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Types of cacao. Criollo, Trinitario and Forastero beans

Reading time: 6 minutes

Many people who enjoy the benefits of cacao do not realise that there are many different varieties of this remarkable product. Even lovers of ground cacao beans only know that traditional raw cacao and ground cacao are commercially available - and that is usually where their orientation on the subject ends. In the meantime, there are three types of cacao, each of which has many more varieties, differing in composition, aroma and flavour.

According to 'World of Chocolate', the differences between cacao varieties can even be felt in cacao from different growing regions. The more refined and better selected the crop, the higher its price [1], although the processing of the beans - i.e. fermentation, drying and eventual roasting - also has a huge impact on the final flavour of the cacao. Nevertheless, it is traditionally considered that Criollo is the noblest variety of cacao and Forastero the most common. Is this opinion justified? Let's check it out in this article!

Let's start with the cacao

Starting from the very beginning, it is necessary first to introduce our main protagonist, the cocoa tree: a small tree of the Malvaceae family, of which the best-known representative is the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao L.), which dominates cocoa cultivation in most regions of the world. Closely related to the Theobroma tree is the Herrania species, whose fruit can also be used to produce good quality cacao. Both trees are also divided into many varieties, such as: Theobroma bicolor or Herrania umbratica, which only grows in Colombia.

The flowers of the cacao tree proper resemble orchids and grow directly from the tree trunk. The cocoa tree does not like strong sunlight, so it feels best in shade, such as banana trees or other trees that provide shelter from the sun. Nevertheless, artificial cocoa varieties have been developed that also do well in places with strong sunlight. An example of this is the Ecuadorian cacao CCN-51 (Colección Castro Naranjal 51), invented by independent researcher Homero Castro in the 1960s.

Theobroma Cacao fruit

The ripe fruit of the cacao tree (Theobroma Cacao L.) can range in colour from yellow through greenish to yellowish-red, and true red and reddish-brown. In shape, they resemble American footballs. They reach an average length of 25 cm and have a thick shell. Inside is a white, sweet flesh and within it are 25 to 50 seeds arranged in five rows. Each seed, usually covered with a whitish mucus, is about 2-3 cm long.

The three main types of cacao, namely Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario

Traditionally, cacao has been divided into three species - Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario. This classification originated in the 1940s [5], but the names of two of the three species were given to them centuries ago by the Spanish. When we ask a person from Mexico what the word Criollo means to them, they will probably answer that it is a 'mixture' or 'hybrid'. Nevertheless, the word 'criollo' originally meant people born in South America whose parents came from North America or Europe. Criollo cacao is said to have been the first variety encountered by the Spanish, and for this reason you may come across a translation of the word as 'native'. All the rest of the cacao, on the other hand, was called Forastero, meaning 'foreign'. The case with Trinitario is much simpler because we are talking about a cross between Criollo and Forastero, bred in Trinidad - hence the name of this variety. However, the cacao tree doesn't give a damn about our official classifications and happily crosses with each other - but we'll say more about that at the end of this article.

Video showing the types of cocoa

In this short video you will see the basic varieties of cocoa.

Video showing the types of cocoa

Cocoa Criollo

Criollo is a noble and very rare group consisting of many varieties. It has only a 1% share of global production, although it dominated the world until 200 years ago. It originated in Venezuela and Colombia, and is also grown today in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and the Caribbean region, among others. Criollo cacao was considered by the Maya to be the food of the Gods [3]. Obtaining good yields of this variety is difficult because the trees are very sensitive to adverse external factors. Crop yields are significantly lower than those of Forastero.

Types of Cacao Criollo - examples from Venezuela


It is grown south of Lake Maracaibo. Currently, its plantations are quite small. It is characterised by a green fruit with a thin and slightly rough shell. It is a cacao of excellent quality.


Perhaps the world's best-known variety, grown in the Chuao region of Aragua State. It is classified as a 'fine' cacao.


Grown in the south of Lake Maracaibo. It has a particular flavour and is classified by experts as an 'extra fine' cacao. It is considered to have the best genetic quality of all the cacaos grown in Venezuela.

What does the cacao fruit of the criollo look like?

Criollo usually has an elongated fruit with a rough and bony yellow skin, with clearly marked ten grooves.

What do fresh Criollo beans look like?

Criollo beans are round and white or pink in the centre. After being fermented and dried, they develop a complex and delicate flavour somewhat associated with caramel, nuts and vanilla. Criollo cacao is the basic ingredient used to make luxury chocolate.

Forastero cacao

Forastero is native to the Amazon basin and is therefore also known as 'Cacao Amazonico'. Due to the large yields of this cacao, it is also called 'Cacao Corriente' or 'common cacao'. Today, it is mainly grown in Africa (Ghana and Ivory Coast), although the Spanish originally imported this cacao from Venezuela. Today, Forastero dominates the world cocoa market: the variety accounts for up to 85-95% of global production, according to various sources. It owes such a large share to its relatively low requirements and ease of cultivation (if such wording can be used for cocoa trees). It has relatively low susceptibility to diseases and pests, and grows faster and yields more than the other groups [4]. There are at least a few varieties belonging to Forastero that differ in appearance. These include, for example, the Amelonado, Cundeamor and Calabacillo varieties.

What does the Forastero cacao fruit look like?

Forastero has a crackly fruit resembling a melon and a smooth skin of yellow colour. The grooves on the skin are barely visible.

What do the Forastero beans look like?

The beans are elliptical and purple in the centre.

Trinitario cacao

Trinitario is a cacao with a delicate flavour. It is a hybrid of the above two varieties: Crollio and Forastero, selected in the 17th century. The trees were brought from Venezuela to Trinidad, a decision that proved to be a hit. For several decades Trinidad produced the most coveted cacao beans, but today Trinitario's share of the global market is less than 10%. Trinitario has, on the one hand, the aroma of Forastero and, on the other, the delicate flavour of Criollo.

What does the Trinitario cacao fruit look like?

Trinitario has an elongated, more bulbous fruit than Criollo and a slightly rough skin of yellow or red colour with clearly marked, five double grooves.

What do the Trinitario beans look like?

The beans are elliptical and pink or slightly purple in the centre.

Walking into a forest of cacao trees, or 1,000 varieties of cacao

The above traditional division into Criollo, Forastero or Trinitario turns out not to be very true, because according to the research shown in the article "Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree (Theobroma cacao L)" [7] as many as 10 (!) varieties of cacao have been distinguished in the Amazon alone: Marañon, Curaray, Criollo, Iquitos, Nanay, Contamana, Amelonado, Purús, Nacional and Guiana.

Cocoa trees

If we add the cacao that grows in Africa, Indonesia, Kerala in India or Madagascar, we find that another dozen varieties of cacao can be distinguished. Add to this man-made species, such as CCN-51, and it becomes clear that traditional classifications simply do not correspond to reality.

Cocoa trees (Theobroma Cacao L. and Herrania) love to interbreed with each other and new varieties are being developed practically all the time. However, the taste of cacao, or what interests us most, depends not only on the species of cacao but also on the processing. Much also depends on the quality of the machines in which the cacao is ground and other, additional factors. This is why the common opinion that Criollo is king and Forastero or Trinitario its less successful cousins is wrong - we can come across a very poor Criollo and an outstanding Forastero or vice versa! When reaching for different products that use cacao, it is worth experimenting and exploring new varieties to get a full picture of cacao's rich palette of flavours and aromas.

5/5 - (3 votes)
[1] P. Lavrovsky; How to distinguish cocoa beans?; The world of chocolate; 5/2018; s:60-64
[2] J. C. Motamayor; A. M. Risterucci; P. A. Lopez; C. F. Ortiz; A. Moreno & C. Lanaud; Cacao domestication I: the origin of the cacao cultivated by the Mayas; Heredity 89, 380–386(2002)

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