The world is starting to talk about cacao varieties somewhat in the way it talks about wine varieties. In a general sense, there are many comparisons to be drawn between the two. Upon closer examination, the genetics of cacao are much more complicated. Almost all commercially-sold wine in the world is produced from grafted clones (i.e., Pinor Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Chardonnay, etc.). Present-day cacao is comprised of a complex combination of open-pollinated hybrids, human-controlled hybrids, clones, open-pollinated descendants of human-controlled hybrids and clones, and, in some rare cases, genetically-pure open-pollinated varietals that are probably very old.
This issue of genetics is particularly charged in the realm of Ecuadorian cacao, where everyone wishes to claim that the cacao he or she works with (as a cacao grower or chocolate maker) is the famed Nacional variety. There are a few problems with this. The first problem is that Nacional cacao, as it was once known, is on the brink of extinction. That process was initiated over 100 years ago by the arrival of two diseases, and has since been compounded by the pressures of agro-economic bulk production. The second problem is that most cacao which is now called “Nacional” is, in fact, a genetically and organoleptically heterogeneous medley of many varieties mixed in with the original National genetics. The third problem is that this fact is greatly misunderstood by cacao growers and chocolate makers alike.
I include myself in this group. I’ve been working with cacao trees for ten years, and I’ve been making chocolate (at various degrees of professionalism or lack thereof) for almost just as long. For the first few years I operated under the standard misunderstanding that all so-called “Nacional” cacao is created equal. Next came a few years of disentangling fact from fiction. Finally, with the help of Servio and Carl, I entered a phase of deep study into the subject, which continues through the present day.
Note: the mother trees of each of the above pods were genetically analyzed by the USDA-ARS in collaboration with To’ak and the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP). Photos courtesy of To’ak.
As I said in the Introduction to this blog, I don’t regard myself as an expert. Rather, I’m someone who has long been obsessed with this subject, and who has the advantage of working with cacao from three distinct angles—as a conservationist, a cacao grower, and a chocolate maker. The findings presented here are intended to shed light on this fascinatingly mysterious subject for those who wish to explore it at greater depth—particularly in the field of cacao genetics.
The earliest evidence of Theobroma cacao used by humanity dates back to 3300 BC in the upper Amazon basin of Ecuador, in the area now called Zamora Chinchipe. From this general area it is believed that cacao then migrated to coastal Ecuador and presumably traveled northward as far as Mexico.  The broader pre-Colombian migration pattern of cacao is still not fully understood and is beyond the scope of this present article. My intention here is to focus specifically on Nacional.
As cacao acclimated to diverse localities throughout the Americas, distinct varieties began to take shape. For most of the 20th century, cacao was roughly divided into three overly-expansive genetic groups: Forestero, Criollo, and Trinitario. In 2008, Juan Carlos Motamayor et al classified cacao into ten genetic clusters. Motamayor’s system is “a new classification of cacao germplasm into ten major clusters, or groups” which “maintains the terms used to identify the traditional cultivars Amelonado, Criollo, and Nacional, and separates highly differentiated populations within what was previously classified as the Forastero genetic group.”
The ten genetic clusters described by Motamayor include:
The genetic researchers at the USDA Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) use a similar classification system, albeit organized in a slightly different way, which their genetic researcher Dr. Dapeng Zhang was kind enough to explain to me. The USDA-ARS uses the term Ucayali/Scavina in place of what Motamayor calls Contamana, the term Parinari in place of what Motamayor calls Marañon, and the term Iquitos Mixed Calabacillo (IMC) in place of what Motamayor calls Iquitos. The USDA-ARS also describes an additional genetic cluster (called Boliviano) that is not included on Motamayor’s list. Lastly, Trinitario is represented on their genetic map but not often in the genetic breakdown of specific samples.
Thus, an integrated list of the USDA-ARS and Motamayor classification system looks like this:
- Contamana aka Ucayali/Scavina
- Iquitos aka Iquitos Mixed Calabacillo (IMC)
- Marañon aka Parinari
This is now the generally accepted standard of classification, although work is currently being done to further refine cacao’s family tree. For the purposes of this article, I will use the integrated classification system listed above. Occasionally it will also be necessary to refer to Forastero and Trinitario. Forastero, however, will only be used in the more refined context of “Upper Amazon Forastero,” which is an umbrella category that includes within it Ucayali/Scavina, Curaray, IMC, Parinari, Nanay, and Purús. Even though Trinitario is an outdated term, it is difficult to avoid because it is so frequently cross-referenced in older cacao studies and doesn’t have a direct analog in the modern Motamayer/USDA-ARS system. (For the record, genetic studies conclude that the Trinitario cultivar group is of “complex hybrid origin,” principally involving Amelonado, as well as Upper Amazon Forastero and Criollo.2). In lieu of the term “genetic cluster,” I will often use the term “variety.” At the end of this report, I will propose a sub-classification system specifically for Ecuadorian Nacional cacao.
Although I admit to being biased, I believe it is safe to say that Nacional is the most storied of the world’s cacao varieties. It is also the most enigmatic. Until recently, there was no consensus as to its origins. In 2012, a study by Loor Solorzano et al effectively conducted a paternity analysis of Nacional cacao. It compared the genetics of Nacional cacao trees from coastal Ecuador to 169 wild and cultivated cocoa accessions from throughout South and Central America. The highest genetic similarity was found between Nacional cacao and wild cacao genotypes from the same area in Ecuador believed to be the origin of cacao, in Zamora Chinchipe. The results of this study thus suggest that Nacional cacao is the direct descendent of the earliest known cacao used by humanity.
The prevailing hypothesis is that traders transported the ancestors of Nacional cacao from the upper Amazonian forests near Zamora Chinchipe to the upper Guayas River basin, in coastal Ecuador, during ancient times. Loor Solarzano also suggests the probability that the genetic divergence of Nacional cacao was the result of selection pressure in favor of its characteristic aroma. “From this standpoint, the specific aromatic flavour of chocolate produced from Nacional cocoa beans, which can already be detected on the bean pulp, even without a fermentation step, could have been one of the criteria used by the primitive human communities to choose the cocoa mother tree for further seed sowing. Indeed, it is possible that travelling merchants transporting cocoa pods along the roads used the fresh pulp only for their own refreshment and nutrition, but without consuming the cocoa beans, thereby introducing the cocoa tree into a new environment.”4
Fast forward a millennium or two. During Francisco Pizarro’s first voyage along the Pacific coast of South America in 1526, the Spaniards found evidence of small plantations of cacao trees in what is now coastal Ecuador. In the 1600s, colonists began reproducing these native cacao trees in the upper Guayas river basin along its primary tributaries—namely, the Daule and Babahoyo rivers and smaller tributaries. Cacao from this region later acquired the name “Arriba,” derived from the geographical description “rio arriba”. Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, cacao cultivation continued to expand in coastal Ecuador. This special variety of cacao became globally renowned for its strong floral aroma and fine flavour characteristics, such that “Arriba” became the most prestigious denomination of origin in the international cacao trade.5
As of the 1890s, Nacional was the only cacao variety planted in coastal Ecuador. By this time, it had achieved a privileged position in the markets of Hamburg and London, owing to its prized organaleptic properties. The landscape began to change in the beginning of the twentieth century with the back-to-back arrival of frosty pod disease (Moniliophthora roreri) in 1916 followed by witches’ broom disease (Moniliophthora perniciosa) in 1919. The arrival of these two fungal diseases marked a great bifurcation in the Nacional family tree. Between 1916 and 1932, Ecuadorian cacao production decreased by 77%.
As Nacional cacao suffered widespread casualties during the 1920s, foreign cacao seeds began to make their entrance. The first incursion into Ecuador was made by foreign germplasm via Venezuela, previously classified as Trinitario. Upper Amazon varieties were also introduced in the 1940s, owing to their reputed resistance to witches’ broom. These seeds were sourced from the so-called “Pound Collection,” which is responsible for much of the genetic configurations of cacao found throughout the world today.2 One testament to this genetic event is the minor presence of IMC, Nanay, and Parinari specifically in 80-year-old cacao trees in Piedra de Plata, whereas the 100-120 year-old trees in Piedra de Plata are 100% pure Nacional.
Throughout coastal Ecuador, cacao seeds from these new varieties were interplanted with Nacional trees that survived the outbreak of disease in the 1920s. The new arrivals then sexually paired with Nacional cacao through open pollination, producing offspring of mixed descent. Nacional was still the predominant variety of this next generation, but now other genetics were mixed in. For the most part, this new genetic mix of cacao continued to reproduce via open-pollination for the next several decades.
This pattern prevailed until the 1970s, when Ecuador’s agricultural research institute (INIAP) released its first generation of higher-yield clones from Nacional trees methodically bred with foreign germplasm, aimed at large scale commercial production. A second generation of INIAP clones was released in 2009. The most recent edition of INIAP clones (EET-800 and EET-801) was released in October of 2016.
As Nacional cacao hybridized over the course of the past hundred years, its aroma and flavor profile has likewise evolved. It should also be noted that the soil on which Nacional cacao is grown has also changed over the centuries, as a consequence of long-term cultivation. Therefore it is probable that a 120-year old pure Nacional cacao tree today would present somewhat different organoleptic properties than pure Nacional trees in 1900, even though they are genetic equals. Nevertheless, the signature aroma and flavor profile of Nacional can still be found in the old arbor trees growing in places like Piedra de Plata, Las Brisas, and La Gloria. Many of these organoleptic properties are also present in the younger, more modern Nacional cacao trees of recent decades. Modern Nacional cacao is still blessed with a strong fruity flavor profile, although the floral component is reputedly in decline.
Mark Christian, chocolate writer and board member of the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP), writes in his characteristic style that Nacional cacao is “esteemed for its signature flavors of high-fruit tones & rare floral perfumes. Naturally sweet (therefore negligible bitterness) with low fat yet heavy body (paradoxically light in the upper palate) & chocolate tannins gilded in florid jasmine, geranium, orange blossom… a unique bouquet combining herbal-forest green / fresh meadow effects delivering a characteristic stringent finish. Much of this owes to its rather large & round seeds being surrounded by a potent citric pulp that calls for a shorter fermentation cycle, as little as 1 to 2 days (compared to 4-7 for most strains), which optimize the inherent floral aroma. With flavor like that, its very name virtually became proprietary.”
Standing in stark contrast to Nacional, both in terms of productivity and flavor, is a clone by the name of CCN-51. It is known equally for its spectacular yields and its unusually poor flavor characteristics. CCN-51 was developed by an independent breeder in Ecuador during the 1960s, although it is totally outside of the Nacional cacao genetic cluster. Genetically, CCN-51 is primarily comprised of IMC (45.4%), Criollo (22.2%), and Amelonado (21.5%), with minority influence from Contamana (3.9%), Purús (2.5%), Marañon (2.1%), and Nacional (1.1%). CCN-51 is resistant to witches’ broom disease, highly precocious, lends itself well to full-sun monoculture production, and often yields four times more than most Nacional cacao trees.
CCN-51 trees are almost always loaded with large, healthy cacao pods, usually red or dark red in color. This, of course, is the attraction to growers—CCN-51’s tremendous productivity is not in question. The downside is its organoleptic properties. Ed Seguine, the Tasting Panel Chair for HCP, described CCN-51 as “acidic dirt.” Pierre Costet, from the taste masters division at Valrhona, said that CCN-51 produces “a very very bad cocoa and a very bad chocolate.”
Rarely is CCN-51 consciously used for bean-to-bar dark chocolate, although it clearly finds its way into some, owing to the habit of some growers to mix CCN-51 into their sacks of Nacional cacao. CCN-51 is often utilized for high-quantity, low-grade applications such as cocoa power, cocoa butter, and other bulk chocolate uses.
Unless the international market starts paying a 4X premium for Nacional cacao relative to CCN-51 cacao, cacao growers in Ecuador will most likely continue to cull their Nacional cacao trees in favor of CCN-51 clones. This is economically rational behavior on the part of people who are often struggling to make a living. A 4X-6X premium is the minimum price To’ak pays cacao growers in Piedra de Plata, which doesn’t include the 10% profit share. However, this is just a drop in the bucket of Ecuadorian cacao economics.
Hence, the existential crisis of Nacional cacao. By the turn of the century, genetically pure Nacional was feared to be extinct. In 2009, a grove of “white bean” (porcelana) cacao from the Marañon valley in northern Peru, not far from the Ecuadorian border, was discovered to have pure Nacional genetics, which was encouraging. Interestingly, the “pure Nacional” cacao of the Marañon valley in Peru is not the same as the “pure Nacional” cacao in Ecuador. As USDA-ARS geneticist Dr. Dapeng Zhang was once again kind enough to explain to me, “pure” Peruvian Nacional and “pure” Ecuadorian Nacional are genetically different, as quantified by allele frequency. Different allele frequency presumably translates into a different phenotype frequency, which would account for differences in both morphology and organoleptic properties between the two groups. This would explain the predominance of white beans produced in the Peruvian side. Add terroir into this equation, and their respective flavor profile continues to diverge.
Meanwhile, the situation in Ecuador was still dire. That same year, in 2009, INIAP collected DNA samples from cacao trees throughout Ecuador, and only 6 trees (out of 11,000 samples) were genetically pure Nacional. That’s a mere 0.05% of the cacao trees that were analyzed. In 2013, To’ak started sourcing cacao from a secluded valley called Piedra de Plata, located in the far edge of the coastal province of Manabi, close to the borders of two other provinces: Los Rios and Guayas. More specifically, Piedra de Plata is located at the headwaters of the Daule River, which represents the western branch of the upper Guayas River basin (aka, the “Arriba” appellation). Servio Pachard drew our attention to this valley, which is distinguished by the presence of unusually old cacao trees—in many cases, estimated at 100-120 years of age. With the help of HCP, along with Freddy Amores, the director of INIAP, and Dr. Lyndel Meinhardt with the USDA-ARS, we ran DNA tests on a small sample size of these trees. Of the sixteen old arbor trees we tested, nine of them proved to be genetically pure Nacional. This brought the number of DNA-verified pure Nacional trees in Ecuador to a grand total of fifteen.
We have since identified 364 trees in Piedra de Plata that match the age, morphology, and color profile of genetically pure Nacional, and we’re eagerly awaiting the chance to run DNA tests on these trees. We believe a high percentage of them will prove to be genetically pure Nacional. Meanwhile To’ak and TMA are working together to protect these relics of the past and reproduce them through grafting and rooting, which will be covered at length in the Cultivation section.
Even if we and others are successful at saving pure Nacional from extinction, it is difficult to conceive of a situation in which genetically pure Nacional trees will ever represent more than a mere fraction of one percent of all cacao grown in Ecuador. In a world of mass-production and mass-consumption, the cacao-chocolate industrial complex understandably favors high-yield cacao trees, and genetically pure Nacional does not fit this bill.
Even the pre-INIAP generation of Nacional trees that naturally crossed with other varieties, which are still considered Heirloom, are vastly declining. At best, they are being replaced by INIAP clones with partial Nacional genetics. At worst, they’re being replaced by CCN-51. Already by 2002, Loor estimated that “95% of the original area previously planted with Nacional cacao has been replaced by hybrid material involving foreign clones. This genetic mixing has led to a dilution of the “arriba” flavour in the modern Nacional cacao population.”
In the realm of Ecuadorian cacao clones, CCN-51 is the greatest threat. CCN-51 did not hit the mainstream in Ecuador until the El Niño storms of 1997-1998 destroyed a significant portion of Ecuador’s existing Nacional cacao crop. By 2015, CCN-51 reportedly comprised 36% of Ecuador’s annual cacao production, although some insiders speculate that the real figure is much higher. Officially, the CCN-51 market is aimed at buyers who don’t greatly care about quality, and instead want quantity. I highly doubt any serious bean-to-bar chocolate maker would knowingly buy CCN-51 cacao beans. The problem, as stated earlier, is that CCN-51 cacao beans are often mixed in with Nacional cacao beans on the farm. Not only is the flavor profile of CCN-51 significantly less desirable, but it also requires a much longer fermentation time than Nacional cacao beans. If CCN-51 and Nacional cacao beans are combined into the same batch, fermentation of one or the other will be badly compromised; not even an extremely heavy roast would be able to mask this defect. Now that CCN-51 is being grown across the world, this is no longer only an Ecuadorian problem. It is everywhere.
Fortunately, there is still a significant subset of cacao growers in Ecuador who remain stridently loyal to Nacional cacao. But even on these plantations, the genetic reality is convoluted. In a 2011 survey of 143 self-described Nacional cacao growers in coastal Ecuador, 98.6% said they didn’t know the genetic origin of the Nacional cacao they were growing on their land. This same study found that INIAP-derived clones, and their descendants, were present in 98% of the cacao plantations included in the study. Two clones in particular—EET-111 and EET-116 were present in 78% of the plantations.
I can relate to the confusion of the cacao growers in the study above. In the Jama-Coaque Reserve, we inherited several small plots of mid-century heirloom Nacional cacao in the uplands of the forest. Starting in 2008, I started planting Nacional seedlings in a new research plot around our house. Initially I didn’t know enough to ask about the source of the seedlings. In subsequent years, I consulted two different seed sources. One was a municipal tree nursery. Another was a friend of mine who worked at INIAP and also grows his own cacao. At this point I was uneducated about all of the nuances of Nacional genetics, but I knew enough to understand that not all “Nacional” was created equal. I wanted the superior genetic stock, and so I probed my sources about the origin of their seeds. In both cases, they simply affirmed (with great certainty) that their seeds were Nacional cacao. When I probed further, they acknowledged that it was “Complejo Nacional,” which they said is basically the same thing as Nacional.
I ended up acquiring seeds from both sources, germinating them, and transplanting them into small experimental plots, and I labeled each individual tree according to its source. A few years later, when we were sending our first round of DNA samples from Piedra de Plata to the USDA’s genetic lab, I included a few leaf samples from cacao trees in the Jama-Coaque Reserve. Specifically, I included samples from the mid-century heirloom trees in the upland forest, as well as samples from the trees I had recently cultivated from the two unspecified Nacional sources. The samples taken from the old forest trees proved to be Heirloom Nacional. They were not genetically pure Nacional, but they were close. The sample taken from a tree grown from seed provided by the municipal nursery was within the Nacional genetic cluster, but it veered in the direction of Amelonado and Trinitario. The sample taken from a tree grown from seed harvested from an INIAP clone, which was claimed to be “Nacional,” was fully outside of the Nacional genetic cluster, and instead located in the Trinitario range. This is not representative of all INIAP clones and hybrids. Most INIAP trees at least reside within the Nacional genetic cluster. But in this case, it didn’t.
This is not to disparage INIAP clones and hybrids. By most measures, INIAP did an excellent job. They were given the task of increasing yields without excessively sacrificing aroma and flavor, and they largely succeeded. INIAP’s modern Nacional-inspired clones can be 4-8 times more productive than Ancient Nacional, reach maturity earlier, generally show higher resistance to disease, and are more tolerant of full sun exposure. To the untrained eye, these clones visually resemble true Nacional cacao, with their solid yellow pods, although there are a few morphological differences which the trained eye can discern.
Last but not least, INIAP’s Nacional-inspired cacao can make a very good dark chocolate. It’s true that its floral aroma has been muted, relative to pure Nacional, and the overall composition of the flavor profile has changed somewhat. But in terms of aroma and complexity, it still exceeds pretty much any other cacao variety in the world, in my opinion.
Nevertheless, INIAP’s version of Nacional and the nineteenth century’s version of Nacional are not the same thing. From morphology to genetics, from cultivation to flavor, these two faces of Nacional are different across the board, to varying degrees. Hence a question arises. When a chocolate maker puts “Nacional” on its label, what exactly does that mean? Which kind of Nacional cacao does that term refer to? Unless I can see the cacao trees from which it has been sourced, and inspect their fruit, and talk to the old man who cultivates it—if not run a DNA analysis on it—it’s hard to say. The aroma and flavor profile of the resulting chocolate will also certainly provide some important clues. And some may say that as long as the chocolate tastes good, it doesn’t matter. But I can’t help but to feel that it does matter, because one kind of Nacional is a product of ancient history and the other kind is a product of agro-economic science. Who is to say which is better, in the grand scheme of things?
In a biological sense, the intermingling of the genetic pool is a good thing. It promotes adaptation to evolving ecological pressures, such as disease and climate change. Genetic diversity is, after all, the mark of evolution, without which none of this would exist at all. Even if it was possible to go back to a situation in which all cacao in Ecuador was 100% Nacional, it would certainly not be preferable to do so. This is what left Ecuadorian cacao especially vulnerable to disease in the 1920s. But the extinction of Nacional cacao would undoubtedly be a loss. It would be a loss for Ecuador and also for the world of chocolate at large, both present and future.
I think a fair goal is to preserve Nacional cacao in its genetically pure form while also continuing to explore the evolution of Ecuadorian cacao. The point here, though, is that there is a difference between the various classes of Nacional cacao. And if the world of chocolate aims to take after the world of wine, these differences ought to be understood by the craftsmen who make the chocolate as well as the connoisseurs who enjoy it. Or at the very least, it should be explicitly labeled.
In a few billion years the sun will flame out and this will all be a moot argument. In the meantime, though, I propose a new way of classifying Ecuadorian Nacional cacao according to five distinctions.
Proposed Ecuadorian Nacional Cacao Classification System
- Ancient Nacional (aka Antigüo Nacional)
- Landrace Nacional
- Heirloom Nacional
- Complejo Nacional
- Modern Nacional
Note: Each of the pods pictured below are from trees in Piedra de Plata that were genetically analyzed by the USDA-ARS genetic lab. The tree number and the DNA profile of each tree is listed beneath each photograph.
Ancient Nacional (aka “Antigüo Nacional”)
Ancient Nacional refers to genetically pure Nacional cacao trees grown in coastal Ecuador that display a total absence of foreign germplasm and/or germplasm produced from agro-industrial cloning. Any coastal Ecuadorian cacao tree that was born before 1890 is almost certainly Ancient Nacional, and trees born before 1920 are most likely Ancient Nacional. HCP uses the term “Ancient Nacional” to label genetically pure Nacional in their genetic cluster map, hence our usage of the term here. The Spanish word for Ancient is “Antigüo,” which is the term we’ve been using with cacao growers in Piedra de Plata for the last few years to describe their old-growth pure Nacional trees. Whereas the English term “Ancient” tends to mean the distant past—as in, thousands of years—the Spanish term Antigüo is more liberally applied to age, and often simply means “very old.” In our opinion, both Ancient and Antigüo are good terms with which to classify the oldest Nacional cacao trees still in existence. Less than a fraction of one percent of Ecuadorian cacao is Ancient/Antigüo Nacional, and the few that still exist are typically found in remote mountainous areas of the province of Manabí and southern Esmeraldas. In the hierarchy of Nacional cacao, these old trees sit at the very top, and represent the most privileged sub-set of Heirloom Nacional. In the absence of DNA tests, Ancient Nacional trees can be distinguished by the pure yellow color of their pods, the distinctive shape of their pods (see photo), their age (discussed above), and pink stamen pedicels of the flowers (the stamen pedicels of most other cacao varieties are unpigmented).
Landrace Nacional: In the world of agriculture, “landrace” is defined as a dynamic population of a cultivated plant that has historical origin, distinct identity, lacks formal crop improvement, is locally adapted, and is often associated with traditional farming systems. In the world of cacao, Landrace Nacional refers to young plantings of genetically pure Nacional cacao—for example, young trees that have been grafted with Ancient Nacional scion wood, grown from seed from manually-pollinated Ancient Nacional trees, or grown from seed from open-pollinated trees in which both parents are Ancient Nacional trees. Landrace Nacional trees have the same genetic profile as Ancient Nacional, but they are younger and therefore do not yet deserve the term “Ancient”. Landrace Nacional cacao trees are the most secure genetic bank of Ancient Nacional the world has, and chocolate produced from Landrace Nacional is the most exciting prospect for the future of fine flavour cacao in Ecuador. Landrace Nacional represents a sub-set of Heirloom Nacional.
Heirloom Nacional: Heirloom designation is reserved for open-pollinated coastal Ecuadorian cacao trees whose DNA is at least 80% Nacional, a distinction drawn from the genetic cluster map produced by HCP in partnership with the USDA-ARS genetic lab. These are trees of primarily Nacional genetics, allowing for minor intrusions of one or several foreign cacao varieties in its family tree—i.e., small doses of Criollo, Upper Amazon Forastero, or Amelonado. Coastal Ecuadorian cacao trees born before or during the 1920’s, 1930s, and 1940s are most likely Heirloom Nacional, and those born during the 1950s and 1960s have a strong likelihood of being Heirloom Nacional—provided that they bear pods with closely similar morphology to Ancient Nacional. The same applies to open-pollinated younger trees (those born any time between the 1970s and today), so long as they match the profile of older Heirloom Nacional and their genetics are at least 85% Nacional. For example, trees reproduced from seed from trees that were planted in the first half of the 1900s that were also pollinated from trees of this same era—i.e., the progeny of two Heirloom parents. Most Heirloom Nacional pods are yellow or sometimes orange or reddish yellow.
We have seen some pods with a light reddish color that genetic tests revealed to be 80-85% Nacional, although it should be noted that the morphology of these pods was a close (albeit not perfect) match with the morphology of Ancient Nacional pods. In other words, it is possible (but not certain) that pods which accurately match the yellow color of Ancient Nacional pods, but have a slightly different shape than Ancient Nacional pods, are Heirloom. It is also possible (but not certain) that pods which accurately match the shape of Ancient Nacional pods, but have an orange or reddish hue, are Heirloom. But if a pod has any orange or reddish hue and its shape does not match the shape of Ancient Nacional, there is a very low probability that this pod is Heirloom. Using Loor’s estimate from 2002, less than 5% of Ecuadorian cacao is Heirloom Nacional. The current percentage may be considerably smaller. Ancient Nacional and Landrace Nacional are sub-sets within the broader Heirloom Nacional classification. Heirloom Nacional cacao represents the upper echelon of fine flavor cacao in the world today.
Complejo Nacional: In Ecuador, this term is used for any and all cacao pods in which endemic National genes are intermixed with foreign cacao genes, so long as CNN-51 is not included. A more precise definition, derived from the USDA’s genetic profile of samples we’ve taken at Piedra de Plata and the Jama-Coaque Reserve, would award the Complejo Nacional designation to trees that are at least 50% Nacional. A harvest batch in which various classes of cacao are intermixed—for example, a batch in which Heirloom and Modern and Complejo are all included—would be called Complejo Nacional. Cacao processed by Fortaleza del Valle, in Calceta, is a good example of Complejo Nacional—it is cacao sourced from many different producers of many different kinds of Nacional cacao. Complejo Nacional represents the vast majority of Ecuadorian cacao that is not CCN-51. Morphologically, Complejo Nacional pods are heterogeneous. The color of the pods can be solid yellow or mostly yellow with shades of red or orange, even dark red, and the trees can be any age. The flavor profile is also diverse, but is undoubtedly considered “fine flavour” and is fully capable of producing some of the finest dark chocolate in the world. Complejo Nacional is still among the most prestigious distinctions of cacao across the entire industry.
Modern Nacional: This term is used specifically for Nacional-based clones and hybrids, as well as descendants therefrom, developed by INIAP or other agricultural institutes in the interest of increasing yields for commercial production. Examples include EET-19, EET-48, EET-96, EET-103, EET-544, EET-575, EET-800, EET-801, etc. However, CCN-51 is not included in this classification. Like Complejo Nacional, Modern Nacional can be solid yellow or include shades of orange or red, and the shape of its pods can also vary. Some INIAP clones (for example EET-103) closely resembles Ancient Nacional in both color and shape, although genetically and organoleptically it is quite different. A harvest batch which only includes INIAP clones would be classified Modern Nacional. However, if more than a negligible share of Complejo Nacional seeds were mixed in with this batch, then the whole batch would be classified Complejo Nacional. Modern Nacional is still considered “fine flavour” cacao and is capable of making high quality dark chocolate, if terroir and other factors are favorable. Modern Nacional is a sub-set of Complejo Nacional.
Next Level Assessments
The above classification system would be an improvement over the current situation, but it’s still a generalization. Genetics are just one part of the story. Terrior and plantation management also wield a massive influence on the final result. A more complete picture of the quality of a given cacao, up until the point of harvest, can be determined by these questions (in descending order of importance):
- What are the soil, climate, sun aspect, and elevational conditions of the site on which the cacao is grown?
- What is the level of genetic homogeneity or heterogeneity of the cacao individuals that comprise the plantation?
- Is the cacao grown in a monoculture or polyculture?
- If it’s a polyculture, which other plants and trees are associated with cacao, and at which densities?
- Is it sun-grown or shade-grown? If shade-grown, what percent of the canopy is closed?
- Is fertilizer applied? If so, what kind?
- Are chemical pesticides or herbicides used?
- Is supplemental irrigation provided?
- Is it well-pruned, or left unattended?
Then there is one final question: is the cacao cultivated with love and tenderness? I have no science to back this last part up, but my sense is that cacao cultivated by slave labor will render chocolate that is unsound for human consumption. Cacao that is cultivated by cold science and industry will render chocolate that is vapid and uninspiring. And cacao that is cultivated by an earnest steward of the land will render chocolate that is possessed of higher qualities.
 Lanaud C., Loor Solórzano R.G., Zarillo S. & Valdez F. (2012) Origen de la domesticación del cacao y su uso temprano en el Ecuador, Nuestro Patrimonio 34: 12-14.
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