Not all chocolate is created equal, and 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.
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.
This means, the majority of chocolate you're eating is poor quality, and here's why:
90% – The Forastero Bean
The Forastero species is favoured by 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 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.
Forastero rarely makes good chocolate.
All commercial 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.
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 good 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.
8% - The Trinatario Bean
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 South 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’s 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 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.
2% - The Nacional Bean
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 this 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.
0.001% - The Criollo Bean
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.
What’s so special about the Criollo bean?
The Criollo is undoubtedly the rarest of the cocoa species, representing only 0.001% of all cocoa grown, which makes it special. But it’s the aromatic profile that truly distinguishes it
Like all cocoa species, there are various strains within the Criollo family but what they all share is an exceptional (some say pure) experience that is completely devoid of bitterness, acidity or astringency, and instead offers a soft, well rounded, creamy experience - even at high percentages.
Let’s illustrate what’s special by talking about 100% chocolate; which makes most folk screw up their face in disgust – largely because the chocolate they’ve been eating at high percentage - let's say 70% is the starting point for high cocoa percentage for most folk - has been unpleasantly bitter and astringent. But this is generally thanks to poor quality beans (hello our friend the Forastero) and poor processing (hello commercial producers).
The good news, the better quality the bean, and the better the processing of that bean, the more pleasant the flavour of the chocolate, even at 100%. But, full transparency – yes it will still be an intense experience and depending on the bean, also bitter.
For example, I like Michel Cluizel Noir Infini 99% and eat it regularly, it’s a great chocolate, but it does scores high on bitterness and is a challenging chocolate. It has been a long time since I've eaten Cadbury Old Gold 70%, however my distant recollection of this is a more challenging and unpleasant chocolate than the 99% Michel Cluizel. Cheap beans render it very high on bitterness and astringency, but low on any pleasant flavour profile.
But then you come to the Criollo, and let's say a product like Domori 100% made from the Criollo bean. Now you're playing a completely different game - and you may be surprised by the outcome.
Sure, it’s intense, particularly if you lean towards sweet, milk chocolate. But even at 100% the Criollo bean is not a hit in the face of bitterness that makes your lips pucker and your eyes squish shut until the sensation has passed. Sure. it's intense, but you cannot escape that even at 100% the Criollo is creamy. Yep CREAMY! And also well rounded, soft and a little floral.
That’s because the Criollo bean is not just rare but it's fundamental flavour/aromatic profile is diferent. It contains no bitterness or astringency like other beans; and is very high on qualities such as sweetness, roundness, cream and nuts. This is what makes it special.
Is Criollo is the best?
Not necessarily. The Criollo bean is very rare. And it makes beautiful chocolate. But it doesn’t mean it is the best; albeit it is, undoubtedly, one of the best.
As we’ve discussed, there is beautiful chocolate made from Nacional, Trinatario, and even Forastero beans, Each has a different flavour profile, and within each species there are various strains, with each delivering a different experience.
The Criollo, however, is a very particular experience and it differs significantly from other beans, being more gentle, soft and unfolding - and I love it for these qualities. But sometimes I don't want that, and crave a hearty smack of berry flavour that come from a good 70% Trinatario from Madagascar. Or maybe I may want something deeply chocolatey with a touch of licorice that comes from a quality Forastero.
Criollo is exceptional, but so are other beans
It’s like coffee, if you know the Geisha bean it is a beautiful soft, floral bean from Ethiopia. For me, it’s an understated coffee experience best suited to batch brew or similar processing. But sometimes I want a hearty espresso to kick start my heart, or other times a nutty flavoured coffee blended beautifully with milk on a cold winter morning.
My mood changes, my palate changes and what I want on a particular day changes, and I adore the opportunity to eat chocolate made from the Criollo bean, but I don’t want to eat that every day. Nor do I want to drink Geisha coffee everyday. Or eat the same thing for dinner every night. Is there a best wine? Or coffee? Or pasta? No, there are many. And it’s about learning to discern quality over the quantity - and to listen to what you like and what you feel like on a particular day ... and maybe on a particular day you want a hit of Lindt mint flavoured chocolate, and that too is fine. Albeit, go easy on the mass-produced stuff, otherwise I may need to start judging your chocolate eating.