Good Chocolate - Starts With a Bean

Posted by Shari Aubrey on

Not all chocolate is created equal

There are two key things that distinguish great chocolate from poor chocolate. And sorry to break it to you, but the vast majority of chocolate out there falls into the latter – poor quality.

The first criteria is the quality of the cocoa bean; the second is the quality of processing. This blog post is going to talk about the cocoa bean, and we'll address processing in another post.

Which sounds simple; because surely the answer is for companies to just buy better quality beans. However, the majority of global cocoa production is poor quality; and a poor-quality bean, irrespective of how attentive the processing, will never make good quality chocolate. No chocolatier is skilled enough to spin straw into gold. 

Are you eating rubbish chocolate...

This means, the majority of chocolate you're eating is poor quality, and here's why:

The Forastero bean - 90% of all cocoa

The Forastero species is favoured by the mass market chocolate industry because of its high yield, disease resistance and production of consistently large sized beans. It’s the work horse of the chocolate industry – low cost and high production. But like a work horse, I don’t know that I want to eat one. 

However, because of its robust attributes, it now represents around 90% of all cocoa grown in the world. Which would be fine if it made good chocolate – but it (generally) doesn’t. This variety is akin to supermarket tomatoes – consistent in size, shape and look – but they taste like nothing. 

All mass market chocolate will be Forastero. And it gets worse...

The vast majority of Forestero (around 70%) comes from Ghana and the Ivory Coast, where the worst of the ethical issues associated with worker conditions exist. Which means, the majority of chocolate available is not only made from a sub-standard bean, but often with poor worker conditions; and sadly not uncommon, atrocious worker conditions. 

Can the Forastero bean make good chocolate?

To be fair to the Forestero bean didn’t start off this way. It has been bred over generations to benefit industry and as such, lost flavour qualities. There are a small number of producers making exceptional chocolate from Forastero beans, but these are a tiny percentage of top producers, and the beans are atypical of Forastero; often isolated for decades and as such, retaining the original aromatic qualities that all Forestero once had.

How do I know which Forastero chocolate is good? 

That’s tough, but there’s a few things to keep in mind. First, you cannot buy quality chocolate from the supermarket, nor from any of the big producers. 

Next, if you know your boutique chocolate producers and one of them is listing a chocolate made with Forestero – it’s a fair assumption the chocolate will be good. In short, companies buying the bulk of the work horse chocolate won’t be promoting they use cheap beans. However, if a company advertises they’re using Forestero, particularly if they're a known quality producer, you can assume they have something to be proud of. 

It’s far from an exact science, but if you do fine a good Forestero product, you will be rewarded with a wonderfully robust flavoured chocolate.

The Trinatario Bean - only 8% of cocoa

The Trinatario bean is a happy mid-point; a hybrid that retains some of the exceptional aromatic/flavour qualities of Criollo (more on that in a moment), but with the original robust flavour and yields of the Forastero. 

It represents 8% of global cocoa production, so you still have to seek it out, however the higher production quantity, compared to other quality beans, means the Trinatario will be the easiest of the ‘flavour bean’ (or quality bean) chocolate to find.

These beans generally come from Central America, where the best beans almost always originate, and the Trinatario will deliver you a very good chocolate, if not a great one - assuming it is well processed. 

Caveat: the best beans in the world, poorly processed, will result in poor chocolate. However, to keep things simple here, we’ll assume the beans we’re talking about have been well processed. In reality, this is not always the case, however that’s a whole other blog post. 

Depending on where a particular bean sits in its character split will influence the end result, however it will typically lean more towards strong, robust flavours of the Forester, rather than the delicate, well-rounded nature of the Criollo. Which is great, as it offers an exciting counter point and diversity of choice to the rare Criollo.

For the record, some of my favourite chocolate is made from Trinatario beans; and much of the great chocolate in the world starts with this bean.

The Nacional Bean - just 2% of cocoa

The Nacional bean originates from Ecuador and delivers a very specific aromatic profile – think floral with blackcurrant and spice. And it is rare, representng just 2% of global cocoa production. Ecuador in total produces only 3-4% of all cocoa beans, but scores high in terms of global quality, thanks to the Nacional.

We are very lucky to have the Nacional bean

In the 1800’s Ecuador was the world’s leading producer of cocoa, and European chocolatiers coveted the beans (what we now know as the Nacional) for their aromatic qualities, the same qualities modern chocolatiers look for. However, in 1916 Ecuadorian cocoa was largely wiped out from disease, and other strains where introduced to recover the cocoa population – however these poorer quality species progressively diluted the Ecuadorian bean quality.

Until recently it was thought that this original pure aromatic species was extinct, however genetic testing in 2009 found a very small existence (just 0.05% of the Ecuadorian cocoa population) and since then, work has been underway to protect and propagate the species, and hopefully we see more of it in future. 

Finally, the Criollo Bean - a tiny 0.001%

When we talk genesis and quality – it all culminates with the Criollo bean – the true pinnacle of fine chocolate. Often thought to be the original cocoa bean, this is the chocolate of the Mayans and Aztecs - the same cocoa Emperor Montezuma would have been drinking, and the Spaniards first encountered, in the early 1500’s. 

The tiny percentage of global production (just 0.001%) is indicative of the fact that not long ago, this rare species was at risk of extinction, abandoned for many years because it is difficult to grow, and has low yields. Fortunately for chocolate lovers this didn't happen, because it offers a unique and exceptional flavour profile.

Now, some of the best chocolate companies are actively working with local communities in Venezuela and similar to not just save this species but recover the population to meaningful plantations, to both protect the species and to propagate its availability.

Another caveat: these are the broad varieties of cocoa beans, there are some other tiny tiny species, but we'll be here all day if we go through them. As with all things in life, keep an open mind as something new and amazing may come your way in the form of a cocoa bean!


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