to consumers. However, the definitions of these varieties tend to be rather inexact, and often do not correspond closely if at all to botanical knowledge. Indeed, much of the categorization of cacao instead has historical, geographical and recently, economical origins. Nevertheless, differences between trees and trends in these do exist even if their naming may be inaccurate. Further, genetic diversity; whether displayed by varieties or otherwise, of cacao trees is of particular importance to cacao producers, since the diversity in a given cacao population may greatly affect the productivity and health of that population.

The cacao tree, or Theobroma cacao is an undergrowth tree which requires rather specific conditions for successful cultivation. The tree requires locations that provide it with moisture and an environment with what might be describes as rich, or messy environment, the better to accommodate the midges which pollinate the tree. Of particular note is that the cacao tree is susceptible to many afflictions, such as blights, fungi, pod rots and other pests and diseases. Thus, the cacao tree is a remarkably fickle plant, the cultivation of which presents many difficulties. As shall be further investigated below, different varieties of the plant may exhibit different degrees of resistance however; while genetic variety, more specifically, is of special importance. (Coe, The True History of Chocolate, p. 19 – 21)

Cacao cultivars and terroir in marketing. Image credit: Own work.

According to recent analysis, the genus Theobroma may be subdivided into 22 distinct species, most of which grow mainly in the Amazon basin. Theobroma cacao also seems to have originated in this area, but has, at least in part due to human activity migrated north into Mesoamerica. (S & M Coe, The True History of Chocolate, p. 24 – 25). Theobroma cacao is commonly divided into three or four main varieties, each with various subdivisions. Many of these varieties are contentious however, subject both to varying definitions and levels of recognition. Many varieties are defined by historic usage and location rather than strictly botanically, and perhaps their most important utility is as a marketing tool. (Leissle, Kristy, Cocoa, p.163)

The ancient spatial separation between South American and Mesoamerican cacao trees itself defines the main, perhaps most definite cacao varieties: the criollo variety (Theobroma cacao ssp. cacao), defined by long, heavily ridged pods is native to Mesoamerica. Criollo, or “local” variety commonly counts as the most prized and was commonly grown by the Aztecs and Mayans. While this variety is often considered to be of superior quality, it is also particularly vulnerable to disease and pests. Remarkably, this cultivar is also perhaps the only one supported by actual genetic evidence (Leissle, Kristy, Cocoa, p.165)

Forastero cacao (Theobroma cacao ssp. sphaerocarpum), defined by its round pods is native to South America. The forastero, or “foreign” variety is, though less prized, the most widely produced cacao; making for most of world production. Though its taste may be considered inferior, this variety is considered sturdier and more resistant than Criollo. Though the distinction between these varieties is one of the most common and arguably most definite, it already demonstrates how cacao is commonly labelled for political, economic or geographical, rather than botanical purposes. As hinted at by their very names, the distinction between the two originated after the conquest of Mesoamerica, when the Criollo, or local populations, which had declined along with the native inhabitants were supplemented with forastero, that is, foreign stock brought in from south America. (Leissle, Kristy, Cocoa, p.163)

Three varieties of cacao. From the left: Forastero, Trinitario, Criollo. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Insofar as they may be considered useful botanical categories, the closeness of these particular varieties is demonstrated by their having retained the ability to produce fertile hybrids: they are also commonly considered ancestral to most other varieties. A third major variety is Trinitario, which is already somewhat poorly defined as any hybrid between criollo and forastero. (S & M Coe, The True History of Chocolate, p. 26). These major varieties of cacao together make for most worldwide cacao production, with the forastero being most prominent, providing around 80 % of all cacao. In addition to these three, various other varieties of cacao may be identified, notably the nacional variety. Each of these major varieties also contains various more or less obscure sub-varieties, such as (West African) Amelonado, which are often defined mainly, even exclusively by growing locality.

Global distribution of the main cacao varieties. Blue: Criollos, Green: Forasteros, Red: Trinitarios. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Despite their limited utility for biological purposes, the actual variety in cacao is of considerable importance to the cacao industry. To the consumer, these varieties provide some insight into the origins and terroir of cacao.  Meanwhile, to the grower, these varieties are of material significance, since diversity, or lack thereof, may greatly affect the profitability of a cacao plantation. This fact is especially obvious in places where the cacao tree is not native but introduced. The cacao tree, as aforementioned, is rather susceptible to various diseases, and the lack of genetic variety commonly found in introduced populations may exacerbate such issues. This may be observed, for example, in Amelonado cacao in Ghana, introduced there from Brazil. These trees necessarily have rather less genetic variety than traditional cultivars due to the loss of genetic diversity that occurs when a new population is established from a limited selection of a parent population. The difference in genetic diversity may be readily established through comparison with older, traditional populations. This issue is particularly prominent in some parts of Ghana due to poor infrastructure and the repeated use of seeds from the same plantations. The result is unhealthy and hence unproductive trees with low yields: undesirable to any grower. (Motamayor, p. 83 – 84)

Thus, the designations of most cacao varieties are less useful as botanical categories than one might expect based on how these names tend to be used. However, while the relevance of these categories to the biologist may be limited, their wider utility as cultural and economical concepts is considerable. while the designations of cacao varieties are not generally reliable indicators of botanical properties, they are still important both as more general indicators of diversity and as a cultural and economic phenomenon.

Works Cited:

Leissle, Kristy, Cocoa, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2018

Coe, Sophie & Michael, The True History of Chocolate, Thames & Hudson, London, 2013

Motamayor, Lanaud: Molecular Analysis of the Origin and Domestication of Theobroma cacao L. Managing Plant Genetic Diversity. IPGRI 2002, https://pubag.nal.usda.gov/download/14003/PDF (Retrieved 07-03-19)

Multimedia Sources:

Tamorlan, Tres variedades de cacao; Creative Commons 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tres_variedades_de_cacao.jpg

Sémhur, Main cacao species – World distribution map – blank, Creative Commons 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Main_cacao_species_-World_distribution_map-_blank.svg

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