Why does some of the finest cocoa come from Trinidad and Tobago?

Hopefully by the time you’d have arrived at this post, you’d have already seen a major reason why some of the finest cocoa material can be found here in lovely T&T. If not, take a moment to read what we had to say about Trinitario chocolate and then give us your full attention here.

Our twin isle republic of T&T has a long and quite intricate history as one of the world’s finest cocoa producers. Cocoa is originally from South and Central American rainforests where to date, much of its greatest diversity is still found. The story of its movement and use across Mesoamerica (the area that extends approximately from Central Mexico to Honduras and Nicaragua) is a fascinating one. It is a ‘cocoa back-in-times’ session that we will share with you in another post.

For now, we want to tell you the (shortened) story of cocoa’s arrival in T&T. Cocoa (Criollo) types were first cultivated commercially in our islands by the Spaniards in 1525. Business went well for a while until the crops were slammed with a most unfortunate combination of events that nearly wiped out everything between 1725-1727. Most of the planted Criollo material did not survive and so, new cocoa material (Forastero) was brought in from Venezuela and fields replanted. As the intriguing story goes, whatever straggling Criollo survivors existed when the Forasteros made it onto the scene, some intercrossing happened and voilà! Enter the Trinitarios!

Although we may never know if ‘pure Criollo’ was ever planted here, what we do know from modern-day genetic super-sleuthing is that mixed Criollo types were one set of parents in the famed Criollo/Forastero comingling that led to the birth of Trinidad’s Trinitario material. Over the next three hundred years, Trinidad would become world renowned for this superb hybrid cocoa quality. By 1830 Trinidad was responsible for 20% of cocoa production globally, and was surpassed at the time only by neighbouring Venezuela and Ecuador – until the West African producers began to flood the international markets with bulk (Forastero) cocoa. Trinidad’s world-class cocoa industry grew for another century until 1921, when its production peaked at 34,000 tonnes annually. Most of this was Trinitario and widely regarded as the finest flavoured cacao in the world. These days with all the tasting science that exists, we know why Trinitario beans are so awesome:  their great combination of good cocoa flavour with additional fruity and sometimes floral flavours!

However, be not fooled that our claim to cocoa fame lies only in our hallowed beans. Behind our good quality lies decades of phenomenal research that have helped to hone our great quality cocoa. Many scientists in our tiny republic have made and continue to make enormous contributions behind the scenes so that cocoa producers, chocolatemakers and chocolate lovers everywhere can benefit. Yes, our ‘nerd factor’ contribution to awesome cocoa and chocolate is very, very high.

In the 1930s, during the British rule of Trinidad, the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (ICTA) started its “Cocoa Research Scheme” in order to provide long range research for tropical regions. This Scheme facilitated considerable research on all aspects of cocoa and helped to collect very important plant material (both locally and from South and Central America). It was used to help create new varieties with increased disease resistance and better bean quality traits. The Scheme then evolved into the Cocoa Research Unit which today is the Cocoa Research Centre (CRC), located at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine campus. The CRC is quite famous (in research circles especially) for being the longest-running continuous research programme on cocoa in the world (>80 years! Whoa!). Another very cool little fact is that they are also the direct caretakers of the world’s largest and most genetically diverse cocoa collection known as the International Cocoa Genebank (ICG). It is a living collection that’s right here in Trinidad, with more than 2,000 different cocoa varieties! The Ministry of Agriculture’s Cocoa Research Section (CRS, Centeno) has also richly contributed to our incredible cocoa history and local production with their decades-long research that led to the development of the Trinidad Selected Hybrids (TSH) material, as well as their ongoing work with farmers. Their breeding programme that created the TSHs is internationally known as one of the most successful cocoa breeding programmes ever. Their cocoa fields where these types are planted are some of the most beautiful to visit (We will definitely tell you more another time about these incredible cocoa fields at the ICG and CRS, and why you should sign up to pay them a visit!).

Perhaps by now you are starting to realise that there is no single reason why T&T has some of the world’s best cocoa to offer. And that’s a good thing. Beauty and quality lie in diversity and the contributions of many things and people to one common output. What we can simply tell you here is that, the combination of local cocoa plant genetics, our very suitable climate, our diverse cocoa growing and processing locations and conditions all contribute to our high quality beans. Being situated ideally in the Caribbean and largely out of the hurricane belt, tend to keep things nice and comfortable for the most part: we generally have a temperature range of 18 – 32◦C with an average rainfall between 1,150mm and 2,500mm. (It is however, critical that we begin to take note of the increasingly erratic temperature and rainfall conditions that are already affecting our flowering and harvesting seasons. This is not going to let up any time soon, and will surely affect a whole lot more in the years to come.  Some intriguing hot chocolate news coming to a screen near you……stay tuned.)

For now though, our typically hot and moist climate [very similar to certain parts of South America – at one time the largest cocoa producing region in the world] continues to favour cocoa production. Trinidad was once connected by a land bridge to the South American mainland, but sea level rise over the millennia ensured that the island became physically separated. This has provided some insulation from pests and diseases that have ruined cocoa crops in several other key regions. We cannot, however, become complacent about this physical separation, because the threat of pest and disease entering our islands is literally a flight or a boat ride away. And yes, we will be sharing later on, details about those risks so as to highlight the important personal contribution that (yes) you can make to protect our cocoa industry (and agriculture at large!).

Our geography has also played an important factor in the success of the local cocoa industry from a business and trade standpoint. We are located at a strategic point in the Caribbean – one which serves as a vital access point between the North American, South American and European continents. This makes the island much more accessible than Venezuela, Ecuador and neighbouring countries. This accessibility has encouraged the local cocoa industry throughout the previous centuries and will likely continue into the future.

Oddly enough, despite all this great combination of great genetics, people and research, location, weather etc. T&T’s cocoa production stats are quite low. Actually the phrase that comes to mind is ‘dismally low’. Since its peak in 1921 (33,590 metric tonnes), Trinidad’s cocoa production has fallen to a depressing 350 metric tonnes (2015 stats). This is due to several factors including environmental, social and economic forces, both local and global. With the emergence of the oil and gas industries, seemingly more secure and more prosperous work opportunities arose as the country moved towards large-scale energy production. Indeed, the energy industry has undoubtedly enabled a wide range of industrial exports. However, its success unfortunately discouraged many from continuing agricultural ventures of which cocoa production was a considerable part. As this industry cranked into full action, many locals lost interest in working the land, in favour of better wages in the energy sector. As a result, the cocoa estates to become overgrown, underutilised, and in far too many cases, simply abandoned. It also did not help that as intensive cocoa monocropping became more widely used, diseases and pests overran the crops several times in the last century.

Despite this dramatic decline in our cocoa industry over the last century however, we remain in an excellent position to provide the world with some of the finest cocoa and chocolate in the foreseeable future – but it is going to demand intelligent, collective focus and vastly improved management of our cocoa systems literally from the ground up. We need to marry better field and plant care with our inherited decades of cocoa research and growing local community-based initiatives. Together, and only together, can we genuinely increase and properly validate the high quality material that we have. This will put us in a unique and highly encouraging position to take our cocoa production and value addition efforts to the next level for the benefit of all.

There is a fact that we must face for multiple reasons: Trinidad & Tobago will necessarily never be able to produce the volumes of cocoa on par with say, the West African nations. And honestly we should not aim to. This is not a bad thing. On the contrary. Quality is where our competitive edge lies and our high quality beans have continued to keep Trinidad ranked among the best 100% fine flavour cocoa producers in the world. Our repeated successes at international competitions attest to this. Consistently working toward maintaining our high quality is where our collective focus needs to be at. It is now therefore left to us, the guardians of these fine trees and beans, to keep this quality flag flying high through our steady commitment to supporting in a myriad of ways:

(a) our dedicated farmers and their communities without whom there would be no trees and definitely NO beans with which to make the chocolate magic come alive, and

b) our local artisan chocolatemakers, chocolatiers and other cocoa value-added product makers who bring their unique styles and passions to every single cocoa-derived item you can lay your senses on.

The artisan chocolate movement in T&T is fairly young, but it is fast becoming a force to be reckoned with and we are happy to report that it does this with great local cocoa beans in hand. Exciting times lie ahead, folks! Recently, smaller scale local companies (like Cocoa Republic) have begun to produce artisan chocolate that will wow you and make you think twice before buying that imported European or American bar. About time! Reason? Simply put: because we are able to quickly capture subtle flavour notes before they expire, and our chocolatiers have the creative spaces and inspiration to work their magic in that unique T&T (hybrid!) style.

One thing is sure…the local revolution has begun…..and we hope you will join us in our quest to cherish our locally made piece of cocoa and chocolate heaven!

Click here if you’re ready to get overwhelmed with some reviews and awards of Trinidadian chocolate.

 

References:

Frances Bekele (2004) The History of Cocoa Production in Trinidad and Tobago

Kenny, Julian. (2008) The Biological Diversity of Trinidad and Tobago

InvesTT.co.tt (2011) Instantly Transform your Chocolate Business: Why Trinidad is your Best Source of Fine Flavour Beans