The craft chocolate trend can be described as following the same path as third-wave coffee – independent artisans popping up to showcase a variety of flavours from single origins, handcrafting small-batch products, and getting as close as possible to the source.
Singapore has gotten into the act with two bean-to-bar chocolate makers, and a third new entrant rumoured to be shifting its operations from the United Kingdom to be closer to its Malaysian sources, while the scene is also growing in neighbouring countries.
The pioneer here was Fossa Chocolate, run by university graduate Jay Chua, who started turning cocoa beans into chocolates early last year. Though he finds that the Singapore market is still relatively small for the kind of chocolate he makes, he is optimistic about this niche market expanding with time.
“When we first started, it was quite challenging to get people to try our chocolate and get them to understand that it’s made from special grade beans … currently the shops where our products do well are the ones where retail assistants get to share the story behind our chocolates, what they are made of, and why they are more expensive. Communication is very important,” he says.
Ong Ning Geng of the tree-to-bar Chocolate Concierge notes the similarities with the craft coffee industry, and believes the next step is to create an ecosystem of growers, roasters, and chocolatiers taking part in events or competitions that help build awareness.
He believes that Asia already has an advantage over European countries to begin with, even though it’s countries like France and Belgium that are traditionally expected to produce high-quality chocolates. “Firstly, there’s the carbon footprint. We don’t pay airfare for the beans to travel from the tropics to Europe, then back to the tropics as exports. Second is, of course, fresh ingredients.
The third, he says, is the fact that chocolate artisans like himself have a better understanding of the beans they receive. This is because they are part of the entire process – from the trees growing, to the harvesting, all the way until the chocolate bar is packaged.
This essence of artisanal craft is the reason why Ronald Ng of bean-to-bar Lemuel Chocolate in Singapore does not intend to make his chocolates available via traditional distribution channels like supermarkets.
“You don’t expect single-origin coffee at food courts; craft chocolate should go along those lines,” he says. After all, it takes him about a full month to make each 10kg batch of chocolate, and it’s tedious work, so he wants to keep the products exclusive.
Mr Ng adds that the craft chocolate movement is in line with the global health movement, as artisan chocolate bars like his are generally only made with natural ingredients. In his case, it’s just cocoa beans and organic raw sugar imported from Brazil – a very different ingredient list from the mass-produced chocolate bars found on most retail shelves, where vegetable oils are commonly used to replace the fat that’s supposed to come naturally from cocoa butter.
“It’s a way to keep the costs as low as possible,” adds Mr Ng. As part of creating awareness, “we have to teach people how to start by picking a good piece of chocolate.”
Even as a wave of new chocolate makers are taking on the challenge of doing bean-to-bar, Ong Ning Geng of the Kuala Lumpur-based Chocolate Concierge takes it one step further by going tree-to-bar.
Mr Ong gets his raw cocoa beans from a few Malaysian farms which he partly owns or runs, as well as some trees that grow in orang asli (indigenous people) villages. The latter is part of a corporate social responsibility initiative where trees are given to the orang asli as a means for them to make a living through agriculture.
“Before I started (Chocolate Concierge), I found that no one could tell me what would be the best outcome for Malaysia-origin chocolate if it was fermented and made correctly. All these European countries use our beans to make great chocolate, why can’t we? And why not me? I want to put Malaysia on the map for chocolate,” he says.
For now, the bulk of Mr Ong’s customers are within Malaysia, but even in Singapore, his chocolates can be found on the menus at dining establishments such as Nouri at Telok Ayer, or The Dark Gallery at Millenia Walk.
After working in the chocolate industry for 28 years, Ronald Ng decided to leave his job as head of research and development at a Malaysian company to strike out on his own. “There were conflicting principles – I wanted to make quality chocolates, but they were more concerned about their bottom line, cutting costs with inferior ingredients,” he says.
He was then inspired by a trip to Tokyo, when a friend took him to the cafe of US craft chocolate maker Dandelion. “I was amazed by the philosophies and concept of the business. The bean-to-bar practices and chocolate-making concepts had so much quality and research that went into them just to make chocolates with such different dimensions,” explains Mr Ng.
So last August, he started Lemuel Chocolate, a bean-to-bar chocolate maker with a retail space and workshops near Haw Par Villa. The hope is to eventually open a much-bigger speciality chocolate cafe, serving pastries and drinks made with his own single-origin chocolates.
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What started out as a mere fascination for fermentation, and a home beer-brewing hobby, has turned into a full-fledged career for Jay Chua, owner of the craft chocolate business Fossa Chocolate.
“Cocoa is fermented, so it was a natural move for me,” says the 30-year-old. He was also inspired by a trip to the US when he was blown away by the taste of the chocolate that was available there.
“I never knew chocolate could taste so good, and I enjoy making things that I like to eat. So after some experimenting, I started decided to do it professionally,” says Mr Chua, who now runs a bean-to-bar chocolate business that was the first in Singapore when it launched early last year.
While he mostly offers single-origin dark chocolate bars (priced from S$8/bar), he also makes a range of his own artisanal concoctions with bold flavours like shrimp and bonito dark chocolate (S$10/bar) and salted egg cereal blond chocolate (S$10/bar).
Fossa’s chocolate bars can be found online and at select boutique stores, but Mr Chua’s handiwork can also be tasted in the form of hot chocolate at The Glasshouse at Chijmes, as well as a dessert course at Restaurant Labyrinth.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.