Learn more about Cacao Genetics!

Learn more about Cacao Genetics!

Criollo, Trinitario, Amelonado, Forastero, Nacional, CCN51, ICS95… What does all this actually mean? We in the specialty cacao industry are nerds about our beans, scrutinizing pods, studying farming methods, postulating on factors in flavor development, and observing changes in bean physical and sensory attributes over time. We’re hungry to understand the foundation of the chocolate craft, interested in what makes quality consistent, improves yield, and drives flavor of this product that we love. One factor that stands out as an opportunity for clues is the genetic makeup of the beans. We are trained to look at varietals of coffee, hops, and grapes to inform us about our choices as consumers in the coffee, beer, and wine markets, which are all specialty industries we look up to. Why shouldn’t the same apply in chocolate? 

At the core of cacao genetics are two facts: 1) that cacao trees can be self-compatible or may only be compatible with specific other trees, and 2) they are heterozygous. This means they can self-pollinate and/or cross-pollinate with hundreds of genetic varieties, and thus one pod, or one seed, or one tree, can house a mix of hundreds of genotypes. This makes tracing genetic makeup extremely difficult, and it makes controlling genetic material challenging in cocoa-rich areas. 

So, all this leads to the questions: what do we know, and what can we claim about genetic materials in specific cacaos? 

The three typical references

Generally, there are three labels commonly used in the chocolate industry, but it’s not really the case that these are specific clones or even meaningful descriptors: Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario. Here’s a breakdown: 

Criollo: This word is thought to come from Spanish colonists in Central and South America, who found cacao trees and called them “criollo”, which just means “native.” It’s true that the cacao tree originated in the Amazon rainforest basin, so it’s certainly more likely that “native” Theobroma cacao comes from this region of the world. However, by the time Spaniards arrived in this region, the cacaos they saw being cultivated by indigenous populations had already naturally changed from the original “pure” genetic makeups found in the deep Amazon.

Today, the term “criollo” is thrown around for a wide variety of genetics in cacao. Sometimes the term is used because it is referencing cacao that was found in that particular geography and seems untouched by other hybridization. Sometimes the term is used because the beans are lighter, or white/cream colored inside, which some believe (incorrectly) to be a uniquely Criollo trait. Sometimes it’s used because a buyer heard a farmer use the term “criollo” in describing their own cacao, simply because it’s the type of plant they and their neighbors all have. None of these commonly used versions of “criollo” necessarily refer to scientifically tested Criollo, the strain identified by Motomayor (more on this below).

Forastero: This term was created and used for cacao types discovered by Spanish colonists that were considered “foreign” to the region. Foreign was defined either in appearance or farmers’ descriptions, and as a result colonists were led to believe that these cacaos were not “criollo.” 

In 2008, a formative study by Juan C. Motamayor et al was published that traced genetics in cacao found in the Amazon basin. It concluded that there are actually 10 unique genetic clusters (recently this number increased to 11): Amelonado, Contamana, Criollo, Curaray, Guiana, Iquitos, Marañon, Nacional, Nanay, and Purús. The below map from the study shows where each of these clusters can be found and helps illuminate the complexity of cacao genetics:

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To give more specific context and information: you can see the yellow “Criollo” circles in Belize, Guatemala, and Colombia (where we source cacao, although we are NOT claiming that there is significant true Criollo in the cacao we source), as well as Mexico, Venezuela, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama. On farms in the Sierra Nevada, where we source cacao from the Arhuacos community, we do see cacao pods with physical characteristics often attributed to Criollo cacaos: pointy apexes, very lumpy skin, and light lilac or white seeds; but we have not had this cacao genetically tested.  

The remaining genetic types identified here are mostly considered to be “Forastero.” It is a disservice to the biodiversity across these types to label them all under the misnomer of Forastero, as they are varied in flavor, pod shape and size, tree architecture, and bean appearance. Amelonado, for example, is smooth-skinned, football-shaped, and has a rounder tip. Meanwhile, Nacional varietals tend to be more oblong with less smooth skin (although today, it’s almost impossible to find a pod that is 100% pure Nacional, with hybridization happening rapidly and naturally among farms in Ecuador). The reality is that many of these genetic clusters are interbred and naturally hybridizing because of proximity to one another, and thus the mix of genetics can’t really be defined as “criollo” or “forastero”. 

Trinitario: This name comes from cacao breeding activities originally developed in Trinidad and Tobago, where significant research into cacao genetics, cultivation, and processing has been conducted. The term “Trinitario” loosely refers to hybridized Criollo and “forastero” cacao genetics. There are several examples of this type of hybrid including the “TSH” (Trinitario Select Hybrids) clones that are largely composed of three of the forastero varieties identified above, and a fourth parent “criollo” plant from Trinidad. Because they’ve been selected for flavor, yield, and disease resistance, these hybrid clones have been disseminated around the cocoa-producing world. 


We are often asked if the cacao we source is genetically modified. It’s important to understand the distinction between hybridized clones and genetic modification. Because cacao is largely very easy to breed, individual smallholder farmers and research institutions alike can quite easily promote specific plant traits through intentional mixing of genotypes. This does not mean that genetics have been modified - it simply means that they naturally can be bred to maximize certain attributes, much like peppers or apples. In order to intentionally propagate a specific clone that has been bred by a farmer or scientist, the specific genetic material from a genetically accurate “mother tree” must be grafted, or cloned, onto rootstock. It is not possible to use the seeds of a specific clone to propagate its genetics, because of the complex pollination dynamics mentioned above.
Farms and research institutions have created hybrid plants seen widely today. As examples, the Ghanaian cocoa board, at the Cocoa Research Institute in Ghana, designed the cacao plant that is grown by the millions of smallholder cacao farmers in the country today. It was selected for disease resistance and yield and is a mix of amelonado and trinitario cacaos. As mentioned previously, “TSH” clones, from Trinidad, were bred for flavor, disease resistance, and yield. CCN51, found largely in Ecuador and Peru, was designed on a large private farm in Ecuador, and the name stands for Collección Castro Naranjal (the name of the farm) and 51 for his 51st attempt. The 100 ICS clones created in Trinidad stand for the “Imperial College Selection” and have been widely disseminated throughout Central and South America. UF (United Fruit) and CATIE clones were created in Costa Rica at the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza.

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In sharing all the specifics of these clonal varieties, we aim to illustrate the vast number of cacao clones that are available, either for intentional distribution or through natural breeding. While it’s useful to know the general clusters and families of genetics that can be found in different regions of the world, it costs a substantial sum of money to have a laboratory evaluate the exact genetic mapping of a particular cacao tree, this tree may in fact be quite distinct genetically from its neighbors on the same farm, AND the outcome of the actual beans produced by that tree will depend heavily on the compatibility and pollination tendencies of flowers on that tree and its neighbors. Therefore, it’s difficult without adequate resources to know exactly what genetic makeup you’re dealing with unless you have a single-clone plot widely separated from any other clones. 

What we know as Uncommon Cacao 

We have varying degrees of concrete knowledge about the cacaos found in our supply chain, due to the complex nature of cacao genetics. In 2014, when several farms in the Maya Mountain Cacao farmer network received HCP designation (Heirloom Cacao Preservation) with support from Dan O’Doherty of Cacao Services Inc., we were fortunate to have the DNA make-up of those farms tested by the USDA-ARS lab. The results showed us that, based on a variety of trees from these several farms, the MMC beans are primarily a mix of Amelonado-dominant hybrids and other Upper Amazon Forastero hybrids. No other origins currently selling to Uncommon Cacao have had this type of genetic testing done in a lab, so all other cacaos we offer are, to some degree, a mystery. We can suppose the presence of different genetic variants and clones based on the histories of the specific regions and what farmers tell us about their farms and access to seedlings. 

For example, 

  • In Ghana, we know that the ABOCFA farmer members all have the clones that CRIG developed, the mix of Amelonado and Forastero. 

  • In the Arhuacos product, we know there is a mix of predominant “criollo” from the region, mixed with ICS and other clones found in other areas of the Sierra Nevada. 

  • In Tumaco, we suspect there is a strong presence of Nacional varietals due to its proximity to Ecuador, and the cooperative leadership we work with there is working to identify “criollo” strains with the University of Nariño. 

  • Throughout our Guatemalan products, there are mixes of clones and criollos, with varying degrees of prevalence in different areas. CATIE clones (including UFs) have been distributed in the Cahabon and Lanquin regions where ADIOESMAC and Ademayach are located. CATIE and ICS clones can be found in the Lachuá region. All of these have cross-bred with more “criollo” varietals that had been found in these areas previously but to maximize yield and consistent flavor, NGOs have distributed the newer clones over the years.

  • In the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the cacao introduced by Spanish colonists in 1665 still persists today. The predominant genetic grouping here is Trinitario cacao, but for the producers in the Oko Caribe network in particular, we do not know the mix. The managers of Oko Caribe have reported an introduction of some Venezuelan cacaos to the DR as well. Similarly, in Haiti and other Caribbean cocoa producing countries, there is predominance of Trinitario varieties.

  • Semuliki Forest in Uganda has a somewhat similar history to Ghana, in that colonists introduced the commodity and cacao did not historically grow there naturally. Therefore, the genetic clones that were introduced did not necessarily cross-breed with native genetics. Nonetheless, because the varietals present in Africa have changed due to intentional research and introduction of different Amelonado and Trinitarios, it’s hard to tell the exact makeup of what can be found among the producers that sell to Semuliki Forest. The closest approximation would be a Forastero and Trinitario mix. 

While there is a lot of interest in cacao genetics from cacao producers, supply chain actors, chocolate manufacturers, and even some ahead-of-the-curve consumers, the reality is that the science of cacao genetics is far behind where it could and should be today. Only very recently has chocolate been “de-commoditized” to demonstrate enough interest in genetic variety, and in the agronomical and flavor characteristics driven by this diversity in genotypes, rather than seeking uniformity across cocoa for the production of homogenous chocolate-flavored confections. 

As the specialty cacao and premium, single-origin chocolate markets continue to grow, the science of cacao genetics must be further developed and educational materials around the complex nature of cacao genetics must be created and broadly disseminated. Other industries like coffee and wine are significantly farther ahead than cacao, because actors have cared about the biodiversity and unique attributes of different genotypes for decades, even centuries. We have a long way to go, but the interest we hear in cacao genetics from across the craft chocolate industry is a good sign, and will hopefully drive investment in and development of significantly more advanced science and education in the future.

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