The Rise of Southeast Asian Chocolatiers
ON RUE de La Roquette in the outskirts of Paris, Alain Ducasse, the illustrious chef behind the many Michelin-starred restaurants from Paris to London is hunched over a mound of cocoa beans spread on a metal counter. “I had the dream of making my own chocolate, making it the traditional way from bean to bar,” he says in French. The counter is in a factory that specialises in bean-to-bar chocolates supplied to his restaurants and sold online. Many of them are single origin products made with beans sourced from the likes of Peru, Java and Vietnam.
Half a world away in the Malaysian state of Pahang, a member of the Temuan community – an orang asli (indigenous) ethnic group harvests a cocoa pod, to be sold to a local chocolatier. These are foraged from the wild and grow as solo trees rather than in organised plantations. Their way of life has been unchanged for generations and many depend on rubber tapping and forest foraging for an income.
From Paris to Pahang: the two locations are distinct but connected threads that make up the auburn fabric of the chocolate world. For centuries, the relationship between cocoa production and chocolate consumption has been a portrait depicting the haves and the have-nots.
One sees it as an affordable but luxurious indulgence, the other to merely eke out a living.
Countries home to cocoa bean farms are often developing or middle-income countries which supply raw materials to Western production centres thousands of kilometres away. Most chocolates produced by these origin growing countries are often seen as inferior, made by constituting low-quality cocoa powder with vegetable fat – not cocoa butter as is the case of quality chocolates.
“It’s ironic,” says Toby Garritt, CEO and founder of Pod Chocolate. “When you ask people about their favourite chocolate, they’re invariably going to mention chocolates from France, Switzerland or Belgium. None of these countries are cocoa-growing countries.”
“I’m from Australia and my family had a vineyard in South Australia,” Garritt continues. “And where you have the vineyard, you have the winery. No one would imagine taking Australian grapes to France and calling that a French wine. And yet, it’s perfectly normal for cocoa to travel thousands of kilometres and somehow it becomes French or Swiss. Why is that?”
It’s a niche playing field and these makers are scattered across the South East Asian region. In Malaysia, there’s Chocolate Concierge whose products includes bars made from cocoa pods foraged by the Temuan community. Over in Vietnam, there’s Marou Faiseurs de Chocolat created by Samuel Maruta and Vincent Mourou. Further east in The Philippines, there’s Hiraya Chocolates – the brainchild of Arvin Peralta who sources his cocoa beans from Davao. Indonesia, the world’s third largest exporter of cocoa, is emerging as the biggest player in the bean-to-bar scene as it’s home to a handful of makers ranging from Pipiltin Cocoa to Pod Chocolate.
These makers are only a few years old, and the scene is at its infancy. But already, domestic and international coverage is picking up, along with export offers promising to take these bars to the global stage. What unites them is a sense of irony – that cocoa producing countries are not also home to premium chocolate makers.
The first cocoa beans to reach the region was in 1660s on the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade – a route that connected the Spanish colonies of The Philippines and Mexico across the Pacific Ocean.
Not to be outdone, other European powers began experimenting in their South East Asian colonies. The trees flourished but they found better commercial success with other cash crops. Spices are of greater value in the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia), rubber easily outweighed cocoa beans in Malaya while the French similarly found greater commercial imperative with growing coffee in Vietnam.
Despite its introduction as a crop in this region, Arvin Peralta of Hiraya notes that Asians were not exposed to the chocolate making traditions of Europe. “The Spanish just used chocolate for chocolate drinks. That’s the product that developed here in The Philippines,” he says referring to tableya – a Filipino chocolate drink introduced during the Spanish colonial era.
Instead, it is the fledgling chocolate companies in the European metropoles that would emerge as leviathans in today’s chocolate world. Van Houten was one such – the Dutch firm invented the cocoa press in 1828 – the hydraulic machine that separates cocoa solids from cocoa powder that made mass chocolate manufacturing a reality. British maker Fry’s was another, for inventing the chocolate bar in 1847 by mixing sugar with cocoa powder and cocoa butter.
By the 2010s, change was in the air. Consumers started growing conscious of the source of their food and support for small producers took off. Craft beers boomed, as did the third wave coffee joints that swept much of the world’s cities. With it rose the bean-to-bar chocolatier that was the antithesis of everything a multinational offers: terroir sensitivity, fair trade and to some, exclusivity.
Agreeing, Garritt (pictured left) says: “How do you know if you’ve got a high quality raw material? The first thing you have to do is go into the farm and ask yourself, is this a healthy and happy looking farm? If it isn’t why is that?”
The week before we spoke to Arvin Peralta of Hiraya, he was visiting cocoa farmers east of Manila in an old port city where the Spanish first introduced cocoa to the region. Unlike in the south where there are established plantations and where he primarily already sources his beans, the cocoa trees here are much older and the farmers are not clued in on post processing techniques.
“The production is small and they don’t know how to ferment the beans which is required in making fine chocolates,” he says referring to the crucial step in which microorganisms work to develop chocolate’s flavour and colour.
This makes a massive difference. Garritt says: “Coffee farmers drink their own coffee, so they will know whether his coffee this year was good. He can ask himself, ‘hey this is good, what happened this year?’ With cocoa, the farmers have absolutely no idea. They don’t know the difference between fermented and non-fermented beans, or if it works well.”
One way his company gets around this is to receive beans from co-operatives and turn it into chocolate for them to sample. “So we provide feedback and input on their process even though we’re not the ones ultimately buying the beans,” he says.
Their efforts to help farmers don’t end there. Instead, they also typically pay the farmers higher prices. Pipiltin Cocoa, for instance, pays its suppliers 40-50% more than market price – the same figure that Pod Chocolate reports.
Hiraya Chocolates is looking to double their production this year and Chocolate Concierge purchased an entire farm to have complete control over its products from tree to bar.
The clincher? The bulk of their customer base is local. It’s a sure sign that the taste buds of at least a certain affluent segment of the South East Asian population are becoming not just more discerning but are developing a sensitivity to terroir and ethical consumption.
“There’s an emerging market for this similar to the third wave coffee trend,” says Peralta whose bars are often sold out at retail locations. “It’s mostly millennials and hipsters or the older generation who are looking for healthier options.”
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