FOOD

Betting big on Philippine cacao

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Over the past decade, steadfast farmers and eager entrepreneurs have been working to reinvigorate the commercial farming of cacao. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Philippine chocolate is having a moment. With global recognition for both Philippine beans and bars pouring in from around the world, and consumer and trade interest at an all-time high, it seems that there is no interrupting the local cacao industry’s upward trajectory.

International accolades from leading world authorities such as the London-based Academy of Chocolate, The Great Taste Awards, and The International Cocoa Awards at Salon du Chocolat, has not only brought a sense of pride and accomplishment to existing cacao farmers and chocolate producers, but has also succeeded in encouraging other farmers to plant cacao. It is a crop that the world desperately needs due to an increasing demand for chocolate and a diminishing world supply.

At a recent Philippine cacao industry forum, the Philippine government reported that the global demand for cacao is “estimated to reach between 4.7 million to 5 million metric tons (MT) by 2020, but a cocoa shortage is also predicted at 1 million MT.” The Philippines alone consumes 50,000 MT annually while the local supply is said to be between somewhere between 10,000-15,000 MT.

Numbers like these are a clear indicator of the demand for cacao in both domestic and export markets, and because of an anticipated deficit, the Philippine government has committed to grow the nation’s output of fermented beans by 40 percent annually. By 2022, the country hopes to produce 100,000 MT of cacao, a move that will strategically position the Philippines as a key regional player in the business of this underserved commodity.

Perhaps what makes the Philippine chocolate industry most attractive to potential partners is the fact that the industry is still young, flexible, and hungry.

“I believe what is making craft chocolate makers successful is the acceptance of the local market," says Rob Crisostomo of Tigre Y Olivia on the Philippine chocolate boom. “If this movement happened 10 or 15 years ago, it probably wouldn’t have had received the same reception.”

Cacao was first brought to the Philippines by its Spanish colonizers through the Acapulco-Manila Galleon trade in 1670. As the crop grows best 20 degrees north and south of the equator, the southern islands of the country provide an ideal climate for cacao trees to flourish. Despite a 450-year head start and a geographic competitive advantage, Philippine cacao has never been one of the country’s priority crops until now.

Over the past decade, steadfast farmers and eager entrepreneurs have been working to reinvigorate the commercial farming of cacao. The Philippine government’s agriculture, trade, and environmental agencies are making sure that local farmers not only receive high quality seedlings to plant but are also working toward the steady transfer of knowledge of more competitive and sustainable agricultural production practices.

From tree to bar

The southern city of Davao is the epicenter of the resurging Philippine cacao movement and is currently responsible for nearly 80 percent of the country’s commercial cacao production. It is also the home of the industry’s leading pioneer and award-winning chocolate producer, Malagos Chocolate.

Founded by Charita Puentespina and now managed by her son, Rex, Malagos takes the idea of artisanal chocolate making one step further from the popular "bean-to-bar” phenomena with its own "tree-to-bar" narrative. The mother and son duo has played a seminal role in reviving the local cacao industry and has transformed the way the world sees and tastes Philippine chocolate.

Adjacent to the popular Malagos Garden Resort, located in a small town located by foothills of Mt. Talomo in Davao, are 20 hectares of land where the Puentespinas grow their own cacao. After working with a team from the Mars Cocoa Sustainability Team, they began to sell their beans to the world market in 2007 and by 2012, Malagos began to make its own chocolate. Inside the resort is a chocolate processing plant and the Malagos Chocolate Museum, the first of its kind in the country. An interactive exhibit takes visitors through the history and evolution of Philippine cacao and chocolate making and ends with a visit to a retail shop, tasting room, and café.

The Philippine government reported that the global demand for cacao is “estimated to reach between 4.7 million to 5 million metric tons (MT) by 2020.

A sampling of Philippine-made chocolates.

“We believe that good chocolates come from good beans,” says Rex Puentespina.

“Our cacao beans are Trinitario, a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero, and are considered the best cocoa beans in the world. They are sorted and graded following International standards and are processed at the farm where we have full control of the whole process. “

To enhance the aroma and deepen the flavor of its chocolate, Malagos meticulously ferments its beans, solar-dries them, and then roasts them in temperature-controlled roasters. They are then ground to a fineness at par with the world’s finest chocolates — all without ever leaving Davao, making Malagos Chocolate, a true tree-to-bar product.

A taste of the Philippine islands

All chocolate processors worth their weight identify as a bean-to-bar makers. A new crop of chocolatiers has changed the way the world consumes chocolate, whether it's in terms of working with cacao beans during the fermenting and roasting processes in order to enhance the unique characteristics of a single origin source, or by creating new chocolate confectionary informed by cultural taste profiles.

Philo Chua of Theo & Philo is one such maker. He was the first Filipino bean-to bar maker who worked exclusively with single origin Philippine cacao, and the first to brand and market his chocolate as such. After living in the United States for a period in his professional career, Chua returned to the Philippines and founded the chocolate brand Theo & Philo, in 2010. Since then, Theo & Philo has captivated chocolate lovers around the world with its offering of chocolate products that are wrapped in beautifully designed packaging, often inspired by Philippine culture and more recently, by its flora and fauna. The brand has already won a multitude of international awards in London, Paris, and the United States.

Theo & Philo chooses to focus on unique flavor combinations that take their cues from Filipino culinary culture. Dark chocolate with calamansi, milk chocolate adobo, milk chocolate with pili nut and pinipig are among Theo & Philo’s bestsellers. Also popular are the chocolate-covered dried mangoes and hot chocolate powder.

Modern chocolate makers like Chua are also emerging entrepreneurs and they know that in today’s marketplace, theirs is never just a local story. In a world where first impressions are made instantly and seemingly last forever, product image and aesthetic are everything. Niche players like Theo & Philo can still complete globally thanks to good design and social media.

Celebrating taste and terroir

Rob Crisostomo is the founder of Seedcore Agricultural Industrial Corporation and works with cacao farmers in many capacities. An exporter of cacao to Barry Callebaut, the world’s largest manufacturer of high quality chocolate, and a budding chocolatier under the Tigre y Oliva label, Crisostomo is a risk-taking social entrepreneur that has invested both his time and money in this promising new industry.

Tigre y Oliva first introduced itself with a wave of chocolate bars that highlighted the micro origins of Davao, Davao Occidental, Cotabato, and Bohol. Each chocolate bar celebrated the community of farmers that grew the beans and the distinct taste profiles of each area’s unique terroir. Today, its line has an expanded range of chocolate pralines made with Filipino confectionary delicacies like dulce gatas, as well as a range of bakery offerings such as cookies, brownies, chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons, and banana chips.

“I believe what is making craft chocolate makers successful is the acceptance of the local market," says Crisostomo. “If this movement happened 10 or 15 years ago, it probably wouldn’t have had received the same reception.” Crisostomo also says that the changing dietary habits of world consumers looking for healthier snacks that included dark chocolate has also helped in welcoming Philippine chocolate to the global marketplace.

The cacao is a crop that the world desperately needs due to an increasing demand for chocolate and a diminishing world supply.

By 2022, the country hopes to produce 100,000 MT of cacao, a move that will strategically position the Philippines as a key regional player in the business of this underserved commodity.

The new kid on the block

Even with prized raw materials, enthusiastic entrepreneurs, and award-winning cacao beans and chocolates, perhaps what makes the Philippine chocolate industry most attractive to potential partners is the fact that the industry is still young, flexible, and hungry.

Although still a relative newcomer, Auro Chocolate’s has already had an impact on the Philippine chocolate industry. Auro stepped on to the Philippine chocolate landscape in 2017 and was co-founded by Mark Ocampo and Kelly Go. It is the fastest growing premium bean-to-bar company in the Philippines with a 2,000 square meter facility in Calamba, Laguna equipped with state of the art machinery, a network of partner farming communities in Mindanao, and a brand campaign that incorporates cleverly designed packaging and highlights a chocolate bar and food crawl around Manila’s hippest dining corridor.

In the last three years, Auro has not only won international awards for its grand array of chocolate bars and coverture, but more recently, its partner farmer Jose Saguban from Davao, won the grand prize of the Top 20 Best Cacao Beans in the world as awarded by the International Cocoa Awards of the Cocoa of Excellence program at the prestigious Salon du Chocolat in Paris.

To receive his award, Auro flew Mr. Saguban to Paris. Ocampo shares, “When we found out about the award, we felt it would be very meaningful to bring Mang Jose to Paris to receive his award personally. It’s really touching for us since Mang Jose had never been out of Davao before so for him to be able to go to Paris, to experience winter for the first time, to be able to try many things for the first time, and for him to be able to receive his award personally, it really strikes you deep in the heart.”

A bright future for Philippine cacao

Although the Philippines may have been the first country in Asia to grow cacao four centuries ago, it has yet to reach its full potential. But with the natural bounty of the best cacao species on the planet, a supportive government, and a proud people to champion its endeavors, this determined community knows that the realization of their collective vision for the Philippine cacao farmer is well within reach.

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CNN Philippines Presents: The Rise of Philippine Chocolate has replays on Jan. 29 (Wednesday), 5 p.m.; Jan. 31 (Friday), 9:30 p.m.; and February 1 (Saturday), 8:30 p.m. You can also watch the documentary on the CNN Philippines YouTube channel. This documentary is made in partnership with the Department of Tourism.