Does origin determine quality? Does it even matter?

What country does your chocolate bar boast?  Madagascar? Bolivia? Indonesia? It's becoming almost expected now to showcase the origin of cacao on a chocolate bar.  Fifteen to twenty years ago, manufacturers were pushing the idea of percentage.  Nowadays, most people assume higher percentage equates to higher quality.  Of course, percentage has nothing to do with quality, as you can read from an earlier post

Today, people are being confronted with the country or region the cacao is grown.  This marketing tactic began as early as 1984 by chocolate manufacturer Bonnat in France.  The fine chocolate industry in Europe adopted this idea in the late 20th Century, and today it can be found on commercial chocolate including Lindt and even Trader Joe's brand chocolate bars. 

Consumers seem to appreciate this idea, and have assumed that therefore the origin is important to them.  Surely a chocolate maker who can be more transparent with where their cacao comes from must be producing better quality chocolate.  Perhaps even better tasting.  Is this true? Does origin actually determine quality?


A look into the facts

The short answer is no.  The origin of cacao doesn't determine quality, and only hints at the quality of flavour.  There are factors tied to origin that do add to the quality of a chocolate bar, but like percentage, it's not safe to assume that clearly labeled origin on your bar dictates quality.  You also can't assume that because you have enjoyed quality chocolate made with cacao beans from, let's say Peru, that any future chocolate labelled "Peru" will be of the same quality, or even taste as similar.

Much of the research revolving around the flavour of cacao and the final product, chocolate, highlight steps during the process of chocolate making.  It's the process that has a huge impact on the the final flavour of the chocolate.  This doesn't mean origin is not important, but unfortunately, most of the research that links properties of cacao to origin analyzed yield and growth, not flavour.  John Kongor looks into chocolate flavour and terroir in the following article:

John Edem Kongor et al. Factors influencing quality variation in cocoa (Theobroma cacao) bean flavour profile. Food Research International, Vol. 82 (2016) 44–52.

There is very little if any research today that links properties of the origin of the cacao beans to properties in the final chocolate bar. Most of the research highlights how the process (harvesting, fermenting, conching, and so on) affect flavour of chocolate, not how soil or climate affect it.   Until more explicit evidence exists, its only safe to assume origin likely has some effect on chocolate flavour, but what exactly that is requires further research.  It's more likely to state that origin has an effect on the cacao bean flavour, but it seems as the the processing of the bean has a greater impact on the flavour. 

How origin or "terroir" is defined also makes a difference.  Terroir is often associated with soil, climate, terrain, but also sometimes with interaction between species.  It appears that the species or varieties of yeasts and bacteria during fermentation also impact the flavor of the cacao, and these differ according to geographic region.  Perhaps the unique cacao flavours within origins have more to do with local fauna and their impact on flavour during fermentation.  Some makers have experimented by introducing specific strains of microbes into the fermentation process, which appears to alter the flavour.  


Wine & Cheese

What about the idea of terroir in regards to wine and cheese?  Can this not be applied to chocolate?  It appears to be common knowledge that crops grown in different regions around the world will produce different products.  This idea of terroir has been associated with wine for a long time.  People have learned that, for instance, the same variety or clone of grapes grown in different vineyards, or even the same vineyard grown in different areas of the vineyard, produce grapes of varying flavour or properties.  Can't this apply to cacao?  It appears it can.  Bill Nesto wrote an article that covers just this, and is worth reading. 

Bill Nesto. Discovering Terroir in the World of Chocolate. Gastronomica, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Winter 2010), pp. 131-135.

There is reason to believe that cacao beans grown in different regions do produce beans with varying traits, including flavour.  Some of that is connected to the variety of cacao as well, but many chocolate makers discuss how batches of cacao beans from the same plantations or region may differ from year to year.  However, is it terroir, or is it that perhaps practises had shifted slightly?  Especially since growing and fermenting cacao isn't as regulated as it is for the wine and dairy industry.  It isn't enough to simply take what's known for wine and cheese and apply it to chocolate.  


Ways you can't compare chocolate to wine and cheese

Real parmesan must come from the Italian provinces of Parma and Reggio Emilia (among others), and real champagne as we know must come from the Champagne region of France.  Both of these products must be made within the borders of these regions, and abide by strict guidelines of processing and aging.  This is mostly a matter of product authenticity, and holding claim to a specific cheese or wine.  The grass the cows in parma eat do affect the flavour of the milk used to produce Parmigiano-Reggiano. This is why grass fed cows produce dairy that tastes very different from the dairy of grain fed cows. As well, the climate in the Champagne region will affect the properties of the grapes. 

However, the flavour and quality doesn't depend just on terroir.  It also depends on practises and processing techniques, and practises that have been strictly guarded and enforced.  These sorts of strict regulated and monitored practises used for wine and cheese are not also used for cacao and chocolate.  As well, a big difference here with wine and cheese is that chocolate is not made where the cacao is grown.  The influence the cacao growing region has on how chocolate is made is very small if nonexistent at all.  Of course, there are exceptions. Today there are growers in Madagascar, Vietnam, and Peru who grow their own cacao and make their own chocolate as well, but this makes up a single digit percentage of all the chocolate made in the world. 


Guidelines are not regional

Often, how the growers process their cacao depends on local traditions, what's most cost-effective for them, and sometimes what the chocolate makers have asked of them. Many cacao growers today will work with chocolate makers or leaders in the industry to produce cacao beans that makers are willing to pay a premium for.  Therefore, cacao coming from Peru can vary between quality depending on who was growing and fermenting it, as not everyone abides by the same restrictions.  There is no regulating body in the country of Peru for instance, which dictates how cacao should be processed.  Therefore, different makers who use cacao from Peru are not always using the same cacao.  

There are agencies being established that do analyze the flavour of cacao beans, and there are individuals in the industry who go around and help improve the flavour of the cacao grown on individual plantations, but it's not to the extent in which wine and cheese are regulated. 


What can be said for origin

Cacao grown in different parts of the world, and within different regions will differ in properties of flavour.  How much is related to terroir and how much is related to variety or other factors is still up for further analysis.  Chocolate made with cacao from Ecuador more often than not carries aromas of earthy, nutty, toasted, while cacao from Peru tends to be more fruity, and cacao from Ecuador tends to be more citrus-like or acidic.  Chocolate made with cacao from Indonesia is often smokey, but this has to do with how the cacao beans are dried more than anything else.  As well, the cacao grown in all these regions differ in their genetic makeup, which needs to be taken into consideration as well.  There have been studies that link variety to cacao pulp flavour, which then is directly linked to the cocoa bean and chocolate flavour.

It seems obvious that there is a connection then between flavour of chocolate and origin.  However, as stated above, the evidence for that, aside from observations, is lacking.  It doesn't mean origin isn't important, but how important it is to the final flavour of chocolate is debatable.  Chocolate goes through a minimum of 12 steps from harvesting to the final chocolate bar, many of which greatly alter the composition molecules and aromas within the cacao bean and chocolate.  

There is a level of expectation when it comes to origin and flavour as mentioned above.  However, this still doesn't connect origin or terroir to quality.  Quality takes into account not only flavour quality, but texture, numerous processing techniques (which vary within an origin of where cacao was grown), and ethics to name a few.  One origin (which can be as small as a plantation or as large as a country) can produce cacao beans within a range of quality and flavour.  For example, to assume chocolate made with cacao beans from Ecuador is always going to be of high quality is ridiculous.  Take origin into consideration, but don't allow it to be a deciding factor of quality.  It can be at best a deciding factor in the range of flavours you may expect.  


You're a better judge

What matters more is your informed and critical analysis of the flavour, and perhaps understanding of the manufacturer as well. Once you have found a chocolate maker who produces quality products, you can use the idea of origin to guide your choices when it comes to expected range of flavour (is it more likely to be nutty or fruity?).  As well, the fact that a manufacturer knows or lists the origin of cacao on the chocolate bar doesn't mean they are producing quality chocolate.  There are chocolate makers who lack the skill and expertise to produce quality chocolate, even though it appears they know what they are doing.  Origin listed on bars can be found on small scale makers to large commercial chocolate factories, all with varying levels of quality. 


Make your decisions based on more than what you just see on the package.  Don't fall into the same misconceptions that people do when it comes to percentage.  Origin says something, but it doesn't say it all, and it doesn't indicate quality.