Taiwanese Cacao & Chocolate Culture

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There is a common misunderstanding that Taiwan and China are the same country. Mandarin is the predominant language spoken by residents of both of these cities, and many of the locals have Chinese origin. However, it is important not to miss the indigenous culture of Taiwan, which may be experienced at many of the country’s most famous monuments, such as Kenting National Park and Taroko Gorge. If you ask a person from Taiwan where they are from, they will respond by saying that they are from Taiwan and not Chinese.

This is a significant difference since it is part of the history that has contributed to the formation of Taiwan’s cultural awareness, shaped Taiwan’s agricultural history, and may restrict any future growth of Taiwan’s chocolate sector. Taiwan is a very tiny island that has both tropical and subtropical climates, in contrast to the vastness of China. Even for those who are simply going to be in Taipei, it seems like they’re going to have a steamy vacation. The winters in Taiwan are pleasant, and the climate is warm enough in the island’s center and south for the cultivation of cacao and other tropical fruits, which are among the island’s most delicious foods. In addition to its well-known high-quality tea, Taiwan is known for its pineapple cakes and dried fruit slices, both of which make for excellent takeaways.

Despite this, farmers in the Southeast Asian nation are always seeking for new methods to increase the value of their products or find a way out of the agricultural business completely as the nation continues to expand. This portends a difficult future for Taiwan’s relatively new cocoa sector. In contrast to the Americans, who already have an established market for their young cacao business (in Hawaii and Puerto Rico), Taiwanese people are not known to eat a significant amount of chocolate. Nevertheless, Taiwanese cocoa growers are pushing forth with full might despite the challenges they face.

How Cacao Came To Taiwan

Let’s take a journey to the southeast of the island so I can fill you in on the history of chocolate production on Taiwan and how it came to be. The northern part of South America is where cacao first appeared in the world. It was first introduced to Asia by colonial Spaniards in the Philippines, and it was initially introduced to Taiwan by colonial Japanese. Both of these introductions took place in Asia. During Japan’s 50-year colonization of Taiwan, at least one Japanese business grew cacao on the island, most likely beginning in the very early years of the twentieth century. This practice began when Japan took control of Taiwan.

Because of Taiwan’s tropical environment, the middle and southern parts of the island are ideal locations for the cultivation of tropical fruits such cocoa, mango, and pineapple. At the same time as the Japanese people were beginning to establish plantations on the island of Ilha Formosa, their government was also making a significant effort to increase the production of sugar cane across the southern region. After the conclusion of World War II, cocoa trees in Taiwan were chopped down and replaced with other crops. This occurred despite the fact that the heritage of Taiwanese sugar cane has persisted far after the end of the occupation. After then, Taiwan did not have any commercial operations that attempted to cultivate cocoa for many decades.

Beginning in the 1980s, Taiwan was the site of a number of separate experiments on the cultivation of cacao. Cacao, on the other hand, demands a significant amount of labor and resources in comparison to other tropical fruit crops, such as passion fruit and wax apple, which may be grown commercially. Cacao must be picked when it is ripe, then fermented, and finally dried in the correct manner, before it can be used in the production of chocolate. This is in contrast to the majority of fruits, which are eaten in their natural condition.

To compensate farmers for the additional time necessary to properly process cacao—not to mention the training required to learn such skills—those beans needed to fetch a much higher price than the market was willing to pay at the time. This was due to the fact that the market was unwilling to pay for such training. Therefore, all of their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Around the turn of the century, the island finally began to make a serious effort to cultivate cacao. But how exactly did Taiwan’s rapidly expanding cocoa sector manage to eventually establish itself?

Adding Value To Taiwanese Cacao

In terms of commercial production, Taiwanese farmers are still generally unaware of the numerous steps required for appropriate processing, despite the fact that local buyers have been working to improve this knowledge gap. The primary issue is that the price on the global market is not high enough to make agriculture profitable for local farmers. The current market price for one kilogram of high-quality cacao in Taiwan is between 600 and 1000 New Taiwan dollars (approximately $19 to $34 USD), whereas one kilogram of cacao imported from neighboring Papua New Guinea might cost a chocolate maker only 400 New Taiwan dollars ($14 USD) after taxes and fees.

If consumers are not willing to pay significantly higher prices for chocolate that is made with cacao from Taiwan, then local farmers are going to have a difficult time selling their cacao in the near future. Even though demand is currently outpacing the relatively meager supply, domestic and international interest in cacao from Taiwan won’t continue unless the quality is maintained at a consistently high level. The production of chocolate has become an important source of income for a significant number of those same farmers.

But the process of making chocolate is complicated, and it becomes even more so when you have complete control over all of the ingredients. However, for someone like Ming Song Chiu, that is also the interesting part of making chocolate; he is able to easily modify the entire process in order to cater to the preferences of Taiwanese consumers. Ming Song displays the fruits of the labor that he and his entire family have put into transforming cacao trees from Taiwan into chocolate produced in Taiwan at his restaurant and cafe, which he owns and operates under the name Choose Chiu’s. This has turned out to be the step that many Taiwanese cacao farmers were missing, the one that adds enough value to make all of their hard work worthwhile.

Making Tree To Bar Chocolate on Taiwan

Since 2007, the Chiu family has been producing tree-to-bar chocolate for the neighborhood market. Over the years, they have gradually improved their cacao processing and increased the level of sophistication of the machinery in their small chocolate factory. Over the course of the previous year, their business turned more than 400 tons of local cacao into high percentage dark chocolate. The Chius were the first local farmers to turn their cacao into a finished product, but since then, many other local farmers have joined the movement toward adding value to locally grown cacao. Cacao farmers in Taiwan’s southernmost growing region can now participate in ongoing chocolate-making workshops.

The efforts of other Pintung farmers, such as Siong-Goan Lee’s, to teach better post-harvest processing techniques to local farmers have been ongoing for well over a decade. A more recent development of these efforts includes the establishment of the Pingtung Cacao Farmers Association, which purchases fresh cacao pods from a number of different farmers in order to ferment a collectively smaller quantity. Farmers are able to grow smaller quantities of cacao in addition to their existing crops if the processing is done correctly. Because of this, it is worthwhile for farmers to process smaller amounts as a cooperative, and they do not feel the need to start their own chocolate brands.

Cacao tree cultivation has been a boon to farmers in the South who have tried to expand their crop by planting it on land where areca palm and betel nut trees are already established. Areca palms produce a seed that has been chewed in the area for a long time as a stimulant to continue working, comparable to the effects of caffeine or nicotine. However, research has shown that consumption of the nut can lead to oral cancer, and the government of Taiwan is working hard to prevent its spread throughout the southern region. This provides them with a strong incentive to support the fledgling cacao industry in the region by participating in educational events and seminars of various kinds.

In the many years that have passed since the Chiu family first started making farm-fresh chocolate, the tree-to-bar movement that originated in Taiwan has gradually made its way further north, all the way up to Taichung City. Farmers have been able to determine, with the assistance of specialists from all over the world, including Eddie Kim, who hails from Malaysia, and Kanako Satsutani, who hails from Japan, how the various stages of chocolate processing affect the product’s final flavor. The farmers on Taiwan are slowly mapping the mix of varietals on the island and experimenting with new products, but the education of the island’s population about chocolate is moving at a snail’s pace outside of the Pingtung region.

Chocolate Culture on Taiwan

Although the number of bean-to-bar chocolate makers in Taiwan has at least doubled in the past two years, it is difficult to determine how much the local market has grown despite the fact that the number of bean-to-bar chocolate makers in Taiwan increases every year. Because there are many more bean-to-bar makers than tree-to-bar makers, particularly in Taipei, it is more difficult for consumers to zero in on the focus being placed on local agriculture. Because the cost of craft chocolate is approximately three to five times more per gram than the bars you might find at a convenience store like xiao chi (7-11), it has been challenging for all chocolate makers to break into the market.

Even the dark chocolates in Taiwan often have a high sugar content, with some containing as much as 45–50% sugar, since the most popular chocolate brands in Taiwan originate from Japan and China. The most well-liked option is really dark chocolate bars from Japan, however they are sold under the misleading name “black chocolate.” People in Taiwan are particularly interested in the idea of eating chocolate for its health advantages, similar to how eating chocolate for its health benefits has become common practice in Hong Kong. This creates a wonderful opportunity for chocolate manufacturers in the area; however, the question of whether consumers will be willing to pay a price commensurate with the product’s level of quality in order to sustain dozens of small-scale chocolate manufacturers is one that only time will answer.

There has been a culture of enjoying local products in Taiwan for a very long time. This culture began with the consumption of tea and later expanded to include coffee at the turn of the century. In the area of black teas, also known as red teas, the central region of Taiwan is responsible for the production of a number of different varietals and respects the background and nuances of each. But even in the roughly twenty years that have passed since then, local coffee has been reluctant to gain popularity. It would appear that local cacao is heading in the same direction, as a cultural import with a great potential—that is, as long as farmers can remain in the industry for long enough to see that potential fulfilled.

For chocolate manufacturers like the Chiu family and Siong-Goan Lee’s niece (Joyce), who keeps her chocolate cafe open on the weekends to sell to locals, expanding the local chocolate market has been a long-term goal. If not, the majority of her chocolate is transported to Taipei, where it is purchased by residents of the north as well as a significant number of visitors. She teaches chocolate-making to individuals or small groups, but there is not enough demand to maintain a consistent schedule for the classes.

The three main cities of Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung are the primary destinations for the majority of the visitors that come to Taiwan. The majority of chocolate makers are unable to open and maintain their own chocolate shops due to the prohibitively high costs associated with doing so. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance for manufacturers to concentrate on the markets in their respective countries rather than exporting. This has meant that the southern part of the country has embraced the concept of leisure farms, in which guests visit a working farm to see a condensed version of all of the work that goes into growing their favorite products. In this type of farm, guests are able to get a better understanding of how their favorite foods are grown. Taking advantage of photo opportunities is a must.

DIY workshops for children are a form of activity that is performed frequently by chocolate manufacturers and even chocolatiers. The do-it-yourself classes typically last for about an hour, cost less than ten dollars USD per person, and provide a comprehensive overview of the cultivation of cacao and the manufacture of chocolate. All of this takes place while the children have the opportunity to get their hands covered in chocolate, which, in my opinion, is a win-win situation for everyone involved. It seems like every other chocolate maker, theme park, and museum that I went to offered some kind of do-it-yourself class; clearly, it’s ingrained in the culture. While the children are gaining knowledge, the adults are, too.

The present landscape of adding value to cacao in Taiwan consists nearly entirely of selling finished chocolate and cacao nibs, as well as participating in hands-on educational opportunities related to cacao. This not only results in a rise in the ultimate price given to the farmers and chocolate manufacturers, but it also results in a reduction in the transportation expenses incurred by shops interested in selling items created in Taiwan. However, anybody who want to consume cacao produced in Taiwan outside of the island is going to have a difficult time doing so. Although the cacao business is still in its infancy, there is potential for future growth in areas such as the use of byproducts such as cacao liquor, pulp, and other cacao-related waste products generated on farms.

Even though more cocoa plants are being planted, it will be many years before any of those trees yield fruit. If Taiwan is to keep its value, it is imperative that the cacao growers and chocolate manufacturers prioritize developing stronger partnerships with one another. In addition, the development of the country’s cacao sector must have a value-added business model; otherwise, the industry won’t be there for very long. It is essential that the farmers and their education continue to take primary importance within this approach. This also applies to the customers who buy the product.

Farmers in Taiwan, like farmers everywhere else, are business owners; even if they are really enthusiastic about something, at some point they will need to be compensated for their efforts. At the moment, their sales are mostly conducted via Taiwanese chocolate companies such as Choose Chiu’s, FuWan Chocolate, and Funky Chocolate. I have high hopes that in the not-too-distant future, more chocolate businesses will be able to combine additional items made in Taiwan, such as dried fruits and vanilla beans (currently grown in Puli Township, an hour outside of Taichung).

The expanding handmade chocolate business in Taiwan is giving hundreds of farmers with outlets for cacao farmed on practically any scale; nevertheless, this sector is not without its own set of challenges. As chocolate manufacturers and cacao growers in Taiwan investigate the possibility of growing their business outside the borders of the country, they are increasingly turning to international chocolate contests in the hope of receiving awards that are acknowledged on a worldwide scale. It is safe to say that not every farmer or chocolate manufacturer is seeking for prizes merely for the sake of increasing their sticker price, but it was brought to my attention as a problem that is especially prevalent in the south. And that makes sense.

After you or one of your competitors has applied for and been given an award, you will feel more pressure to succeed as well. This may result in greater pricing for farmers and manufactures alike, but it is also a costly venture in and of itself. A buyer may be persuaded to make a first purchase by an awards sticker, but it is the product’s quality that will keep them coming back for more.

On the other hand, the very first purchase you make might sometimes make all the difference. People in Taiwan are certainly aware of when it is necessary to invest time and money in their own health, and with the potential to expand into neighboring Hong Kong and throughout China, even a small investment in the direction of better health could result in a significant increase in revenue for farmers and makers. The production of chocolate in Taiwan is expanding, but only time will tell whether this expansion is occurring at a rate that is sufficient to sustain the nation’s numerous chocolate farmers.

The Future of Taiwanese Cacao & Chocolate

The current landscape of adding value to cacao on Taiwan is almost exclusively in the form of experiential education and selling finished chocolate & cacao nibs. This increases the final price paid to the farmers/chocolate makers, as well as saving costs on shipping for retailers interested in selling Taiwan-made products. But for anyone looking to use Taiwanese cacao off the island, good luck. Taking advantage of the cacao liquor, pulp, and other cacao-related waste produced on the farm could be a possibility in the future, but for now the industry is still so young.

More cacao trees are being planted, but even those will take years to bear fruit. Focusing on strengthened relationships between cacao farmers and chocolate makers is a must if the value is to stay on Taiwan. And a value-added model has to be part of how the country builds up its cacao industry, otherwise it won’t last very long. Keeping the farmers and their education at the center of this model is imperative. This goes for the consumers, as well.

Taiwanese farmers, as with all farmers, are business owners; even if they’re very passionate about something, eventually they need to get paid. Their outlet for that is currently through Taiwanese chocolate brands like Choose Chiu’s, FuWan Chocolate, and Funky Chocolate. Hopefully soon more chocolate brands will be able to incorporate other Taiwan-grown products, like dried fruits and vanilla beans (currently grown in Puli Township, an hour outside of Taichung).

Taiwan’s burgeoning craft chocolate industry is providing hundreds of farmers with outlets for cacao grown at almost any scale, but this industry comes with its own issues. As Taiwanese chocolate makers and cacao farmers look into expanding their market outside of the country, they turn to international chocolate competitions to provide them with globally-recognized accolades. Certainly not every farmer or chocolate maker is applying for awards just for the sticker price-bump, but it was expressed to me as a particular issue in the south. And it makes sense.

Once you or your competitor applies for an wins an award, it puts pressure on you to win, as well. For farmers and makers alike this can add up to higher prices, but it’s also an expensive endeavor in-and-of itself. An awards sticker may convince a consumer to buy in the first place, but it’s quality which keeps them coming back.

Then again, sometimes that first purchase can make all the difference. Taiwanese people certainly know when to spend time & money on their own well-being, and with the potential to expand into nearby Hong Kong and all of China, that first purchase towards good health could add up to a lot of income for farmers and makers. Taiwanese chocolate is growing, but only time will tell if it’s growing quickly enough to support its many farmers.