Arriba chocolate receives a lot of marketing hype. But what is it, where does it come from, and is what you’re getting really Arriba chocolate?
In the strictest sense, Arriba chocolate is produced from cacao in the upriver areas of the Guayas River in the lowland provinces of Ecuador. This would include areas in the province of Guayas, Bolivar or Los Rios provinces (where the upper reaches of and tributaries to the Guayas River extend), in the strictest sense.
Legend has it that a Swiss chocolatier in the 19th century, while navigating along the Guayas River, encountered men bringing down freshly harvested cacao. Upon smelling it, he asked where it came from, and they responded “de rio arriba” or upriver. Since then, this variety of fine aroma cacao has been known as Arriba. Arriba is perhaps ultimately a type of terroir label for beans grown in the region of Ecuador upriver from the Guayas River, with a specific flavor profile often characterized as having a distinct floral aroma. Climate, amount of sunshine and shade, soil composition, ripening, time of harvest, and bean fermentation are all factors that may contribute to the unique Arriba flavor profile.
If a denomination of origin were to be established based on the legend, then only cacao from this area could truly be called Arriba. Nonetheless, there are a number of companies and brands that sell their products with the fashionable label Arriba. Because Ecuador is a major producer of fine flavor and aroma cocoa, the label implies the chocolate is made from fine flavor and aroma beans. And though much chocolate labeled Arriba may come in part from the Los Rios and Guayas regions, technically the home of Arriba cocoa, much of it may also come from other provinces of Ecuador. These provinces may include Esmeraldas, Manabí, Napo, Orellana, Santo Domingo, Sucumbíos, and others. Beans from these areas are not known for, and never have been recognized for having the distinct Arriba flavor profile.
Another distinction often not mentioned regarding chocolates labeled Arriba is the actual variety of beans the chocolate is produced from. In Ecuador, there are two main varieties of beans, Nacional and CCN-51. Genetically, Nacional is considered a Forastero bean. However, Nacional grows only in Ecuador and alleged attempts to grow it in other regions have not produced the same flavor profiles. CCN-51 is an acronym for Collecion Castro Nacional, or according to others Collection Castro Naranjal. Carlos Castro, a well-known cacao breeder in Ecuador, created the hybrid of a Trinitario and Nacional and it was number 51 of his experiments. CCN-51 is a higher yielding, more disease resistant variety of bean than Nacional. It is also sometimes called “Don Homero” variety. While both varieties of beans can produce quality chocolate, only Nacional beans were grown historically in the country, and the historical precedent for the Arriba flavor profile is based on Nacional beans, not CCN-51. Nonetheless, many of the beans leaving Ecuador destined for so-called Arriba chocolate are a mix of CCN-51 and Nacional beans, and these beans may or may not have originated from the original areas that supposedly provide the Arriba flavor profile.
Ultimately, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine if a chocolate is truly made from pure Nacional beans grown in the Arriba zone-within the area of Ecuador historically known for producing a special flavor profile. With increasing emphasis on traceability and origin, and increasing transparency in the chocolate industry, we may see the availability of true Arriba chocolate increasing.