We can’t have it all.
This is the ugly reality in the chocolate industry. With the long-lasting fear of a potential cocoa shortage, the future holds only one option. It’s either more chocolate with less flavor or less chocolate with more flavor.
Fine flavor is a concern only for craft chocolate makers and small players. The rest of the market, made of big manufacturers, has stopped worrying about flavor a long time ago. Quantity is queen, and it has found her loyal servant in something called CCN-51.
As chocolate educator and trainer Jeffrey Stern tells us in his blog:
“Developed in the 1970s by Homer U. Castro, Ecuador’s CCN-51 cacao variety did not become widely planted in Ecuador until the 1997-98 El Niño event which wiped out a great deal of Nacional crop, and the losses suffered by Nacional growers during this period prompted many to switch to CCN-51”.
The characteristics of CCN-51 appeal to those that prioritize productivity. This is in fact a high yield kind of cacao that can grow in full sun and is resistant to fungal diseases. It produces four times more than fine flavor varieties. A real cacao machine!
But it’s not gold all that shines. CCN-51 is also known for its mediocre, if not awful flavor that chocolate expert Ed Seguine defines as “acidic dirt”. In a more polite way, top craft chocolate reviewer C-Spot emphasizes the lack of a “flavorful rainbow” in any new and improved varieties of CCN-51.
Presented as the solution to a potential cocoa shortage, this kind of cacao is dreaded by fine palates. But what is dreaded by fine palates is often a matter of survival for farmers. The high-productivity of CCN-51 can be a blessing for cocoa farmers that are dealing with wages below the poverty line.
We can now understand why CCN-51 unleashes a wide range of emotions among chocolate professionals. Opinions are different and vary based on expertise and specific positions in the supply chain.
Here are the biggest topics of such tangled debate.
FLAVOR – Is there any potential?
The topic of flavor in regards to CCN-51 counts 3 different opinions.
One team of professionals believes that CCN-51 can taste great. The second swears on its horrible flavor. The third accepts it only when mixed with something else.
With a good dose of optimism, some say that post-harvesting practices can make CCN-51 taste good or even great. For example, quality can be improved by reducing the pulp content. In addition, another useful practice is pre-drying, that eliminates some typical sour notes. But these thoughtful practices might not be enough for CCN-51 to gain respect.
For many, this inferior variety could never reach an acceptable flavor. They consider it a “slutty” variety that only serves big chocolate manufacturers. It could never compete with the Olympus of fine flavor varieties. They believe CCN-51 will never be material for craft chocolate makers.
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Others have a more moderate opinion. They can see some uses of CCN-51. Mixed with fine cacao, it can find its success among flavored chocolate, pastry chefs or anywhere the flavor of cacao is not really on the spotlight.
PRICE – When the conversation is deeper than it seems.
It’s objective that CCN-51 is cheaper than fine flavor cacao. Therefore, cocoa farmers get less money for their cocoa beans. However, farmers argue that the difference in price between CCN-51 and fine flavor cacao doesn’t justify the hustle of caring about quality.
CCN-51 is a productive and resistant variety that doesn’t give too much headache. On the other side, fine cacao can be a pain; very delicate and low-productive in comparison. It seems like the usual battle between quality and quantity. But when the difference in price is small, the decision is not always obvious.
On the other side, there is a tragic scenario that cocoa farmers in Latin America might face if they decide to devote their lands to CCN-51. Their cacao will lose all the splendor and reputation it once held. It could decrease to the same level of quality of West African cacao.
Offering the same product, countries like Ecuador and Perù could find themselves in a price war with Ivory Coast and Ghana. We can only imagine the catastrophic results.
PEOPLE – What’s best for the farmers?
CCN-51 has saved Ecuadorian farmers back when the El Niño hit in 1997/1998. Thanks to its introduction, farmers didn’t give up the cultivation of cacao. However, it encouraged another loss: the abandon of the local fine cacao, Arriba Nacional. Since then, cocoa farmers haven’t received many incentives to keep cultivating fine cacao.
Fine cacao represents only a tiny fraction of the entire demand for cacao. Cheap cacao like CCN-51 encounters the wallet of many more clients. How are cocoa farmers supposed to pay their bills otherwise?
But the fear of chocolate professionals is that cacao farmers will no longer be able to have a choice. In fact, pure Arriba Nacional seems to be almost gone from Ecuadorian lands. Cultivated together with CCN-51 for more than twenty years, Nacional hybrids are now the best available option. If CCN-51 continues to raise in popularity, cocoa farmers won’t be able to go back to any fine flavor. Same destiny will follow for any country switching from fine flavor to CCN-51.
In the end, there are three different opinions in the industry.
Some approve of the use of CCN-51 for cocoa farmers to make a living. Others are sure that CCN-51 will damage farmers in the long run. A third party suggests for cocoa farmers to harvest both fine cacao and CCN-51 for a winning differentiating strategy.
There is one thing that we can all agree on: the end-consumer dictates the rules.
Consumers are the ones with the huge power to reverse any situation, from the end product all the way up to a better supply chain. The future of fine cacao will depend on how much the market desires it, and how much chocolate lovers will be willing to pay for their favorite food.
What is YOUR opinion on CCN-51?
I did NOT get paid and did NOT receive any kind of favor for writing this article. These are my honest opinions at your service.