What Makes Belizean Cacao So Special? Understanding Genetics of Belizean Cacao Beans
By Dan O’Doherty & Minehaha Forman
In the rapidly growing world of specialty craft chocolate, Belize has earned its place among the fine flavored origins of cacao. Known for its unique fruity/caramel flavor, Belize cacao has won numerous awards in recent years.
Cacao beans originating from Maya villages in the Toledo district of Belize and processed by Maya Mountain Cacao, Ltd (MMC) recently received an heirloom designation from the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA). The cacao sample was made into chocolate and blind-tasted by a panel of nine veteran chocolate companies including Guittard, Valrhona, and Felchlin. Panelists universally praised the sample for its overall high quality, as well as its unique and fine flavor attributes.
With so much fanfare around Belize cacao in specialty chocolate circles, it begs the question: What makes Belize cacao special? As part of the FCIA heirloom designation, MMC partnered with expert cacao agronomist and president of Cacao Services, Inc., Dan O’Doherty, to genotype local trees. “Heirloom status is not dependent on genetic heritage, but part of the designation process is genetic identification. This allows the trees to be recognized and preserved for future generations of cacao growers,” writes O’Doherty.
The long-held assumption about Belize cacao genetics was that local trees were predominantly a Trinitario/Criollo cross. However, the results from genotyping show a very different genetic picture. To determine the genetic background of the specific lot of beans that were submitted for heirloom designation, O’Doherty collected leaf samples from individual farms in the villages of San Antonio, Santa Elena, and Pueblo Viejo in the Toledo District. The samples were shipped to the USDA-ARS, where DNA was extracted from the leaves and genotyping was performed. The USDA-ARS has a large database of genotypes from cacao samples collected around the world. By comparing new samples to the database, it is possible to determine the numerous varietals that comprise the population of Belizean cacao
“A genetic analysis of 50 trees from six different farms in Toledo revealed that only one of the 50 trees could be accurately described as classic Trinitario (i.e., Amelonado x Criollo), and this tree had less than 25% Criollo ancestry. There is no evidence of hybridization of Belizean (ancient) Criollo with the modern hybrid cacao varieties grown by Maya villagers in Belize,” O’Doherty writes.
But what about those white cacao beans we find on farms all over Toledo and South Stann Creek? It’s not uncommon to find white cacao beans in cacao harvested in southern Belize, but according to O’Doherty, not all white beans are related to Criollo cacao. While ancient Criollo, (notably characterized for its white—instead of purple—beans), exists in remote areas of Belize, Criollo did not make a major contribution to the gene pool of Belizean cacao in MMC’s genotyping results.
White seeds are not exclusive to criollo cacao; in fact, they may be an indicator of a number of other varieties present in Central America, most notably the Amelonado varietal known as Catongo that originates from Brazil, according to O’Doherty:
“While there is a small number of pure Amelonado trees, the genotyping showed that most Belizean cacao trees are mixed hybrids. In most cases, the results showed that Amelonado is the dominant parent type, but upper Amazon Forastero types (Iquitos/Nanay, Paranari, Ecuadorian Nacional) are represented in varying degrees. Trinitario is also represented in the genetic background of many trees, but in low proportions. Historical and anecdotal reports from farmers suggest that Cadbury and Hershey’s introduced commercial cacao hybrids into South and Central Belize during the 1970’s and 80’s. The native criollo types in Belize are growing in small numbers and in relative isolation from villages. As a result, there has been little opportunity for cross pollination and hybridization between introduced and Criollo trees.
“Amelonado is a cacao that originates from the lower Amazon basin, and is the traditional variety grown in West Africa, Bahia state in Brazil, and historically on the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica. Iquitos/Nanay and Paranari populations originate in the upper Amazon basin of Peru. The famous Nacional cacao of Ecuador is also technically an upper Amazon type, but has been inbred and domesticated to favor unique and desirable qualities. Aside from several countries in South America where cacao is indigenous, most cacao is typically a blend of several populations. Other than the domesticated Criollo varietal, cacao grown in Central America was imported from a limited number of sources. The complex interactions between genetics, climate, and soil—referred to as terroir—are still poorly understood at present. However, Belize has several unique factors that may be partly responsible for the excellent and unique flavor of its cacao. For example, the country extends into the northern bounds of commercial cacao cultivation and experiences especially cool weather during winter months. Southern Belize is also known for its unique soils and particularly high levels of rainfall,” O’Doherty writes.
Whether it’s the genetics, the terroir, or, more likely, a bit of both, Belize has a lot to be proud of in becoming a darling origin of the burgeoning craft chocolate industry.
Regarding the genetic analysis, the first horizontal bar at the top is the Belize genetics sequencing, with the peach color representing Amelonado, the green and red is Upper Amazon Foresteros, yellow is ancient Nacional, and the blue is Criollo. Each vertical color strip within the horizontal bar represents the genetics of a single tree and there were 50 trees tested all showing along the horizontal bar. In order to be fully Trinitario, it would have to be only amelonado and criollo which only one of the samples in the first horizontal bar (belize) of the 50 is Trinitario (cross of Amelonado and Criollo and even that one example is mostly Amelonado–the peach color vs the blue color).
The second and third horizontal bars going from top to bottom are other countries by comparison to the top bar, which is Belize.