The Fine Chocolate Industry Association and the USDA/ARS Partner to Found the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Initiative

The best tasting chocolates in the world are poised for extinction. As growers continue to remove or replace fine flavor cacao trees with less flavorful, high-yield, disease-resistant cacao hybrids and clones, a world of ordinary flavor dominates the chocolate universe. Connecting genetics to flavor offers an important new way to protect and preserve the finest flavors for future generations. Alas, no genetic initiative has ever focused on flavor first. Until now.

Enter the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Initiative, a partnership between the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) to create the first-ever genotype map with a focus on flavor cacao trees.

The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Initiative (HCP) will connect everyone with a stake in the future of fine flavor chocolate to a very specific set of goals:

  • To know where the world’s finest flavor beans are;
  • To tie their flavor to the genetics; and ultimately
  • To help ensure cacao quality and diversity, and preserve and propagate fine flavor beans for future generations.

“Preservation is necessary now more than ever,” says Dr. Lyndel Meinhardt, the USDA-ARS Sustainable Perennial Crops Laboratory research leader. “It is not just the less-flavorful cacao hybrids and clones but also cattle, soy, pineapples, and other crops that are replacing the most flavorful cacao trees. If we can’t identify, preserve, and protect this flavor, it will be lost forever.”

The idea for the HCP initiative emerged in 2010 when FCIA representatives met with Dr. Meinhardt and Dr. Dapeng Zhang of the USDA-ARS. Dr. Meinhardt thought the USDA-ARS lab could help the FCIA identify fine flavor cacao using the samples in the existing worldwide database. Shared concern led to instant action: the FCIA got its members on board, and in December 2011, the FCIA established a specific cooperative agreement with the USDA-ARS to develop their ideas further. More than two-dozen chocolate companies and industry stakeholders, both large and small, then stepped up to provide funding in 2012 as Founding Circle members, allowing the HCP to officially launch in June 2012 and move forward.

The HCP welcomes any beans to be submitted and evaluated for their flavor, but not every bean will be identified as “heirloom.” “First of all, it has got to taste good,” says Dan Pearson, chief executive officer of Marañón Chocolate and FCIA board member, who helped develop the HCP. “Can taste be objective like genetics? No. But genetics alone say nothing about flavor. Strong genetic origin may have the potential to yield the best flavor, but genetic identification itself simply reveals what a bean is, not whether it is really yummy. That’s about classification. That’s the second step. If it doesn’t taste good, we are not going to proceed with the genetics.”

In other words, flavor comes first, which is why the FCIA chose the word “heirloom” and its basic Webster’s definition “a cultivar of a vegetable or fruit that is open-pollinated and is not grown widely for commercial purposes [and] often exhibits a distinctive characteristic such as superior flavor or unusual coloration” to frame the HCP.

“The HCP is looking for flavor the old-fashioned way: taste,” adds Gary Guittard of the Guittard Chocolate Company, the oldest family-owned and operated chocolate company in the United States and an FCIA founding member. “The HCP evaluation process starts objectively with bean samples anonymously and uniformly processed into chocolate. Using gas chromatography the USDA-ARS will then measure and record the flavor profiles for those beans. But the next and decisive step is subjective and delicious: the HCP Tasting Panel will perform a blind flavor analysis.”

The HCP Tasting Panel is made up of cacao experts from six countries with 15 to 29 years’ experience in chocolate (and who have all served as professional evaluators of cacao bean flavor). If this panel scores a bean’s flavor sufficiently high that bean would then be deemed “heirloom” and the HCP will proceed with the genetic testing.

The HCP is now accepting applicants. “We want to engage as large a network as possible to identify at-risk heirloom cacao populations worldwide,” says Pam Williams, an FCIA board member who has been a passionate voice for fine flavor chocolate through her school, Ecole Chocolat. “Cacao growers, cacao processors, traders, chocolate manufacturers, and artisan chocolate makers are encouraged to submit their beans for evaluation or to inform the HCP of at-risk heirloom cacao populations.”

Think of the HCP as a genetic stake in the ground for flavor. In the short-term, the HCP will apply new genetic standards for flavor identification to help protect and propagate heirloom beans, mapping their flavors down to their GPS locations. In the long-term, chocolate makers, chocolate manufacturers, and chocolatiers will be able to indicate the HCP certification on their labels, supporting growers of heirloom cacao and alerting buyers to the presence of independently verified great flavor.