Chocolate Dream: The Only Bean to Bar Maker in Laos

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“I was the first person who came to East Timor and enquired about East Timor cacao… one of the people there had somehow gotten a hold of some knowledge on how to ferment and dry, so he had done just a tiny bit with a few trees, and they sold me those initial attempts,” said the traveler.

Mikaël Bronkhorst, Founder of Chocolate Dream

At the present moment, Mikael Bronkhorst is the only person in Laos who makes chocolate, and it does not seem that this situation will change in the near future. He has taken a relaxed and careful approach to running his company and has done very little in the way of promotion. He has neither created a café nor has he made any financial investments in any equipment that is not completely necessary. Because Mikael gained valuable experience while running his first company in Laos, a simple eco-friendly hostel located just outside of the capital city of Vientiane.

After deciding to relocate to Laos from Israel in 2006, Mika’l had the opportunity to look at a number of different properties before settling on the one that would become the location of his ideal homestead. After three years of hard work, Mikael finally opened the doors of his eco-friendly guesthouse known as Dream Time. After hanging up a few posters throughout town, he saw that there was a gradual increase in the number of attendees. His goal was to simply share the forest with individuals who want to have a genuine connection with the natural world. According to Mikael, this was “the beginning of the end” when they reached the top spot in TripAdvisor’s rankings for Vientiane after just four years.

The bungalows at the guest home provided a chance to genuinely connect with the surrounding environment. People didn’t remain there once they reached number one because they read the description and decided that they wanted to be one with the spiders and lizards for the length of their stay rather than utilize internet. They traveled all the way there to stay at the hotel that had the highest rating on TripAdvisor. “I would say that the first thousand people who arrived were perfectly intended to be there; they were travelers, not tourists,” he commented with a relaxed grin. “I would say that the first thousand people that came were absolutely meant to be there.” The atmosphere was gradually transformed as a result of the many subtle changes that occurred as a direct result of the shifting customer base.

Mikael was forced to make the difficult decision to put an end to Dream Time since it had become the dream of another person. Locals who had been visiting there for picnics complained, imploring him to keep at least partly open, but as soon as he made the decision to shut it, Mikael knew that it was the correct option to make. It’s either all or nothing for him; that’s how he approaches problems. He was finally able to reclaim his life and his refuge. Once again, his forest was his to deal with as he and his wife, whom he had the pleasure of meeting during her stay in Dream Time, saw fit, the forest was once again his.

Following the conclusion of Dream Time one year before, Mikael discovered that he once again spent a lot of time in his woodland going on lengthy walks. He only spent meandering spans of time reacquainting himself with his land, bemoaning the idea of having a job and working for someone else once again. “I think it was one of these days when I was strolling in the forest, a little disoriented, that I had a vision. I don’t remember exactly when it happened. A clear picture… I saw in my head every step of the chocolate-making process.

That vision got him around 90% of the way to edible chocolate, with the last 10% or so being readily filled in by Professor Google. Mikael’s heritage was Belgian and Dutch, but he was brought up in Israel, so he had his fair amount of high-quality chocolate throughout his childhood.

Following Mikael’s disclosure to his brother of his forest vision, the latter issued him a dare to produce an actual batch of chocolate before the end of that year. But by the end of 2015, his studies and trials at home had shown him that in order to create anything that even remotely resembled chocolate, he was going to need to make an investment in some specialized machinery.

“Belgian chocolate was a staple in my childhood diet. I don’t know, I guess I’ve always had a very high standard for chocolate… I didn’t start selling my chocolate until a year after that first batch, until I felt like “wow, this is really good.”

Therefore, Mikael made his first purchase of a melangeur around the end of the year 2015. He drove his motorcycle all the way to the border, where he bought a bag of cacao from Thailand and then proceeded to manufacture his very first batch of chocolate using the cacao. Even now, he is in possession of some of it. It stinks to high heaven. He huffs and laughs quietly as he describes how difficult it is to consume the food. “But I’m delighted it didn’t work. Because if it had succeeded on the very first attempt, it would have been an excessively simple task…. If it were simple to produce delicious chocolate, there wouldn’t be any excitement in the process, and you’d get tired of it very fast.

Even after he had released his work to the public for the first time, it took him another year or two to develop recipes that he was satisfied with. At that time, he was still using cacao from Thailand; but, in 2018, he began to travel more, resulting in an increased number of links with farmers around Asia. His first trip to a new place of origin took him to Bali, and subsequent trips took him to Timor Leste, Chiang Mai, Vietnam, and so on. Additionally, he is continuing to gather fresh sources.

These days, Mikael manufactures everything, from white and milk to the darkest of the dark. He even makes the deepest of the dark. His starting percentages are 77% (for the year he was born), then grew to 88% (for the year his sister was born), and then logically evolved into 55% and 66% from there. His go-to percentages are 77% and 88%. He is still using a moderately rusty $100 roaster that he acquired from a local Laos coffee grower who had just let it to gather dust in a nook for many years previous to his purchasing it. But things are looking up for the roaster as of late, much like his forest.

As of the latter half of 2019, Mikael continues to bring all of his cocoa into Laos by hand, purchasing it directly from cacao producers in various countries around Asia and the South Pacific. During my visit, he had in stock bars that had been produced using cacao sourced from Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Mikael loves cycling in new origins whenever he is able to get his hands on them; nevertheless, he prefers to preserve partnerships with the farmers he has already been working with since they are more reliable.

A few times over the course of the years, he attempted to grow cocoa on his farm, but the trees never survived for very long. The area around Vientiane has a high concentration of spores in the air, which allows termites to flourish on the mushrooms that may readily develop in cacao wood. This results in the premature death of saplings. On the other hand, his sister-in-law was able to cultivate some cacao with relative ease barely 10 kilometers distant. Therefore, there is still a chance that cacao will be grown in Laos one day in the distant future.

Even more ambitiously, he has been attempting to persuade some of the regional farmers to plant cocoa trees by assuring them that he would purchase the whole of their harvest in cash; however, he has not yet been successful in this endeavor (that he knows of). It would seem that the cannabis sector in Laos is seeing a resurgence, and local farmers are becoming aware of the potential financial benefits of cultivating cannabis on their property. So selling cocoa has proven to be challenging. “Who knows? In five years, I may have one hundred farmers selling me cocoa. Who knows?” But who knows, maybe, and perhaps in five years I’ll be able to put it all to use.”

Even though the Belgian-Dutch chocolate producer does not currently own a café, he just does not want to burden his family with the responsibility of running a business at this time. It brings up too many memories of the start of the end of Dream Time for a guy who prides himself on being able to learn from his past errors. In addition to that, the production of chocolate is not something that piques his attention.

“In an ideal world, a few Lao [people] would be in charge of this place, and my job would be to travel the world in search of high-quality cacao and bring it back to this place to be made into chocolate.”

Mikael is currently sourcing, importing, sorting, roasting, peeling, and grinding each bag of cacao into chocolate by hand. Perhaps this will change in a few years, but for the time being, he is doing it all by hand. Each batch of chocolate is tempered by either him or an employee who works part-time for him before being hand-packaged and personally delivered to stores in and around Vientiane. It seems that the strategy of “slow and steady” will prevail, with a focus on “slow,” in light of a recent expansion that took place farther north.

Check Mikael’s Facebook or Instagram for the most up-to-date information on where in Vientiane you can buy his chocolate bars. You may use this information to locate Mikael’s chocolate. If you’re fortunate you’ll visit Vientiane on an expo day!