Genetics and Chocolate Flavors

man holding a cacao pod
A man holding a cacao pod on a recent GDC trip to Ecuador.

Twenty entrepreneur minded farmers gather around an old bench in Padilla, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. The splintered wooden slabs that usually serve as seats are currently supporting 15 cacao pods. The pods are covered in tough skin and have a variety of tones ranging from brown, red, green, and even purple.  “We are going to be tasting cacao pulp,” says the site’s lead engineer for the Federation of Cacaoteros. “Some of these cacao varieties have won international awards, such as our San Vicente 15 or FSV-15.” 

The engineer gives the cacao pod a strong tap against the sharpened iron of his machete to split the shell open. Inside the pod, a white gooey yet fuzzy pulp protects a generous amount of seeds that are stacked together like oversized corn kernels on a cob. The pulp looks like cotton, and already the sweet smell of cacao fills the air. The engineer holds the pod up for everyone to take pictures and then passes the pod to a woman on his right. Immediately, dozens of fingers start grabbing at the seeds, eager to taste the meaty pulp.

Fifteen different genetic variations of cacao were tasted that day, and each pulp tasted quite different. Most strands were sweet to the taste, but within that sweetness each strand highlighted its uniqueness. Some strands of cacao were tangy or acidic or citricy, others tasted more floral like a flavored tea. 

Chocolate Flavor Profiles
Mark Christian’s Chocolate Atlas Flavor Profile.

To most people in the Northern hemisphere, the idea of chocolate being tangy, acidic, or tobacco flavored would be strange if not inconceivable. Chocolate can and should only taste, well…chocolatey. And while ‘chocolatey’ is an accepted descriptor for chocolate bars, it is a denominator term, created to cultivate a consistent flavor by major chocolate makers such as Mars or Hershey regardless of seed genetics. This flavor profile primarily comes from commodity beans, cultivated in mass on the content of Africa and Asia. Regardless of the unique genetic strain any given cacao pod may contain, bulk beans are processed together. The resulting ‘chocolatey flavor’ is achieved. It is a neutral flavor, regardless of the company that makes it, but since it's wrapped in an endless amount of advertisement, consumers literally ‘buy in' to particular brands. ‘Chocolatey’ cacao flavor has been the US and Europe’s flag bearer since the 19th century.  Sadly, it has also been the flavor of imperialism. The massive quantities of cacao beans needed to supply consumer “choco-mania” has led to child labor, wage disparity, and an array of other issues that still exist today.

One way to fight this socio-economic abuse along the chocolate value chain is to educate yourself about the uniqueness of cacao. While commodity bean production and manufacturing is ripe with exploitation, flavored beans are sprouting new hope for cacao farmers, conscious chocolate makers (hint: that’s us!), and the environment. Bulk beans and Beans of Fine Aroma and Flavor differ in everything from genetics to plant care to value chain processing. Focusing on the genetics in particular, fine cacao farmers prioritize the beans with fine flavor and aroma, and place less importance on productivity and disease resistance of the plant. Fine Cacao producers understand that diversity in genetics means diversity in flavor and they take the time and care to perfect these genetic strands. 

According to Mark Christian’s Chocolate Atlas: “[Chocolate] flavor development hinges on a combination of factors fusing together a) plant genetics, b) terrior, and b) post-harvest processing.” Plant genetics is critical because a cacao seed contains thousands of chemical compounds that are inherent within the seed. Many of these compounds serve as flavor flags by which we can begin identifying what kind of cacao (and chocolate) flavor can be harnessed from this genetic strain. Locale and post-harvesting processes only help to define the flavor already genetically present within the seed.

Genetic Flavor Precursors in Chocolate
Genetic Flavor Precursors in Chocolate.

Flavor beans, then, are important not only for their flavor, but for their genetic makeup. Sadly, the trend has been to replace flavor beans with commodity beans. In her book entitled Cacao, Dr. Kristy Leissle mentions that flavored beans used to account for 50% of all cacao, but today it is responsible for roughly 5% of cacao on the world market.

This is concerning because caring for the genetic families and strains of cacao not only allows us to enjoy all of the wonderful flavors of chocolate, but it is a strategic approach to bringing equality in other fronts as well. Caring for genetics can influence in the following:

  • Protects endangered and diminishing cacao strains
  • Allows for niche markets to be created that focus on the unique flavor of certain genetic strains, locale, and post-harvesting techniques
  • Promotes value add in at the country of production because more care is placed on farming processes and where the seed is coming from

So the fight for flavor is the fight for freedom, it seems. Just imagine an entire world of chocolate flavors that has been lost to time is finally being reawakened. You are part of the change by choosing to explore new flavors of chocolate and supporting local chocolate makers that buy flavored beans. At Grocer’s Daughter we want to invite you to awaken your taste buds by trying any and all of our Fine Flavor Nacional Chocolate. We also have many Heirloom Cacao Preservation HCP designated chocolates for you to enjoy.

GDC's HCP Designated Chocolate:
We are proud to offer 3 chocolates made from Nacional cacao, a rare, prized floral and fruity variety unique to the Amazon basin. It's delicious! Our 70% Los Rios and 85% Calceta and 100% Grand chocolate have even been designated as Heirloom by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (Jody serves on the Board Of Directors) via their rigorous, anonymous tasting process.