Nacional Cacao Research studiobrie
The Jama-Coaque Reserve (JCR) sits in the most revered cacao growing region in the world—akin to French province of Burgundy in the realm of wine. Native to Ecuador, the cacao variety known as “Nacional” is the oldest and most endangered cacao variety in the world. It is the direct genetic descendant of the earliest known cacao trees domesticated by humanity over 5,300 years ago. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Nacional was considered by many European chocolatiers the highest quality cacao in the world, prized for its floral aroma and complex flavor profile. Then in 1916, a disease called Witches’ Broom arrived to Ecuador and decimated cacao throughout the country. In the decades that followed, several foreign cacao varieties were introduced in Ecuador and a century of hybridization ensued.
By the dawn of the 21st century, many experts believed that pure Nacional cacao no longer existed. In 2009, Ecuador’s agricultural institute (INIAP) analyzed DNA samples of 11,000 cacao trees throughout the country, and only six trees proved to be 100% pure Nacional—a mere 0.05% of the cacao trees sampled.
Jerry Toth, one of TMA’s co-founders, also co-founded an Ecuadorian dark chocolate company called To’ak. About 80 kilometers south of the Jama-Coaque Reserve, Jerry and his team at To’ak found a valley with groves of cacao trees that are 100-120 years old, which pre-dated the arrival of Witches’ Broom disease. In partnership with the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund and the USDA-ARS genetic lab, they took DNA samples from this valley. Out of only sixteen old-growth cacao trees sampled, nine of them proved to be 100% pure Nacional. TMA and To’ak are now working together to preserve these ancient relics and reproduce them in a genetic bank in the Jama-Coaque Reserve.
Pure Nacional Cacao. Courtesy of To’ak.
Our first step is to develop the leading genetic bank and breeding center for heirloom Nacional cacao in the entire country. The next step is to promote and technically support the cultivation of high-quality cacao in surrounding communities and establish lucrative direct-trade relationships with buyers (namely, premium bean-to-bar chocolate makers). Our vision is for the communities that surround JCR to collectively become the most revered cacao appellation in the world, renowned for its quality and the ecologically sustainable agroforestry practices under which it’s cultivated.
Preserve the most ancient and endangered variety of cacao in the world through the development of a genetic bank of heirloom Nacional cacao in JCR.
Convert the Agroforestry Research Station at JCR into the leading Nacional cacao breeding center in the world, with emphasis on genetic value, flavor and aroma quality, and productivity (in that order).
Through the management of multiple small existing cacao plots within designated agroforestry zones of JCR, convert the Agroforestry Research Station into an innovative cacao farm and post-harvest processing center for high quality Nacional cacao, albeit on an appropriately small scale.
Promote, facilitate, and technically support the cultivation and proper post-harvest management of heirloom Nacional cacao in small-holder plots throughout surrounding communities.
Establish direct-trade relationships with bean-to-bar chocolate makers and secure a very high premium for heirloom Nacional cacao produced in the surrounding communities, generating higher revenues for local growers.
Convert northern Manabí into one of the premier cacao appellations in the world, globally recognized for the superlative value of its cacao and the ecological sustainable agroforestry practices under which it is cultivated.
This blog is written for people who cultivate cacao and/or tropical fruit trees, people who work in the chocolate industry and are interested in learning more about cacao in general and Nacional cacao in particular, and chocolate connoisseurs who wish to dive deeply into the subject. The focus here is cacao cultivation and genetics and the way in which these two elements are translated into dark chocolate.