New Research Upsets Old Cocoa Classification

New research published in the journal PLoS One (Public Library of Science), reveals that there is far more genetic diversity in cocoa trees than hitherto assumed. Anyone interested in cocoa and chocolate has know for a long time that there are three varieties: criollo, forastero and trinitario.

The names date back to the early days of the Spanish conquest. The trees growing in Mexico, particularly Soconusco, and Central America were thought to produce the highest quality of beans and were called criollo or “native.” The beans from the Amazon area were considered to be of inferior quality. When they began to show up in Mexico, there were called forastero or “foreigner” to distinguish them from the home grown variety. Later, enterprising farmers in Trinidad hybridized the two varieties and produced the third strain, trinitario. Or so the story goes.

Well, it turns out that story is wrong. Contrary to the long held belief that the criollo variety was native to Meso America, the research by Juan Motamayor et al. shows that the cocoa tree was not indigenous to Central America. Instead of having developed separately–criollo in Central America and forastero in the Amazon region–all cocoa varieties first emerged in the Amazonian regions of Peru and Brazil.

The Amazon region shows the highest genetic diversity of wild cocoa trees, a clear indicator that it was the place where the trees first developed. The “wild” trees found in Central America were most likely cultivated in pre-Columbian times.

The authors therefore suggest a new classification scheme that holds more promise to capture the variety and also to encourage better hybridization for the future. Finally, the new classification should chocolate makers focus on the flavor profiles of each strain rather than make wholesale assumptions: criollo = good and forastero = bad.

Cocoa clusters and areas of prevalence:

Amelonado – Brazil
Contamana – Peru
Criollo – Central America, Venezuela and Columbia
Curaray – Ecuador
Guiana – Guyane
Iquitos – Peru
Marañon – Brazil (Amazon) and Peru
Nacional – Ecuador
Nanay – Peru
Purús – Peru

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