A cacao pod (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)
A cacao pod (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

The making of a chocolate economy

  • The rise of Indian bean-to-bar chocolates has the potential to forge a new future for cacao farmers in Kerala
  • These chocolates are creating a sustainable chain all the way from farm to factory

The rain skims off the broad leaves of the cacao tree in slim rivulets. A large purple-brown cacao pod hangs from a branch, glistening. Its jewel tones are silhouetted against the lush foliage of the farm below. In the distance, a slow mist rises from the hills of the Western Ghats.

We are in the heart of Kerala’s Idukki district, a land of forests, spices and cacao. It is a magic-realist backdrop for a tree and a fruit that has long been associated with myths and rituals.

Kutiyamma and her husband with the cacao fruit from their farm.
Kutiyamma and her husband with the cacao fruit from their farm. (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

Kutiyamma has a 4-acre organic farm growing cacao, pepper and some coffee in Chempakappara, one of the cacao-producing villages in Idukki. Her cacao trees are on a tract on the other side of the swollen Perinjankutty river, which they cross in a small bamboo-and-reed craft. The 52-year-old mother of two is the primary farmer in the family.

Before showing us around, she cracks open a fat cacao fruit for us to try. The white fleshy fruit is juicy and sweet and sour, with the flavour and consistency of mangosteen. The cacao bean at the core is hard and tasteless, inedible. It becomes the basis for chocolate only after fermenting and roasting.

This is how all chocolate begins.

Cacao thrives in south India and is grown across Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.The highest yield, on average, comes from Kerala, according to the Union government’s directorate of cashewnut and cocoa development (DCCD).

Idukki is a good starting point to trace the journey of chocolate from a bean to the finished bar. Its terroir offers ideal conditions for growing fine cacao, which led to the British East India Company planting the first cacao beans from Indonesia here in the late 18th century. Overshadowed by more valuable crops, cacao farming was sidelined until a cacao-growing initiative was started by Cadbury in Kerala in 1965 in an attempt to cut down on cacao-bean imports. In recent times, this crop has got a fillip due to the efforts of the DCCD as well as projects like “Cocoa Village", under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana programme, which have led to an increase in the acreage under cacao plantation and the distribution of saplings to farmers across the state.

As an intercrop with coconut, rubber and spices, cacao works well for farmers since it is less labour-intensive than many other cash crops. According to DCCD data, 7,507 metric tonnes of cacao was produced across 16,594 hectares of farmland in Kerala in 2017-18.

India recorded $1.9 billion (around 13,490 crore now) in annual chocolate sales in 2018, even though this was by and large restricted to mass-produced chocolate bars. According to a study by Euromonitor, India’s chocolate market is projected to grow 8% annually between 2016-21 to reach $2.5 billion.

As a result of this growing demand, both public and private initiatives are trying to grow the size of domestic production of cacao, boost the quality of yield and improve processing techniques. As one of the traditional cacao-growing areas, Kerala is an obvious focus.

Simultaneously, the traditional cacao farms of Idukki are also the centre of a small but growing bean-to-bar movement. This is chocolate that is as much about the bean, its processing and place of origin as it is about the farmers who grow it.

Cocoa butter is tempered and poured into moulds to set as bars
Cocoa butter is tempered and poured into moulds to set as bars (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

A brave new chocolate world

Over the last five years, this new kind of chocolate has started making occasional appearances in neighbourhood cafés, organic markets and stores. These are usually bars with high cocoa percentages, encased in handmade paper wrappers and in flavours that are unusual, to say the least. From candied gondhoraj lemon, chilli and cinnamon to jamun, these are a far cry from the standard dried fruit and nut combo that many of us grew up eating.

According to L. Nitin Chordia, a certified chocolate taster and cocoa post-harvesting consultant, a bean-to-bar chocolate can be defined as one in which the cacao beans have been directly processed (roasted, refined and tempered) into a chocolate bar with or without adding plant-based sugars, plant-based emulsifiers, natural vanilla, cocoa butter, moisture-reduced fruits/vegetables, nuts, herbs, salt and natural spices. For a chocolate to be classified as bean-to-bar, it should be made without reducing the percentage of naturally occurring cocoa butter and without adding any unnatural flavouring ingredients, artificial emulsifiers and any vegetable oil or animal-based fat. “Given this definition, the chocolate bar has to represent the origin and flavour of the beans," he says.

Bean-to-bar has been much slower in catching on than the farm-to-fork trend in the restaurant space as the market is still in a nascent stage, with just a few startups experimenting with and processing Indian cacao beans.

Cacao nibs being processed at the Pascati factory near Mumbai
Cacao nibs being processed at the Pascati factory near Mumbai (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

Devansh Ashar, chocolate maker and partner, Pascati, an organic fair-trade chocolate brand, says the bean-to-bar movement in India goes back to 2012. “Back then, there were only two chocolate makers making bean-to-bar chocolate and now in 2019 there are over 15 bean-to-bar chocolate makers who provide good-quality crafted chocolate. Yet the overall size of the market is very small at a value of approximately $7 million. With consumers becoming aware of organic products and conscious of what they consume, the market is set to grow about 30-40% each year for the next five years."

A clutch of small home-grown brands are spearheading the move towards fine chocolate. Older brands like the Puducherry-based Mason and Co. and Naviluna from Mysuru, along with new entrants like Pascati from Mumbai, Kocoatrait and Soklet in Chennai, and Paul and Mike in Kerala are improving the quality of the Indian cacao bean with their modern techniques of fermentation and processing.

“Our cacao can be made to international standards—if we can educate farmers about plucking the fruit at the right time, make sure that the fermentation happens immediately and if we process the cacao well. Most of the bigger players making mass-produced chocolate do not really care about the quality of cacao as for them it is about the numbers," says Sreekumar M.S., CEO of the Manarcadu Social Service Society (MASS), a Kottayam-based non-governmental organization (NGO) set up in 2001. MASS is a collective of more than 5,000 organic farmers across Kerala and aims to promote organic and fair-trade farming practices and provide proper certification. It also provides training and plant-doctor services to farmers, teaching them best practices and processing techniques. MASS is run by Plantrich, a for-profit company which exports and sells organic produce.

Bean-to-bar chocolate aims to bring out the best properties of cacao beans, with the process starting at the farm itself. From growing trees according to best practices, without chemicals or pesticides, plucking the fruit at the right time to the science of processing—bean-to-bar chocolate encapsulates many things.

The rise of this kind of chocolate is also being propelled by health- and diet-conscious consumers who are moving away from traditional mass-produced chocolate treats towards those with lower sugar and a higher cocoa percentage. “While there is sufficiently large growth volume predicted for mass chocolate makers, there are several gaps that exist in the market. Until now, demand was dependent on supply for bean-to-bar chocolate. Going forward, as demand will grow, the supply will rise and many brands will appear which will have regional relevance," says Chordia.

“The low cost of entry for a bean-to-bar business makes this an attractive startup idea. The risks are limited and the upsides are much higher. The bigger chocolate brands do not see this as an interesting market yet because of the relatively low volumes. Overall, this is the right time to position bean-to-bar chocolates as a product category in India," he adds.

This is somewhat of a challenge, as the Indian chocolate market is still dominated by brands like Mondelez, which claims it has a 66% market share. The company (earlier called Kraft) acquired Cadbury in 2010 and continued the brand’s long-standing association with India. Cadbury’s India business was established in 1948, soon after independence. It propelled itself into homes as the flagship chocolate and treat for all occasions, offering stiff competition to the traditional mithai. With tag lines like Asli Swad Zindagi Ka, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk became a generic name for chocolate itself.

Childhood nostalgia notwithstanding, however, it is far removed from the original flavour of the cacao bean, which combines bitterness and acidity with other nuanced notes that emerge during the roasting of the beans.

Vikas Temani, business head, Paul and Mike, says: “Our estimate is that the chocolate market by 2030 would be $3 billion, out of which $300-450 million (10-15%) would be the premium segment. We believe that a large part of this premium segment would be captured by bean-to-bar chocolates and we want to be the enablers of this cultural shift from industrial chocolates to fine flavour chocolates."

Brands like Paul and Mike source about 40% of their cocoa from their own farm near Kochi. They also get their cacao from a selection of farms in Idukki. Others, like Pascati, buy their cacao through companies like Plantrich, which source from fair- trade and organic-certified farms in and around Idukki.

Nuby Binu cracks open a cacao pod to show the fleshy fruit that encases the bean
Nuby Binu cracks open a cacao pod to show the fleshy fruit that encases the bean (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

The cacao farmers

The rain alternates between a feathery drizzle and torrential bursts as we make our way to Nuby Binu’s farm, also in Chempakappara. She is a certified organic cacao farmer and part of the MASS collective. Our guide is Sreekumar, a man who has clearly spent many years in the field and who explains the different aspects of cacao farming in the area. He shows us around the farms, pointing out the varying ripeness of the cacao fruit and explains what it takes to grow high-quality cacao. From time to time, he cracks open a fruit and eats the flesh, remarking on its sweetness or ripeness.

Binu is a 40-year-old third-generation farmer who has been handling cacao trees since she was a young girl. Her 2-acre farm has about 450 cacao trees grown as an intercrop with pepper, coffee, ginger, turmeric and fruit trees. Binu’s focus on the cacao crop is a reflection of the change that is under way. New organic farming initiatives, the elimination of middlemen and a higher price for the fruit are encouraging the development of cacao as a viable cash crop.

Yet, as we make our way through the wet, hilly terrain, past trees bursting with guava, cacao and pepper, it’s easy to see this is a life that is entirely dependent on weather conditions, yield and pest attacks. Both the farmers we meet are women, their husbands have other jobs and their schoolgoing children are also preparing for different lives. The writing on the wall is clear enough—the next generation is unlikely to take to this profession beyond helping out during the two harvest seasons in May-June and October-November.

To ensure the change is here to stay, then, what’s needed is sustainable practices and enough economic incentives to make the future viable for cacao.

The land still bears the ravages of the severe floods of 2018. This year, too, rivers across the district are in spate below half-mended bridges and semi-destroyed farm land. As Binu shows us around her farm, we see the Perinjankutty flowing about 15-20ft below where we are standing. She points out the levels to which the river had risen last year, inundating her land and destroying many of her cacao trees and other cash crops. MASS’ relief work during this period involved donating over 200,000 saplings, including those of coffee and cacao, to the farmers of Idukki.

Another fallout of the heavy rains and climate change is the growing prevalence of black pod disease in the area’s cacao trees. “Too much rain and cold weather causes this fungus to affect the cacao and there is no way to stop it," says Sreekumar.

Cacao pods come in a variety of shades, ranging from green to purple
Cacao pods come in a variety of shades, ranging from green to purple (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

Perfectly healthy green, yellow and purple cacao pods are interspersed with fruits that are darkening on the branch itself. There are mounds of black desiccated cacao pods in front of healthy trees, acting as ominous portents.

At present, the farmers in Idukki have only one method to control the disease—an application of a Bordeaux mixture which combines copper sulphate with hydrated lime. While this works to some extent, this water mould thrives naturally in the rainy season, and, as the rains continue unabated, black pods become an increasingly common sight on trees. In some of the trees, up to 40% of the fruit is damaged.

This is where the bean-to-bar movement could come as a blessing for cacao farmers, with chocolate makers and agricultural experts collaborating to improve yield quality and the health of cacao trees.

The science of bean-to-bar

Lines of cacao saplings stretch out at the model farm at MASS’ bio-research institute at Idinjamala in Idukki. Agricultural experts are working on creating newer ways to deal with diseases as well as grow the cacao plants faster. New experiments with soil, acidity and moisture management, drip irrigation, fertigation and pruning are also being carried out on the Paul and Mike cacao farm in Kadayiruppu, Kerala.

“When a farmer is paid a premium for cacao, it enriches his lifestyle and enables him to grow and nurture cacao trees on his farms. If the right price is not paid for the cacao, the farmer is likely going to grow another crop instead which would fetch him a good price. A collaborative effort is when a chocolate maker works closely with a farmer’s group to educate them on good harvest and post-harvest practices such as fermentation, drying and storage. At every stage, feedback has to be given to the farmers for every batch of cacao for them to tweak their process to achieve desired quality parameters," says Ashar.

“All of this effort is expressed in the final bar of chocolate so that it is a high-quality sensory experience for the person eating it," says Temani.

The first thing that strikes us when we enter the Paul and Mike chocolate factory in Kadayiruppu is the smell of roasted beans. It is recognizably the aroma one associates with chocolate, except that it is in a much more concentrated form—like a tiny vial of attar which contains the scents of a forest. Although this is a small facility which processes about 150kg of chocolate per month, it is a model chocolate factory with top-of-the-line equipment and experts overseeing different aspects of the process.

Romain Lebrun from France heads the cocoa and chocolate process at Paul and Mike. He has been studying fermentation for most of his adult life—it’s the science that excites him. His last stint was with Maison Marou, one of Vietnam’s finest chocolate makers. “What draws me to chocolate is the connection between the taste of a place and an end product that is very pleasing to eat. Apart from the fact that I like food, I also like to connect the science of fermentation to the farm where the raw material comes from and to the end product as well," he says.

The flavours of chocolate are obviously dependent on the beans, the region they come from and the season they are harvested in, but an even more significant factor is the process of fermenting and roasting that amps up the flavours. “Fermentation is one of the most important steps to develop the flavour precursors of what you are going to have afterwards in your chocolate. This flavour is developed in the cacao beans through a series of microbiological reactions in the juice and pulp around the beans," says Lebrun, who controls different protocols like the time of exposure and the amount of oxygen introduced to the fermenting cacao beans.

Chocolates being packaged at Pascati’s factory in Hamrapur, on the outskirts of Mumbai.
Chocolates being packaged at Pascati’s factory in Hamrapur, on the outskirts of Mumbai. (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

Roasting is the second stage. Here, the beans release all their flavour through a Maillard reaction that takes place at high temperatures. “The surrounding of the dried fermented bean still contains some sugar and proteins, which react together with the heat to create flavour compounds and the aromatics and notes," says Lebrun.

Just like coffee, roasting cacao beans is dependent on the skills of the master roaster, who keeps tasting the cacao beans at different stages. The idea is to know the right roasting profile for the cacao bean, based on the properties of the raw material, its origin and the end product.

Having tasted the cacao fruit, it is but natural that we try the roasted bean. The flavours are intense, toasty and chocolatey—one can almost taste the entire journey of the bean from raw seed to chocolate.

The next step is separating the shell from the bean and cracking it into nibs. These nibs are put through a “conche", which is like a wet grinder that shears the cacao nibs and releases the fat content that is inside the cocoa solid. “The release of this fat content gives better viscosity and texture and better flavour sensation to the chocolate," says Lebrun.

This is also the stage where other elements like milk powder (for milk chocolate), sugar and natural flavouring ingredients like coffee are added. And when the ideal amount of smoothness is achieved after hours of mixing, this liquid chocolate is transferred to the tempering machine. Here, the cocoa fats are heated and cooled in succession and crystallized in order to be moulded. “The idea is to have something that is temperature-stable, has a nice shine and the right snap," says Lebrun.

In the tempering room, we meet Chloe Manon, who is in charge of developing new product categories. She is mixing chocolate at different temperatures and playing with lemongrass to see how it reacts with the cocoa. Every new element added makes the fats crystallize differently.

She has travelled the world making chocolate and channelling her experience as a pastry chef to come up with new confections and flavours inspired by local flavours. “For me, being a chocolate maker in a country that produces cacao is very rewarding as it offers a better understanding of the product as well as greater control over its quality," says Manon.

She is testing a small batch and tempering by hand, the old-fashioned way. Right next to her, men and women capture chocolate in moulds as it drips out through the nozzles of a big machine that constantly warms and cools the chocolate to an ideal point for moulding into bars.

Finally, we are in the cold room, where the chocolate settles into its shape and firms up. Thereafter, each bar is wrapped by hand in aluminium foil, which protects the bar from external temperatures and conditions. Each bar is emblazoned with “Paul and Mike: Farmers and Fermenters". The brand’s name is a hat tip to two farmers called Paul and Mike whomVikas Temani met on his research trips in Brazil and the Dominican Republic. They shared their knowledge about growing and processing cacao. Seeing the names of these farmers on a bar of chocolate made in Kadayiruppu, it feels like this is indeed chocolate that has come full circle.

It is fitting that the last leg of this journey from bean to bar ends with eating chocolate. And it is true that a first-time palate needs to relearn what chocolate tastes like. Sweet and creamy are not the primary elements here. Instead, it is a far more complex bouquet of flavours, and they emerge one by one as the cocoa coats the tongue. There are notes of tannin, bitterness, a gentle residual sweetness and hints of fruit. Paul and Mike’s 64% mild dark is a plain chocolate without any added elements, but every bite yields differing notes, channelling memories of tastes past and present. This is chocolate that carries an imprint of the land—the smells of spices, the ripening fruit on trees, the fresh petrichor and the stories of the cacao farmers.

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