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What is Cacao?

Cacao is the plant from which chocolate is derived, and cacao beans are the rawest, purest, and most unadulterated form of chocolate.

What is the difference between chocolate, cocoa and cacao? “Cacao” is the name used to describe the actual plant and its fruit, which bear cacao beans that can be ground into cacao powder. “Cocoa” is a somewhat generic term and without qualifiers can be confused with cacao. Cocoa is made by roasting and processing cacao beans, which are then pressed through high pressure cylinders to create a fine powder. The by-product of this process is cocoa butter – the fat naturally found in the cacao beans. “Chocolate” is another generic term, but generally it refers to cocoa that has been smoothed into a consistent texture and formed into a mold of some sort. Sugar and sometimes milk are typically added to create the chocolate that we are accustomed to finding in our candies and desserts.

Here we are talking strictly about the cacao plant and the primary varieties found in the world. The full species name of the cacao plant is Theobroma Cacao. There are three most commonly referenced subspecies called Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario. However, the Trinitario variety is actually a hybrid, and while frequently referred to as the third subspecies, it really belongs to a much larger group of hybrids that have occurred both naturally and with agricultural influence over many years of cultivation. Each variety has distinct characteristics regarding cultivation, production, aroma, texture and taste.


The word criollo comes from the Spanish word creola meaning native, and was used by conquistador Hernán Cortés to describe the delicious chocolate mixture enjoyed by the Aztecs in what is today’s southern Mexico. This delicate tree produces some of the world’s most prized cacao but it is also a difficult plant to grow on any great scale. The tree is not prolific and it is more susceptible to disease than other varieties. As a result, this cacao variety represents just 5% – 10% of the world’s production.


In Spanish, forastero means foreigner or stranger and originates from the upper Amazon region. It is tends to have a more robust flavor than the Criollo. Forastero grows quickly and produces an excellent quantity of fruit and as a result is the preferred industrial cacao variety. It represents 80% of the world’s production.


This hybrid cacao is a cross between Criollo and a Forastero. Originally from La Trinidad, Venezuela from which this sub-species takes its name. The coastal plantations of Venezuela (Chuao being the first in the Americas) originally cultivated only the Criollo variety but in the early 1700s a cyclone ruined most of the important plantations. During the replanting, the inhabitants started cultivating Forastero cacao imported from Venezuela’s Orinoco valley. Since some of the original Criollo trees survived, a natural hybrid came about. Offering some of the characteristics of both parent varieties, the Trinitario offers balanced flavors and fair cultivation properties. Today, it represents roughly 10% – 15% of the world’s production.

Other Varieties

There are literally thousands of varieties such as the highly regarded Criollo Porcelana or Arriba Nacional. You can also consider the region in which the cacao is produced as a factor in its characteristics. Due to the highly distributed nature of cacao processing and the fact that most chocolates are blends of different subspecies and perhaps numerous varieties, chocolate is not as terroir-driven as an appellation-controlled wine, but ultimately, where the cacao is grown does play a role in the organoleptic characteristics of the chocolate.