Cacao: Origin & Terroir
(Origin; the point or place where something begins and Terroir; the complete natural environment in which a particular crop is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.)
Cacao grows between 8 and 20 degrees north and south of the equator. The cultivation of cacao is a very delicate process because the trees are extremely sensitive to changing weather patterns, disease, insects, and too-long rainfall. And it’s much different when compared to the larger agriculture.
About 85% of cacao comes from very small, family-run farms that are sometimes organised into cooperatives, and sometimes just consisting of a few hectares or even a few hundred trees.
Cheat Sheet for Four Main Cacao Regions
There are four main regions where cacao is grown around the world:
- The Caribic
- The Amazonia
- The Africa’s
- The Oceana region.
The Caribic consists of Belize, Columbia, Costa Rica, Grenada, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, Tobago, Trinidad, and Venezuela.
The flavour profile of the Caribic is typically nutty, earthy, with some herbs and some flowers. Sometimes you’ll even get a sweet marshmallow, or a deep clove or pepper nuance out of the Caribic type of cacao. Typically find breed crosses with Ecuadorian Arriba Nacionale or genetic clones, like but definitely a lot of Trinitario mixed with your Criollo.
The Amazonia is Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, and Peru. There are three million square miles of the Amazon River basin, which is home for very dense and abundant type of cacao.
Typically, the nuances there are very floral and berry noted. Floral, in terms of jasmine, and berries, in terms of blueberries, raspberries and strawberries, or blackberries – that’s from the Arriba Nacionale. But you’ll also find Forasteros, and Trinitarios and Criollos also growing there. You’ll find them less earthy than what you get in the Caribic. Definitely not as spice or a herb note that you’ll get from the Caribic, but something a little bit more fruity.
The Africa’s is the next region, which is Cameroon, Congo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Uganda. It received pretty much the most robust cacao varieties during the time of exploration, and that is the Forastero.
Unfortunately, with African cacao, you’ll often find it very closely related to tragic forced slave labour (just Google the words slave, labour, chocolate), and other challenges which are abundant in our agroindustry.
And you’ll find that, in fact, 70 percent of the world’s cacao comes from these countries only from this genetic species, which is mostly the Forastero or a Trinitario variant. These are typically the least tasty, but have the most favourable growing conditions. So you get the biggest beans. You get the largest pods. You get the fastest growing. But they’re not so yummy. Typically, when you make chocolate with these variants you pretty much need some milk and sugar to buff out the flavour as it has a very earthy nuance. Absolutely no fruit notes, no spice notes, and in my humble opinion, not my most delicious tasting cacao.
On the other side, in the Oceana, which is actually the genetic home of my family, the McDonalds, you will find Australia, Burma, Fiji, Hawaii, Indonesia, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, and Vietnam as the cacao market. This is where the Mesoamerican Criollo first crossed with the Spanish galleons back in the day.
One of the very specific nuances that you will recognise in cacao from the Oceana region is that it’s a little bit sour and quite acidic. Now this is a delightful flavour when a chocolate maker, or a chocolatier plays it up to its fullest potential. You can imagine with sour and acid notes, you don’t really want to mix it with milk, but rather you’d like to play with things like lemongrass, ginger, limes and even lemon as a flavour matcher.
You make your own mind up about regions. Taste with your heart and your tongue. Taste with your ethics and your nuance.