Ask the Alchemist #115


I am new to the cacao scene and wanted to know the answer to a question that I have had for a while. How do you know what type of cacao bean you have? Is it by the shape of the bean? Is it the taste? Is it the combination of both? The reason I am asking every year my family send over some cacao beans to me for hot coco. They tell me it’s trinitario and sometimes criollo but I wouldn’t know because I have no experience. I just want to know for my owe sake because my friends are always asking but I don’t have an answer. The cacao beans are from Haiti by the way.

Unfortunately, without some form of solid traceability, or hard data, it is very hard to tell one strain from another with anything close to certainty.

On the far extremes, Forastero and really pure Criollo you can tell apart since the interior of the bean of the former is purple, and the later a light brown to cream. But after that it gets pretty non-helpful as the natural variation runs from purpleish to brownish and everywhere in between with little correlation to parentage. But those are bean colors. Not pod colors.

There is a nice article that shows there are genetic markers for color and in certain regions (Ecuador in this case) some relationship to desired qualities. But not really what it is. And it makes this point. “Now, the color of the cocoa pod – red or green – does not mean much to either cocoa farmers or consumers,”

The same goes for shape. Cocoa pods come ribbed, smooth, oblong, round. But the issue is that they are what are considered non-exclusive sets. To use an arbitrary example,

Sometimes you can get lucky. Amelonado is known for it’s very round melon shape (hence the name). It has a dark violet cotyledon (the fancy name for the bean). And it is verified Forastero. That’s great. Most likely given that very specific description, you can say what it is. But it is also true that not all round, purple cotyledon are Amelondo. Beniano is a good example.

Likewise, certain Criollo bear some pretty striking characteristics. Very elongated fruits with nipple-like apex and wart like surface, often with a redish coloration.

But then we get to others that are described as “ multi-variegated fruit pods, some colored red-brick brown filled with relatively small beans”. That is for Chuao, a Criollo. That totally does not match the previous Criollo

If we get to something like Ocumare, it’s noted as elongated, ribbed and red. Which could easily be the description of Chuao.

And it goes on and on like this. Many types look a certain way, but they also look a lot like other strains. It basically takes genetic sequencing to tell them apart. And when you do that, it is not at uncommon to find out that two pods that look radically different are actually pretty closely related. The Amazon, Guiana and Amelonado all sharing pretty common genetic ground, yet looking nothing alike.

So what it comes down to is some educated guessing. Pod size, shape, color, texture, bean color and count, flavor and aroma all play into getting an idea of what you have. And to me, at the end of the day, what you have to show for it is the pod you started with. It does not change the flavor. It’s a name. And sure, it’s nice to know a name sometimes. But to me what is important is the flavor of the chocolate you make from it.

That all said, if you want to send me a photo of what you have, I’ll give it a guess…but know, it’s just that, and if it isn’t one of the really distinctive morphotypes, a wild guess is all it will be. If it is one of the distinctive morphotypes, then it will be an educated guess. I did some brief searching on the G-engine and found Haitian cocoa that was red, orange, green and all ribbed and elongated…..meaning I have not a clue.

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