A Brief History of Cacao

If you are interested in learning more about the history of cacao, how it came to be, and gained its popularity - then you're in the right place! In this article, we will take you through the history of cacao, while explaining different cacao varieties and flavors.

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A Brief History of Cacao

History of Cacao

The Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma Cacao quite literally means “food of the gods.” And that is a very appropriate name. We will return to this point shortly.

Historians remain unsure when exactly cacao was processed into chocolate the first time, but almost all agree that the “modern” use of cacao in chocolate was born somewhere in the Aztec, Olmec, or Mayan territories. What is now roughly the equivalent to the land from Mexico City to Honduras. But the earliest consumption of cacao is believed to have taken place 3 - 4.000 years. Researchers recently found cacao residue on a piece of pottery from 1400 B.C., where it is believed that the cacao bean was fermented to create an alcoholic drink.

So despite Theobroma Cacao originating in the middle of the Amazon jungle, it traveled half a continent and almost 3.000 years before it was turned into something resembling the chocolate we are used to.

The word “chocolate” traces its origin to the Aztec word “Xocolatl”. And this is where we return to the fact that it was very appropriate for the Latin name of cacao to relate to the gods. The Aztec and Mayans would sacrifice members of their villages to ensure a good cacao harvest.

Many ancient tombs contain traces of cacao, believed to have been given to the brave souls who were offered to the gods for that sweet, sweet cacao.

Cacao was so valuable in pre-Colombian times that it was used as a currency, and due to the excellent work of some cacao historians, we know that you could have bought a male turkey with 200 beans, while a rabbit would only run you a meager 30 beans. Now the only question is why did they value turkey’s so much more than rabbits?

The cacao tree can live for more than 200 years, although it only produces high-quality cacao beans during its first 25 – 30 years.

This is particularly interesting, given the immediate response Europeans had to Cacao. When the Spanish invaded Mexico, one of the first things they were exposed to was the unsweetened “xocolatl”. According to legend, the Aztec king Moctezuma served chocolate to the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes, as Moctezuma believed Hernando Cortes was a reincarnated deity. Either way, the Spanish were not big fans, and are believed to have called the chocolate “a bitter drink suited for pigs”. Of course history would quickly make a fool of that statement.

Together with vanilla (and of course gold), cacao became one of the most important resources that Spain stole from Mexico to sell in Europe. Chocolate was mixed with honey and cane sugar, and rapidly became quite the craze in Spain, and subsequently France and Italy.

Chocolate went from being a drink for the wealthy (17th century) in Europe, to a mass-market product in both liquid and solid form enabled by factories using the steam engine. The history of chocolate is full of great stories, but in short, chocolate in its modern bar form is accredited to Joseph Fry in 1847, was sold in bar form by a little English company called Cadbury in 1868, while milk chocolate was introduced to the market in the 1870s by a small Swiss producer - Nestle.

Different Varieties of Cacao

One of the most vexing things about understanding cacao as a beginner is the nebulous world of cacao varieties. Today there exists an agreed-upon classification of cacao varieties based on Motamayer’s classification system from 2008. Unfortunately most people today still use antiquated terminology, although recently there has been renewed interest in better understanding and describing cacao varieties.

Between 2008 and now, Motamayer’s system has been integrated and standardized with the genetic researchers at the USDA Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), into a complete system of cacao varieties. Importantly, these are not species, as there is only one species of cacao: Theobroma Cacao. This list continues to grow, but as of today, there are 11 varieties.

Now with that out of the way, let’s address the commonly misused cacao varieties, and then the current, agreed-upon list of cacao varieties. Today, if you search for cacao varieties or species, there is a plethora of websites that will tell you there are three main varieties:

  • Forastero,
  • Trinitario, and
  • Criollo

This is incorrect.Today researches have categorized cacao into 11 defined varieties:

  • Nacional
  • Criollo
  • Amelonado
  • Boliviano
  • Contamana (aka. Ucayali/Scavina)
  • Curaray
  • Guiana
  • Iquitos (aka Iquitos Mixed Calabacillo, IMC)
  • Marañon aka. Parinari
  • Nanay
  • Purús

So Why Does Everyone use Forastero, Trinitario, and Criollo?

The first agronomists to try to classify cacao were all non-Spanish Europeans. And this group of agronomists all picked up the local descriptions of varieties, specifically “Forastero” and “Criollo”. Forastero means “stranger” or “outsider” in Spanish, and referred generally to something that wasn’t local, while Criollo (Creole) was a describer often used for local or native varieties.

Trinitario came about as many varieties of cacao were intermixed in Trinidad, and is in reality a breed forastero and criollo.

Since then, these descriptions stuck, and the global chocolate community has defined the varieties based on these three categories. In reality, there are thousands of new genetic strains and varieties of cacao trees on farms across the globe.

So What are Forastero, Trinitario, and Criollo Really?

In reality all cacao varieties have been intermixed to some degree, and it is incredibly difficult to find single strain cacao trees in the wild or on farms. Below you can see the current classifications of Forastero and Trinitario.

Forastero covers the following varieties of cacao:

  • Upper Amazon Forastero: Ucayali/scavina, curaray, IMC, Parinari, Nanay, Purus
  • Lower Amazon Forastero: Amelonado

While Trinitario is a mix of the following varieties of cacao:

  • Amelonado
  • Upper amazon forastero
  • Criollo

Chocolate and Cacao Flavors

The flavor of raw cacao is influenced by many of the same variables that impact wine:

  • Weather and topography: days of sun, rain, elevation, moisture content in air and more
  • Terroir: soil type and bacteria
  • Cacao variety: Some varieties will have more tannins, while (similar to different grapes for wine)

Once you have your raw cacao, the process will change the final product greatly. This means that the chocolate flavor will ultimately be determined by:

  • The raw cacao
  • Fermentation process
  • Drying process
  • Roasting and winnowing process
  • Grinding and conching
  • Tempering

For an in-depth description of how cacao flavors are affected by the various inputs and stages of the chocolate-making process, we recommend http://flavorsofcacao.com/flavor.html.