In June of last year, when I went to Emily’s chocolate factory in Chuncheon, it was the first time we met. We were both delighted to geek out about excellent chocolate and swap bars, and we sat down to speak over cups of sipping chocolate after they had been open for little over six months at the time.
Fast forward another year and a half, and Emily is now enjoying her second year in business, along with all the highs and lows that it has brought. Bean to bar is a relatively new concept in South Korean chocolate culture, and she is one of the people who helped establish it. She begins by roasting the cacao beans, also known as the little brown seeds that are produced by the tropical Theobroma cacao tree, and then she peels them before grinding them into chocolate.
It is a lengthy procedure that may be finished quickly but requires a lot of effort to accomplish well. And Emily is incredibly great at doing it. She was not only one of the first people on the peninsula to create chocolate, but she has also evolved into one of the most skilled chocolatiers.
But how exactly has the culture of chocolate been spreading over the rest of South Korea?
To put it simply, in a slow and steady manner.
The term “Korean chocolate culture” is still somewhat vague and conjures up a number of different imagery, such as Lotte, Pepero Day, Ghana, cartoon hearts, and so on. It is important to note that none of them have anything to do with artisan chocolate or even actually with nations; “Ghana” is the name of a famous candy bar in this area. However, in a nation whose primary means of communication is an application called “Kakao,” you would anticipate a greater degree of fervor for the country’s burgeoning chocolate culture.
Yet nevertheless, creators struggle.
There is maybe enough room for a dozen people to sit down and have a conversation at Emily’s modest chocolate factory-cafe, which is called Public Chocolatory. The cafe’s tables are adorned with drawings depicting the process of manufacturing chocolate, and the product display is lined with burlap sacks containing cacao beans. The design is open and see-through, and there is an unobstructed view into the space where the cacao beans are transformed into the gleaming chocolate bars.
Emily is kind enough to let me inside the chocolate-making area, and she immediately positions herself so that she can keep an eye on the entrance in case a client walks through it. The fact that she is working alone herself this evening is not unusual for a Sunday. She tells me, “Most people simply come in and purchase something; they don’t stay,” as she jumps up to meet the client who has just stepped in before she continues our conversation. After a few of minutes, Emily comes back and smoothes her hands over her shirt before continuing to tell her own origin tale. He had already purchased a coffee and a chocolate bar.
How did a young Korean lady get started creating chocolate, and where does her tale tie in with the larger narrative of Korean handmade chocolate as a whole?
I’ll let Emily give you some insight:
“During the times of the semester when I had exams, I would often treat myself to a new bar of chocolate. I went to the store, got one bar, and when I was studying, I took one bite of it while I was studying. I wanted to give my whole attention to my schoolwork, so I went to the store. One mouthful, while I study. Onebitestudying. It reminded me of the vitality I had when I was younger.”
Do not get the wrong idea; Emily is still young, only in the early stages of her 30s, but in the ten years since she completed her formal schooling, she has faced a lot of hardships that have taken their toll on her youthful vigor.
After a few years had passed since those enjoyable study sessions, she had entered the professional world of South Korea, which is notorious for having high-stress conditions, and she had become unwell as a result of it. Like, terribly unwell. Emily had immersed herself so thoroughly in her profession that the tension eventually overwhelmed her body. As a result, she was had to take a break from the business world for a while. During her break, she spent a lot of time in the library, where she would chill out in the area devoted to cookbooks.
It was then that she started on her odyssey with chocolate.
Everything began out with a book written in Korean about chocolate. This meant that in 2011, a book would be written just for chocolatiers, who were the pioneers of a gourmet food movement that was still struggling to acquire recognition on the peninsula. Emily developed an interest in chocolate, first as a pastime but later as a possible route to take in her professional life. In contrast to the majority of young Koreans of the time, she ultimately decided to forego the security of her work in order to follow her passions and get trained as a chocolatier.
A little over a year later, she became acquainted with Eddie Kim, a figure whose tortuous journey in chocolate contributed to the development of the bean-to-bar movement in Korea.
Eddie’s, on the other hand, is a tale for another time.
Emily was having a wonderful time expanding her horizons and learning about the complexities of a wide variety of businesses. “Making chocolate was a lot of fun, but all along I had this burning question: ‘What really is true chocolate?'” Chocolate is nice, tasty, enjoyable, and sweet; yet, I was very interested in learning the fundamentals of chocolate. So Emily began doing research on cacao, and almost immediately she came across Eddie and BK Kim, the two pioneers of the Korean handmade chocolate movement. Emily’s first foray into the world of artisan chocolate was in 2012, but it would be another two years before she would take the greatest leap of faith of all: moving to New Zealand.
“I began to believe that in order to accomplish anything with chocolate in Korea, I was going to have to put up my own location, since otherwise I can’t do anything here.” There was no one in Korea who could provide me with any information about cocoa. The Wellington Chocolate Factory is now open for business. Emily was clearly apprehensive about the prospect of uprooting her life in Korea and moving to New Zealand, but the thought was also quite thrilling for her.
“At the time, I was in Korea, but they wanted to interview me through Skype; so, we had the interview, and once it was over, they told me to please come.” “So that’s what I did,” she chuckles.
The Wellington Chocolate Factory hadn’t even been around for more than a year when we first visited. When Emily joined the squad, there were only five or six members total. However, when she left the company only two years later, there were around twenty workers total, including those working part-time.
Emily was smack in the middle of the chocolate revolution that was going place in New Zealand at the same time as Eddie and BK were working to foster the next generation of chocolate producers in South Korea.
However, the artisanal food scene in New Zealand has a lot of cultural factors going for it, with a range of artisanal food groups riffing off of one other and building up a backbone built in community. This is one of the reasons why the craft food scene in New Zealand is so successful. In this respect, the social hierarchy of Korea and the cultural tendency towards competitiveness have been something of a barrier.
The coffee culture has expanded significantly, but the focus is still mostly on quantity, rather than quality. Public Chocolatory has been established for two years now, which is the same amount of time that Emily has been living in Wellington. Despite this, Emily’s modest business only has three workers, including herself. The similarities and differences between the two markets are glaringly clear.
Emily mentions that in Wellington, New Zealand, “they lead the culture of bean to bar,” but in Korea, “bean to bar is still relatively new.” People have a favorable reaction whenever I talk about the chocolate, despite the fact that I still have to explain it… Additionally, the chocolate market in Korea is not nearly as large as it is in other countries.”
It’s a valid topic to bring up.
Because chocolate is a relatively recent arrival to our country, the average Korean doesn’t consume nearly as much of it as a Kiwi does. In spite of having a population that is more than ten times that of New Zealand, Korea has only around six to eight handmade chocolate producers who are well-established, and another dozen or so who are attempting to expand their companies. There is also a smaller fine food scene in Korea, and there is also less motivation in establishing one. However, young people in Korea are now working very hard to alter that in a number of fine cuisine sectors.
In point of fact, every single member of the first and second generations of chocolate manufacturers in Korea is now in their thirties.
You may be interested in: Millennials in Chocolate
The face of Korean chocolate is that of a very youthful person, which is something that you would not notice at first look. People who were born in Korea in the 1980s or later have spent their whole lives on a peninsula where democracy in its purest form has been the dominant system of governance. It is a location where, if you protest anything, change will occur as a direct result of your actions. Take, for example, the impeachment of President Park Geun Hye and the subsequent imposition of a jail term of twenty-four years upon her. This was not a movement that consisted just of upset young people, but it did convey a message to all young Koreans to the effect that this is your nation, and it will be what you make it.
Some younger people, like Emily, have come to see this as an indication that South Korea has at long last arrived. Those days, when every adult citizen of working age contributed to their nation’s efforts to strengthen its position in the global community, are long gone. As long as you are prepared to put in the effort, activities that you formerly considered to be little more than cherished pastimes may now be transformed into jobs. There is a good chance that mom and dad won’t support your decision, but in today’s world, they don’t really have to. The nation’s capital, Seoul, has become the epicenter of this influx of Western culture, which can be seen in the country’s fashion, professions, and cuisine.
The so-called “Korean Wave” (hallyu) is expanding its influence far beyond the borders of the Republic.
Emily is among the growing number of individuals who are opting to gain the information they’ve gained from studying in another country before returning home. However, in bean-to-bar production in Korea, the majority of manufacturers still opt to learn and experiment with chocolate using resources available inside the nation. Emily took a detour because, quite literally, she chose a different route.
Emily has just opened a business in Chuncheon, her birthplace, which is located around one and a half hours outside of Seoul and is referred to as “the Bottom of the Earth.” She has built quite a reputation for herself thanks to her abilities, and with a little assistance from her pals, she has been able to do so despite the ongoing challenges of teaching the general population and despite the fact that she lives outside of the cultural center.
I mean, from her other employees. Collaborators?
Over the course of her career, Emily has had the opportunity to collaborate with a wide variety of local companies, resulting in the creation of unique venues and events. The year before, she invited a few dozen students from a local university to her factory for a tour, and at the conclusion of the trip, they sampled some of her single origin bars.
It’s a pleasant experience, but running a chocolate business in Korea is unquestionably difficult work. In contrast to the Japanese, Koreans are not used to paying a premium for meals of a better quality or that are more distinctive. And since there aren’t as many population centers as there are in their eastern neighbor, there are days when it seems like Seoul or nothing. As a result, the majority of Emily’s partnerships include working with local farmers or producing specialty bars for businesses and events, rather than collaborating with other chocolate manufacturers in Korea.
“There are local farmers cultivating ginseng in Chuncheon… I added the dried ginseng to the Ecuador chocolate.” After I had it cinched, I then poured the powder in. It has a very robust flavor.
Emily shared a couple more similar anecdotes, in which she collaborated with various community organizations to develop her company in her own neighborhood. But in a nation where there is such a strong sense of national pride (and online purchasing), it might be difficult to feel as if you are having as much of an effect when the majority of your clientele is confined to the location in which your business is headquartered. And with competition heating up— 10 new producers joined the scene this year, with more than half of them based in Seoul— it’s beginning to seem like her location is more of a barrier than an advantage when it comes to reaching out to a consumer that is prepared to buy.
For instance, she has been working hard lately on importing a new origin of cocoa beans that she’s fallen in love with, but she’s having trouble with the government. In addition to the steep price of high-quality cacao, she would be responsible for the expenses associated with the stringent testing of the beans that the government would conduct. But now that there are more people who manufacture things, she may be able to find a way out of this specific predicament if she can split the costs with some of the other people who make things.
Therefore, even though she is worried about the situation, she is pleased about the possibility of establishing a community in Korea that is comprised of chocolate lovers and connoisseurs. Bean to bar is something that these new manufacturers are interested in, but not nearly to the same extent as their predecessors.
There aren’t many manufacturers of “pure” chocolate left in the world these days since almost all of the new manufacturers are operating cafés that also serve coffee, beverages, and baked goods, and they just so happen to sell chocolate. However, this is not an unusual approach for producers to take when going halfway in. In my view, doing things in this manner is the most effective way to go about it. The path without risk.
Emily does not anticipate that there will be a sudden explosion of one hundred fine chocolate makers in Korea within the next few years, as there has been in Japan, due to the fact that the fine chocolate community in Korea is still relatively small; however, she does anticipate that there will be continued expansion. The current business is almost entirely dependent on upscale chocolate bonbons and gifts as well as coffee cafes that provide tastings and informative seminars. The developing market, on the other hand, is adopting a different strategy.
Emily believes that this café model will continue to be the standard even a few of years from now, with many individuals “producing bean to bar chocolates at their own cafe, in their own space utilizing the little grinders.” But what about those who manufacture bars and beans professionally? She claims that “there are not many experts in Korea, [who are] simply chocolate manufacturers.” [Citation needed]
Emily has been working through the growing pains of operating and creating a company in a nation that is not yet ready for her product while simultaneously taking her position as one of the fine chocolate industry leaders in Korea. It will be challenging for Emily to combine the strong social hierarchy that exists in Korea with the community-based atmosphere that exists in the artisan chocolate industry, but it’s not as if she has no prior experience adjusting to other cultures. The youthful chocolate producers of Korea are more than prepared to take on this set of tasks, despite the fact that they are aware of the difficulties that lie both in the past and in the future.
Remember to stop by Public Chocolatory’s café in Chuncheon, get her chocolate bars at Cacaum, or find them at the Seoul Salon du Chocolat in January 2022!
Hours: 12pm-8pm, Tuesday to Saturday // 1pm-8pm, Sunday
Address in English: 832-6 Seoksa-dong, Chuncheon, Gangwon-do
Address in Korean: 강원도 춘천시 석사동 832-6