Chocolate tastes different depending upon where it is grown. Much like wine, cacao beans differ widely by terroir: the effects of the area it is being grown in, from the soil to the water and climate, all influence flavour. For example, South American beans tend to be intensely fruity and floral, African beans are known for simple and earthy chocolate flavour, and Madagascar beans are often fruity and acidic.
Cacao beans for chocolate broadly fall into three categories:
Forastero beans make up about 70% of the world cocoa crop and are sometimes referred to as bulk beans. Originating from the Amazon, today forastero trees grow all over the world—the majority being grown in West Africa. It is a hearty variety that produces better yields than criollo beans; however, it also requires a longer fermentation time to remove its high astringency.
Criollo, meaning native in Spanish, was the single predominant type of cacao when the Spanish invaded the Americas. Today, due to its mild bitterness and acidity, it is often considered the world’s top-of-the-line chocolate. However, the pods have a low yield, are prone to disease, and can be expensive to grow. Criollo beans account for a mere 10% of the world’s chocolate supply. Though manufacturers do not typically advertise the type of beans they use, a clue that your chocolate might be made with criollo is the chocolate’s light reddish hue.
Trinitario is a hybrid of criollo and forastero beans; a heartier variety with lower bitterness than forastero, its flavour is less fruity than criollo with more earthy notes. It is important to note that a particular bean doesn’t guarantee quality chocolate. Think of cacao varieties like wine grapes. They have broad differences, but the final product is as dependent on the manufacturing process as the source ingredients!
Chocolate as a food product is made from the fermented and roasted seeds (beans) of the cacao tree. The nib (hulled meat of the bean) is ground and processed into various forms for eating and drinking. The first step is to cut the fruit or pods of the cacao tree, open the pods and scoop out the beans. The beans are fermented and dried before cleaning, roasting and hulling them. The shells are removed, leaving the nibs, blends of which produce various flavours and colours.
The next stage involves grinding the nibs to release the cocoa butter. The heat from grinding causes the mixture of cocoa butter and finely ground nibs to melt and form a free-flowing substance known as chocolate liquor. It is important to note that adding or removing certain properties from chocolate liquor results in different varieties and flavours of chocolate, a result of combining the chocolate liquor with cocoa butter and other ingredients.
Raw unprocessed chocolate is gritty, grainy and unsuitable for eating. A Swiss chocolate manufacturer introduced a process of rolling and kneading chocolate to give it a smoother and richer quality. Referred to as conching, the word comes from the Spanish word concha (shell) as the vessel used to hold the chocolate was shaped like a conch. The longer period that chocolate (and any ingredients such as milk, vanilla, or extra cocoa butter added to it) is conched, the smoother it feels on your tongue.
Each type of chocolate has its own chemical makeup that produces differences in flavour, reactions to heat and to moisture, making it extremely important to pay attention to the type of chocolate a recipe calls for.