Answers to the most asked questions.



What does the Heirloom Cacao Preservation (HCP) Initiative aim to achieve?

To identify, preserve and propagate endangered fine flavor heirloom cacao; to ensure cacao quality and diversity for future generations and to recognize the farmers who grow it. We want HCP Heirloom Cacao designation to allow farmers to sell their cocoa for premium or higher prices and help them achieve the same or even greater income than they would by selling ordinary or bulk cacao in volume.

The HCP holds that genetics alone say nothing about flavor and to evaluate ‘Heirloom Cacao’ is that foremost, a chocolate should taste good. Tell us more about the characteristics in terms of flavor an ‘Heirloom Cacao’ should have.

Dr. Lyndel Meinhardt, lead researcher at the USDA/ARS, says the three of the major components impacting flavor are genetics, terroir, and post harvest processing. Roasting, another key factor, is being controlled by the HCP. So we are looking for cacao that presents unusual but well-balanced flavors produced by the other three: nutty, caramelic, fruit of all types, floral notes of wide ranging types, spicy notes naturally derived from the cacao itself, and more. There are no specific flavor characteristics that an Heirloom cacao should have. It’s more about the essential balance between these diverse, rich flavor notes and that off-flavors that should not be present in the initial analysis including: moldy, smoky, raw, dirty, significant overfermented notes (rotten fruit, putrid, or fetid), as well as excessive bitterness and astringency from poor fermentation or absorption of flavors from other products like rubber. (See question nine for more detail.)

What about texture, color, and aroma; are these included in the evaluation?

Aroma is always part of evaluating a chocolate. Those who taste chocolate for a living are like chefs who smell the food in front of them before they taste – they know the best flavors (and the worst) are enhanced through smell and directly connect to the beans.

Texture and color will be important in evaluation of chocolate and liquor quality in so far as color is representative of the genetics and type and texture has to do with cocoa butter content of a particular bean. But neither are completely reflective a bean’s quality and will not be the deciding factors here, because the HCP Tasting Panel evaluates liquor and chocolate made to identical percentages and close to identical fats and solids. Since all the beans are processed into identical bars for blind evaluation, the texture does not vary as much as with bars from multiple manufacturers.

What are the criteria that the Panel uses to evaluate the beans?

There is a global scoring system used by the Panel. But evaluating flavor – no matter how detailed and “scientific” the approach of a Panelist – is always subjective. The Panel did blind test evaluations of chocolates to understand how each of them evaluates and to align themselves around an HCP global scoring system.

What are the steps the tasting panel uses to evaluate the cacao beans?

While the liquor and chocolate will be made to identical percentages with close to identical fats and solids, the steps for evaluation will vary. Each of the Panelists has more than 15 years’ experience tasting we have no intention of changing their ways. On the contrary, we embrace the varied perspectives as it only enhances the stature of a bean that wins universal acclaim.

What are the factors why growers continue to remove or replace fine flavor cacao trees with less flavorful, high-yield, disease-resistant cacao hybrids and clones?

That varies from region to region and there are lots of factors but really it comes down to one thing: income (ie money). Replacement trees are likely hybrids that produce a much larger yield per tree. Since the farmer is usually paid by weight not quality, the more pods the trees produce, the better for his livelihood. But know replacement with **cacao** is not always the greatest threat: other crops, cattle, bananas, palm oil trees, land use such as oil drilling… these impact cacao as a whole, not just fine flavor cacao.

In the end, it is the market that determines what farmers do with the land. That’s why an important part of the HCP is to help farmers sell their cocoa for higher prices. The vast majority of the world’s cacao beans are not fine flavor, let alone heirloom. But those in the fine flavor chocolate industry have learned that when the market pays more for the cacao, the farmers put more time and energy into growing it. Yields increase, as does income.

When chocolate makers, chocolate manufacturers, and chocolatiers are able to indicate the HCP designation on their labels, are they going to be able to do this only for a certain period until the tasting panel evaluates the chocolates again and they pass the standards for HCP designation?

Yes, the designation is in place indefinitely but the Tasting Panel will be tasting the certified beans periodically to make sure the quality has not changed. If that the trees, terroir, and post-harvest processing have remained the same, then the quality will be the same in a bar produced today or five years from now.

Where are the world’s fine-flavor cacaos grown?

Flavor cacao can be grown anywhere cacao is grown, which is in what is known as the 20-20 zone (20 degrees north and south of the Equator). Gary Guittard’s theory is that when the Meso-Americans and then later the Europeans discovered and started cultivating chocolate, they took the beans that they liked the best which usually were the most flavorful and planted those in their colonies around the world. So in probability any cacao trees planted outside of the Upper Amazon region may have originally been good to fine flavor.

Over the last century or so, things have changed, with yield and disease resistance being more important than flavor. Old traditional plantings were ripped out — or hybridized — to produce higher yield, especially in Africa but there are pockets of flavor remaining in all growing regions around the world including African countries like Madagascar and Tanzania.  Even the least established cacao-growing areas like Hawaii and Australia, which are disease free at this point, understand the importance of planting fine flavor cacao.

What determines the quality of chocolate?

It is the same and in some ways more complex than asking what determines the quality of wine. If it’s around flavor of the beans see the question on genetics for the start of an answer and below for more detail.

In the initial analysis, the criteria are more about what flavors should NOT be present. Off-flavors include:

  • Moldy/musty flavor from the presence of mold in the beans
  • Smoky flavor reminiscent of smoke-cured bacon from contamination by wood smoke during drying or storage
  • Acid taste through excessive acidity developing during fermentation that generally inhibits the chocolate flavour from developing
  • Excessive bitterness and astringency caused by poor fermentation or poor flavor cacao beans
  • Absorption of flavours from other products such as rubber, oil-based paints, etc. during storage and transport

Natural cocoa liquor is a balance of flavors that include:

  • Nuttiness – can be sweet (like a cashew) or bitter (burnt almond).
  • Acidity that keeps the flavor from being flat (just as a squeeze of lemon enlivens fruits and vegetables).
  • Fruitiness can be as bright as a citrus flavor or as mellow as “brown fruit,” an industry term for flavors such as raisin or dried cherry.
  • Floral flavors – usually close to jasmine or roses.
  • Bitterness or astringency balanced with sugar and spices – the mark of a great chocolate manufacturer

In terms of ingredients, what should consumers look for?

You will hear many people in the fine flavor chocolate industry use some version of this line: 90% of what you read on a package is propaganda – don’t believe the hype. Ideally consumers should know the percentage and the breakdown of that liquor to cocoa butter (few break down their percentages that way except for products made for pastry chefs). But consumers should not look for anything specific so much as they should learn what they love and appreciate the sheer complexity of chocolate in all its forms just like they have with wine or other craft products. Get away from percentages as deciding factors and terms like fair trade and organic and choose first on flavor and really TASTE the chocolate. Expand your yummy universe and understand more about where that chocolate you are eating comes from and who made it and then appreciate that cocoa beans are perhaps the most undervalued food in the world and be willing to pay a more for all of it, especially the ones you love the most.