BLOG // // 15.6.2020

Cacao and Coffea - the Differences and Similarities of Chocolate and Coffee

Coffee and chocolate are often compared thanks to the overlap between their growing regions and the similarities in flavor notes.  Both coffee and cacao share a huge flavor profile; over 600 aromatic compounds in cacao and more than 1000 in coffee! Let’s dig into more similarities and differences between the two gorgeous plants!


Coffee and cacao come obviously from two very different plants, from two different continents.  Cocoa comes from Theobroma cacao also known as ‘fruit of the gods’- an evergreen tree with fruits and flowers growing directly on its trunk. An oblong fruit, called a pod, differs in size, depending on species and is as colorful as one can imagine (red, yellow, purple, mixed colors) and each pod contains 20-60 cocoa beans, surrounded by sugary and fragrant pulp. Approximately 7-14 pods are necessary to produce 450 grams of cocoa beans. Just to remind, coffee beans come from coffee cherries that produce two beans per cherry.

cacao pods

Fun fact; the word "cacao" is usually used for the pods and beans before they are fermented. After fermentation they are often called cocoa. 

Just like coffee trees, cacao flourishes in cocoa belt: along or near the Equator in Latin America, the tropics of western Africa, Asia and India. Originaly, Lower Amazon (South America) is home to cacao, yet now is best grown in Africa. And coffee comes from Africa and Arabia (Ethiopia and Yemen), and now is best grown in South America, kind of a switch there, but it works. ?

cocoa fruit

Coffee has two main species: Arabica and Robusta, from which various varieties have developed over time (e.g. Caturra, Typica, Bourbon, Castillo). Cocoa beans also have different varietals – researchers are still finding new genetics, but now we know that there are more than 10 major families of cacao (before cacao was classified into only 3 varieties/genetics - Criollo/Forastero/Trinitario). And CCN-51, which is a clone with high yield, great resistance to diseases. Criollo is delicate, fine, more expensive, white beans but less productive. Forastero is more disease resistant, heartier yet poorer quality. Trinitario is the Goldilocks in-between. Each varietal has unique characteristics in terms of appearance and especially flavor. Importantly, every step of the process has influence over its end-flavor. The main guys are: genetics, terroir and fermentation at origin, and roasting and conching (just for chocolate). Even transportation and storing will have an impact.

theobroma cacao
Theobroma cacao in Mexico.

Additionally, chocolate and coffee differ in its description usage of “dark”. For chocolate, a “dark” chocolate is a reference to the ratio of cocoa solids to other ingredients. Thus the higher the concentration of cocoa solids and cocoa butter, the more “dark” it is. Craft chocolate bar is made using very few ingredients, sometimes only two: cocoa and sugar. However, when talking about coffee, “dark” means the type of roast. A dark roast means the coffee was over roasted to achieve a specific flavor profile, such as smokey, burnt and caramel tasting notes. A light roast means that the coffee was a bit less roasted and preserves flavors of the bean’s origin like the fruity and floral notes.


Yes, the beans come from a different plant, but they serve quite a similar purpose: coffee and cacao should stimulate. We talk about those alkaloids, caffeine for coffee and theobromine for cacao. Cocoa was a ceremonial drink of Mayan and Aztek gods, then preferred by European royalty and much later became available to the general public.

So both beans contain significant amounts of antioxidants - cacao more than coffee. Theobromine only occurs in cacao and tea, thus it stimulates mildly and less effectively as caffeine.  (FYI A 70% dark chocolate bar can have as much as 810 mg of theobromine!) Also, those two play a role in keeping our brain and cognition sharp as we age. Dietary flavanoids found in cacao have been proved to protect against neuroinflammation and promote learning and memory. Our cup of Joe or caffeine has been shown to promote learning and memory with just a cup a day!

The processes of fermentation, drying and roasting has many parallels. Let’s look into those. As both fruits ripen at various times, manual picking from small farmers is required. Both Theobroma cacao and Coffea Arabica needs about 5 years before producing berries or cherries. So after harvesting, cacao pods are opened, beans are removed and piled into large wooden containers for fermentation (covered with banana leaves) for 2-7 or sometimes even 10 days, depending on variety. Beans are turned in order to ferment evenly. During fermentation, a number of chemical reactions occur which help develop flavor. 

coffee tree nursery

As for coffee, many options for processing: dry, wet, honey, anaerobic and so on. Either process removes the pulp from the beans while developing varying degrees of aroma, body, acidity that compose the bean’s flavor. Both beans are then dried in the sun to reduce moisture levels.

Coffee beans then undergo milling, hulling, cleaning, grading, and polishing the green coffee beans. The post-harvest process is crucial for both beans alike as to ensure properly developed flavors and quality.  So here comes the roasting part. Both cocoa and coffee beans are roasted to draw out the unique flavors of the bean’s origin. This requires technique on the part of chocolate makers and coffee roasters, who work to find the right balance in the roasting.

Do you want to know more about cacao roasting?

Pairing the two? Who would mind it?

As we now know the many similarities between the two and how complex both beans are, it can come handy when planning a pairing. Roasting process actually brings about many comparable flavors, thanks to Maillard reaction. Let’s say a dark roast coffee and dark-roasted cacao will have slightly bitter and strong chocolaty flavors that will complement each other with some sweetness from the chocolate. Lighter roasts will maintain acidic and fruity notes, which gives a sparkle to a pairing. It's a mutual thing, either coffee will enhance the flavors of chocolate, or vice versa, but pairing them together should really create delicious and unexpected combinations. 

cacao tree flowering

So when starting to think about the pairing, keep in mind the basics: flavor, acidity, complexity. Bitterness can be balanced out by sweet or salty flavors and tart/acidic can balance spicy and sweetness. There are no exact rules what goes with what, it's more of an experiment and what you think that are the best combinations. But for a start, you can try matching espresso with dark chocolate - 70% with cinnamon or caramel and those creamy chocolate notes in your espresso will mimic the chocolate itself. Have a dark chocolate with chili flavor notes and don’t know what to do with it? Then pair it with a Brazilian coffee! Classic, medium roasts are a good match to milk chocolate and try contrasting bold, dark roast with white chocolate with strawberries. It’s the same logic in all of these – either mirroring the flavors of chocolate or contrasting them. 

Remember: freshly brewed coffee and cooled a little, chocolate at room temperature, notebook and a pen to track the flavors and impressions. 

The ABC:

Smell both coffee and chocolate separately, inhale deeply and write down what you smell. Take a piece of chocolate, put it in your mouth, resting on your tongue, let it melt. If the piece is big, break it into smaller pieces, chew a bit and while it melts, it will coat your mouth so you should focus on the texture, aroma and the length it takes to melt. Identify the flavors and write them down. If you swallowed the chocolate already, take another piece, melt it and take a loud slurp of coffee –  this is the moment when the matching happens – observe how the flavors change, evolve, complement or contrast each other. Savor all aromas and flavors, take your time and taste the match again. Are there new flavors? Did anything change? Aftertastes? Do the flavors and aromas go well together or contradict each other? Write down your thoughts.

Be encouraged to try few combinations of different coffee and chocolate until you discover your favorite pairing. Maybe it will become your morning ritual? Trying new coffee, matching it with 3 different chocolates? Starting day day energized and stimulated? I think I could do that. ?  

Nature has blessed us with amazing fruits (coffee and cacao) and people perfected it into new heights – how lucky we are, being able to enjoy these fruits. Craft chocolate industry has a smaller industry mark than its cousin coffee in its 4th wave of development, but makers are learning from coffee industry and pursuing same goals of sustainability, traceability and sourcing. Both industries place a high value on raw material and both celebrate the diversity of it. Bean-to-bar chocolate, just like coffee, can reveal itself thru origin, roasts, recipe and different processing methods.

I encourage you to reach for craft, bean-to bar chocolate next time you are in your favorite specialty coffee café or chocolate store and discover the whole new world