Article by Rowan Jacobsen
Images by Alyssa D’Adamo
What do we mean when we say something is “wild”? To most of us, something is wild if it’s untamed, uncivilized, still living in an area with minimal human influence, and thus a good representative of how things used to be before people remade the world to their own tastes.
But that’s not what we mean when we talk about wild criollo, one of the most prized cacaos in the world. In fact, we kind of mean the opposite. For centuries, criollo was the most civilized of all cacaos. For thousands of years, in its slow journey from South America to Central America, it was transformed by people who kept planting the palest seeds, because those seeds had fewer of the polyphenol compounds that give cacao its purple color and its bitter and astringent qualities.
By the time Maya civilization brought chocolate to its cultural heights, criollo was one of the most refined crops in the world. And it had the narrow genetic profile to prove it. It was more Siamese cat than jaguar.
And we all know what happened next. The Spanish arrived, criollo cacao cultivation expanded, first in Mesoamerica and then around the planet, and soon diseases were decimating it both abroad and in its homeland. Then came industrial agriculture and the introduction of new varieties and selected hybrids designed to resist disease and improve yields (at the expense of flavor).
The result was that what we call criollo today is not the same as the criollo revered in Mesoamerica before the 1700s. Modern criollos are a mix between ancient criollo and other introduced cacaos. Cacao trees cross-pollinate, so even the seeds of a “pure” criollo will contain a mixture of genes from the mother tree and from other cacao trees in the vicinity that provide the pollen.
These remnant populations are the genetic motherlodes, the direct links to chocolate’s heyday, the only true taste of what it was like way back when. That makes them incredibly important for chocolate’s future, as both breeding stock and inspiration. If you can find them.
That, of course, was one of HCP’s primary goals on its Guatemala journey, a goal that gains urgency as the last forests in Central America get cleared, both legally and illegally, and the cacao goes with them. Sometimes it can feel like a hopeless battle, but we can now say that our hopes are much higher than they were a few weeks ago. This is one of those rare cases where results easily exceeded our expectations.
It all started with Erick Ac’s groundwork. Erick sent out his feelers across the country, pinpointing two communities where wild criollo could make a stand, and where HCP support could make the difference. The first is Santa María Tzejá, a Mayan village in the tropical rainforest near the Mexican border that was only settled in 1970 (by Mayans fleeing persecution by the Guatemalan ruling class). Before that, the area probably hadn’t been occupied since the times of the ancient Maya—which makes it just the kind of place where you’d hope ancient criollo might still be found.
And it was! Last year, Erick’s brother Luis taught a training workshop for fine-cacao farming to cacao growers in the Santa María Tzejá region. Luis preached the gospel of criollo, and after the workshop, a farmer named Eduardo Juarez contacted Erick and said he thought he might have some wild criollo trees near him.
The search for wild criollo is a bit like the search for Bigfoot. Most of the sightings don’t pan out. Many farmers in Guatemala refer to any cacao planted from seed as “criollo,” so Erick has learned to take all leads with a grain of salt. But Eduardo said that no one he knew had planted the trees, and that the pods were very small. That was enough to get Erick’s attention, so when the HCP gave him the opportunity to check out these kinds of leads, Eduardo’s name was near the top of his list.
The day got even better. At other spots in the forest, they found a second wild phenotype, with larger pods, and then a third, with red pods and white seeds. The trees were growing in deep shade, which was impressive, but Erick thinks a little less shade and a dash of fertilizer could make a huge improvement in pod production.
It was hard to tell who was more excited, Erick or Eduardo. Santa María Tzejá was a goldmine of ancient criollo genetics, and Eduardo said that other farmers in neighboring villages had told him they knew of similar trees in their woods. Erick plans on checking those out on his next visit.
For now, they germinated some seeds from the pods, with the goal of starting a clonal garden, and they grafted 30 trees with the budwood they collected. If all goes well, in two years they should have enough production to make some test batches of chocolate.
In the meantime, the main goal is to make sure none of the wild trees get cut down. Last year, the electric company tried to clear a swath of forest where some of the cacao trees were growing, but Eduardo stopped them. “We need more farmers like this!” Erick says.
Jacob had learned of this cacao a few years ago, when he came to check out Uaxactún because of its participation in a project meant to find ways for remote communities to live sustainably off a protected area. That meant finding “non-timber forest products” that could generate income, such as honey, allspice, chicle (for chewing gum), and xaté, a leaf used for floral arrangements. But cacao could quickly become the heart of the program.
That all started about 60 years ago, when the father of Don Chico Pop noticed two wild cacao trees in the forest where he lived, growing near some ancient Maya ruins. He used to pick the pods and use the pulp and seeds at home. Don Chico was 13 at the time, and ever since, he has been stewarding the trees. A few years ago, he began planting seeds from them. He and his family have now planted about 3,500.
Now, a month later, the HCP team was thrilled to find these beans awaiting us. They smelled great. Perhaps enough for an HCP micro-sample? At the very least, it’s enough to make a little chocolate and do a little analysis. So we’ll soon know a lot more about the genetics and flavor of this emissary from chocolate’s golden period.
Next steps: Erick will be teaching the Uaxactún community how to graft, how to establish a nursery and clonal garden, and how to cultivate new orchards.
For Jacob Marlin, this Uaxactún experience couldn’t have been a better example of why HCP decided to become more proactive in its mission. “These discovery activities are critical!” he says. “No one else is doing this!” Sure, it would be easier to simply assess samples as they are submitted, but then we’re almost sure to miss the most endangered and interesting ones of all. “We have to find these really fine-flavor cacaos before they’re lost,” he says. “If we just wait for the occasional sample to come in, we get a couple here and there, but if we’re actively out there like this, we’re gonna get dozens.”
So expect HCP to stay actively out there, country by country. One essential thing we learned on these first trips is that there’s still time. There’s still a lot of fascinating, forgotten cacao out there to be discovered. But we’re in the mission-critical period, as forests fall and farms turn over. So please keep checking back here for more updates, as we get to know the cacaos from Mexico and Guatemala and begin to move forward on future trips.
And please spread the word. Heirloom cacao will only be preserved if people fall in love with it. Fortunately, that’s usually the easy part.
Written by Rowan Jacobsen
Images/Video by Alyssa D'Adamo
The little country of Guatemala does not make many people’s lists of fine-cacao paradises, but it’s been on HCP’s radar for years. Here in the heartland of the Maya, chocolate appreciation stretches back to oldest antiquity. Long before cacao was a cash crop, people here were growing a few trees in their yard for personal use, and many still do. Sometimes it feels like everywhere we turn, there’s another strange and fascinating heirloom tree.
And he’s taken us everywhere to meet them. From the fertile, volcanic Pacific coast, which was famous for its cacao orchards 500 years ago, to the Alta Verapaz highlands where his own farm is located, to the steamy lowlands of Petén, in search of wild cacao. At all these locations, Erick’s been doing the detailed work needed to establish new sources of superb cacao.
So this seems like the perfect time to explain not just how we do this work, but why it’s so necessary. And for that, it’s worth backtracking a little bit.
HCP was founded in 2012 for the purpose of recognizing and honoring the world’s greatest sources of fine-flavor heirloom cacao, as a way of ensuring that they wouldn’t suddenly disappear. The criteria were rigorous. Applicants had to wow our tasting panel in a blind test, and they had to be genetically interesting. Since then, HCP has designated 17 heirlooms, from 11 different countries.
But in order to pass the test, these farms already had to be operating at an elite level. They had to have great cacao, they had to nail the flavor in their post-harvest processing, and they had to be large enough to submit 8 kilograms of well-fermented beans. In other words, these were the All-Stars, and they were already playing in the major leagues.
But for there to be a major league, of course, there needs to be minor leagues, a feeder system of potential phenoms still in development. This might be small farms with great flavor genetics but little knowledge about how to coax those flavors out of the fermentation process, or it could be small numbers of heirloom trees on established farms that are getting mixed in with less interesting varieties, or it might even be wild trees still clinging to existence in the jungle.
HCP realized that to preserve fine cacao, it wasn’t enough to acknowledge the reigning masters. We somehow needed to find the unknown cacaos—especially those with a tenuous grasp on existence—and help them get started on the path to becoming the next generation of prized beans and flourishing farms.
And that’s what we’re doing. The process got underway last year, with the release of the Review of Cacao Explorations and Germplasm Movements, produced by Lambert Motilal at Trinidad’s Cocoa Research Center with support from HCP and the Lesley Family Foundation. That 289-page opus provided a roadmap of cacao genetics around the world, showing how cacao had spread from its Amazon birthplace, and pinpointing the places most likely to still harbor great flavor varieties that had escaped the transition to mass-market bulk cacao in the 20th century.
The answer is that you need on-the-ground partners like Erick, who already know the lay of the land. In Erick’s case, this knowledge came through years of consulting with farmers across the country, helping them to pivot toward fine-flavor cacao production.
That learning process started with his own farm. It’s named Finca Ana Maria, after his mother. He started the farm with his father and his six brothers back in 2006. The family had always grown corn, but they had become increasingly concerned about corn’s impact on the land. “Corn is very intensive,” says Erick. “It’s necessary to use chemicals. And you have to remove the whole forest. You don’t leave anything on the land.” They preferred cacao, because it could be part of a mixed agroforestry system that conserved soil and water and sequestered carbon. “It’s a really good crop,” Erick says. “A lot of co-benefits."
But after exploring different models, Erick quickly saw that growing bulk cacao was never going to be commercially viable. Like most farms in Guatemala, Finca Ana Maria was too small to compete on price with large cacao plantations. The only thing that made sense was to grow specialty cacao that would command top dollar.
Thus began years of experimentation. The surrounding area of Alta Verapaz actually had lots of great criollo strains, mixed in with more modern Trinitario introductions. Why not try them all? “One of my principles is that all cacao varieties in Guatemala have the potential to produce very good flavors,” Erick says. But each is going to require a different regimen of weeding, pruning, shade regulation, nutrition, and fermentation. “There’s no fixed rule,” Erick says. “You always have to experiment.”
Erick was particularly keen to play around with the many white-seeded cacaos in the region, despite their reputation for being poor producers, because he knew they were in demand. And he found that their bad reputation was a myth, started by “experts” who had only worked with modern hybrids. “People say that white-bean trees are too low-yielding and too susceptible to disease,” he says, “but we’ve shown that Criollos are equal or better producers than the best Trinitarios.” The gamble paid off, as Finca Ana Maria’s white-bean trees have delivered strong yields and have been snapped up by European chocolatiers at $9–10/kilo. “The economic model is working really well,” Erick says.
So Erick already had a hit list in mind, a mixture of active and semi-abandoned farms. We just had to tag along for the groundtruthing. This is the heart of the HCP discovery work. You find farms with interesting cacao. You take photos of every notable tree. Trees that seem the most promising get geotags and complete morphological descriptions of flowers, leaves, pods, everything. How old are they? How are they being managed? What’s the soil like? The climate? How does the pulp taste? Are they healthy? Do we know anything about where they came from? Then you take some pods and leaves for later analysis.
Most of these rare trees don’t exist in numbers sufficient to produce the 8 kilograms of dried beans needed for a full-blown HCP tasting panel assessment. Maybe there are only a handful of the trees. Maybe just one. So the first goal is to get these trees into the development leagues.
Step 1: Don’t let them get cut down! That part is obvious, but it can still be challenging.
Step 2: Make more of them! Plant seeds in a nursery. Take budwood cuttings from individual trees and use them to establish clonal gardens of identical trees, so a single windstorm or chainsaw can’t push the variety into extinction. The clonal gardens also become a living laboratory, where you can learn what makes this variety happy.
Step 3: Spread the love! Once you have enough seedlings in your nursery, make them available to other farmers, along with information on how to manage them. That’s how a new heirloom is born.
by Rowan Jacobsen
Photo and video by Alyssa D'Adamo
Here we are in Soconusco at last, that fertile coastal plain at the tail end of Mexico, not far from the Guatemala border, where the art of chocolate may well have begun. We’re walking a sizzling-hot field of cashew trees that looks like every other farmer’s field in Soconusco, but the pottery sherds littering the soil tell us otherwise. We’re with Ayax Moreno, Mexico’s best known archaeological illustrator, who was here in 1995 when these fields were exhumed to reveal Paso de la Amada, one of the oldest major sites in Mesoamerica.
We know this because the Aztecs considered Soconusco to possess the finest cacao in the world. They conquered it in the 1400s for that very reason. The deal was that the province of Soconusco had to send 200 cargas (about 5 million beans) to the Aztec capital every year, or there’d be trouble. When the Spanish took over, they kept the same deal: 5 million beans, every year.
For centuries, Soconusco remained Cacao Central. A survey of one Soconusco town in 1582 found that 83% of the households had cacao orchards, with an average of 343 trees per household. Soconusco still has a reputation for growing some of the best cacao in the world, but the market has shifted. Today, it’s in hot demand in neighboring Oaxaca, drinking-chocolate capital of the universe. (Mexico City’s handful of bean-to-bar makers also snap it up.) Only a tiny trickle makes it onto the international market. Ironically, due to local demand, what was once the most famous cacao in the world has become a well-kept secret.
What made that cacao so desirable, of course, was that it was Criollo: white-beaned, less bitter, deliciously nutty. Criollo probably developed here from earlier strains in Colombia and Venezuela as the people of Mesoamerica kept planting the palest, least-bitter seeds from their favorite trees in their ongoing quest for the ultimate cup of chocolate.
Part of it was cultural—the old farmers just liked their old varieties. “It would be a sin to cut down trees my great-grandfather planted,” one of them told us. Part of it was Oaxaca, which was hooked on Soconusco’s white beans and willing to pay well for them. But part of it was just smart farming. The new government strains were bred for success on nice, flat research stations whose conditions bore little resemblance to the hardscrabble realities of Soconusco hill farms, and the farmers knew it. As one experienced farmer in the valley of Chamulapita told us, “What works at their research station doesn’t work at my farm, 200 meters higher and on the other side of the mountain.” And the reason his trees DO work is because he and his family have been planting them from seed, generation after generation, as the cacao genetics constantly morphed to match the place.
One thing you immediately notice in Soconusco’s commercial farms is the prehistoric look of its cacao. If there was any doubt as to the uniqueness of the genetics, the morphology of the pods puts that to rest. The range is phenomenal, but what stands out is the number sporting the classic Criollo dinosaur-egg look: elongated pods, “lagardo” tails, patinated skin, and raised ridges, as if the five plates had been welded together. It just feels old.
But wait, that’s not the only exhibit in the museum. We encountered two other gems to stir the passions of any heirloom-cacao junkie. The first was INIFAP, Mexico’s National Institute for Forestry, Agriculture, and Livestock Research. Carlos Hugo Avendaño Arrazate directs its vaunted experimental cacao plot, which he calls a “showroom for farmers.” Every possible permutation of planting density, shading strategy, trellising technique, and varietal is on display, so a prospective farmer can simply walk around and see what might work on his farm. Then he can take a few cuttings of his favorite discovery and propagate them at home.
Fascinated by the genetic diversity of the plant, Moises collected widely through Chiapas, Tabasco, and Central America, planting his favorites at Finca la Rioja. Then he stopped. Somewhere around World War II, the orchard froze in time.
In the late 20th century, Moises divided the estate among his sons. Most of them had no interest in cacao and cut down the old trees, replacing them with coffee or sugarcane or whatever could give them the most bang for the buck. (One of Moises’ descendants, José Maria Pascacio, has revived the name Finca la Rioja for the part of the old estate that he inherited and replanted, and that cacao won a gold at the 2021 Cocoa of Excellence Awards, becoming the first Mexican cacao to do so since Clara Echeverria’s famed Finca la Joya ten years earlier.)
But one son, Anselmo, was as romantic about cacao as his father. He couldn’t bring himself to cut down the trees he’d grown up with. So he left them untouched, abandoned, a living time capsule. Even the fabrication room is frozen in time, filled with Lehmann mills and melangers from before World War II. (In the 1970s, the president of Lehmann actually showed up on the farm, offering to buy the machines back from Anselmo, for Lehmann’s own showroom. But Anselmo declined, and here they sit still.)
Now Anselmo’s grandson, Pablo Muguerza, is dedicating himself to reviving the orchard. Of the remaining 20 hectares, Pablo has restored about 10. He has no idea what varieties these centurions might belong to—there are no records—and he can’t afford to sequence their DNA, but it’s obvious by their crazy colors and shapes that they belong to a lost world that may exist nowhere but inside this walled garden. A delicious world, too—Pablo has his own boutique equipment, and his chocolate was some of the best we tasted in Mexico. But Pablo struggles to find the resources needed to continue the restoration of the ancient estate and to propagate the old trees. If there was ever a project just waiting for HCP to come along, this felt like the one.
We left Soconusco feeling like the whole place was a showroom for heirloom cacao culture. Not nearly as much cacao grows here as in the glory days—coffee, mangos, cattle ranches, and cities have all cut into the acreage—but its hills are still filled with smart farmers growing great varieties you won’t find elsewhere. This is how it should be. An educated market just up the road with a taste for those beans and a willingness to pay for them. And an emphasis on sustainability, continuity, and tradition. It was a great reminder that in the fight to preserve cacao culture, there’s still a lot worth preserving.
And that’s a wrap for Phase 1 of our trip. Thank you, Mexico! You were never dull, and always tasty. Next up: Guatemala—heartland of the Maya, and one of the rising stars of heirloom cacao.