Who wins the honors for the best cacao variety in the world? It comes down to two finalists: Nacional and Criollo. Here's a closer look at each variety and a comparison between them.
From Grapes to Chocolate
Almost all commercially-sold wine is produced from the same species of grape: Vitis vinifera. But within this single species, there are numerous varieties—e.g.,Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. As any wine enthusiastic can attest, the typical flavor profile of wine produced from Pinot Noir grapes is measurably different from wine produced from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Variety plays a strong role in determining flavor and aroma.
This same principle applies to dark chocolate. All chocolate is produced from the seeds (i.e., “beans”) of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao). But within this single species, there are eleven clearly-defined “genetic clusters,” which are considered the primary cacao varieties. In addition to these eleven primary cacao varieties, there is a wide range of hybrids and cultivars, such as the much-maligned CCN-51.
Criollo vs Nacional
The two most coveted cacao varieties in the world are Nacional and Criollo. Nacional hails from Ecuador, while Criollo is primarily found in Venezuela. Nacional and Criollo are prized among chocolate makers throughout the world for two important reasons: they are extremely rare and their flavor profiles are considered the most desirable. But Nacional and Criollo are just as different from each other as Nebbiolo and Merlot in terms of their history, growing conditions, and especially their flavor profiles.
Note: The terms "cocoa bean" and "cacao bean" are interchangeable.
"Porcelana" Criollo from Venezuela. Photo courtesy of Cocina y Vino.
Criollo is at least 1,500 years old, dating back to Mayan civilization and possibly earlier. It's native origin is still a matter of debate—Honduras, Venezuela, and the Amazon have all been identified as possibilities.
Chemically, Criollo cacao beans tend to be low in tannins, relatively low in polyphenols, have less theobromine, and are generally quite low in bitterness.
This equates to an exceptionally smooth and approachable chocolate, usually with a rich, nutty base and a predominance of classic “chocolatey” notes. Criollo dark chocolate is not known for its complexity, but it is undeniably pleasant—like a soft massage of the palate.
In the realm of red wines, it can be likened to a really good bottle of Zinfandel or Merlot.
A 100% pure Nacional cacao tree in Piedra de Plata, verified by genetic analysis in 2015. Estimated to be over 100 years old.
Nacional cacao is the rarest cacao in the world, and possibly dates back as much as 5,300 years in the land that is now called Ecuador. Compared to Criollo, Nacional cacao beans are relatively high in polyphenols, fairly tannic, with moderate acidity.
This chemical composition accounts for its famously fragrant aroma and remarkable degree of complexity. Floral, fruity, nutty, and vegetal/earthy notes can all be found in dark chocolate produced from Nacional cacao. In some cases each of these characteristics can all be perceived in the same bar of dark chocolate. But the relative levels of each flavor characteristic highly depend on terroir and production methods.
In our experience producing chocolate with Nacional cacao, we’ve found that shorter fermentation times and shorter conch times both serve to highlight its floral components, with orange blossoms and jasmine the most frequently cited.
As both fermentation times and conch times grow longer, the flavor profile starts to veer toward the fruity side of the spectrum, although this only holds true up to a certain point. Notes of red fruits (cherry, raspberry, cranberry), dark fruits (plum, raisins, black mission fig), citrus (grapefruit, orange peel), and even tropical fruits (banana, occasionally mango) are all capable of presenting themselves.
Earthy and grassy notes are another feature found particularly in Nacional cacao from Piedra de Plata, which sometimes moves into the woody realm of oak, pine, even eucalyptus.
If tasting Criollo dark chocolate is akin to a soft massage of the palate, tasting Nacional dark chocolate is like a walk through the tropical forest—all the colors of the land are contained within a single bite. In the realm of red wines, it can be likened to a well-aged bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon or Nebbiolo.
Below is a side-by-side comparison of Criollo and Nacional.
Terroir & Craftsmanship Matter Too
It's important to note that cacao variety and genetics are not the only determinant of good chocolate. Terroir and production methods also play a crucial role in the flavor profile of any dark chocolate. Even the finest cacao varieties in the world, such as Criollo and Nacional, are never grown in a vacuum.
The soil and climate characteristics in which the trees are cultivated significantly influence the chemical composition of the beans and, therefore, the flavor profile. Likewise, the best cacao beans in the world will still yield a poor bar of dark chocolate if the beans were poorly fermented, over-roasted, or adversely effected by any number of other production variables.
To express this principle in mathematical terms, we can think of it like this:
Genetics + Terroir + Production Methods = Flavor & Aroma Characteristics
Other Cacao Varieties
Below is a complete list of all eleven genetic clusters of cacao, according to the USDA-ARS and Motamayor classification system.
• Contamana aka Ucayali/Scavina
• Iquitos aka Iquitos Mixed Calabacillo (IMC)
• Marañon aka Parinari