Thailand’s Homegrown Craft Chocolate Culture

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Thailand is a warm country. Even in the dead of winter, the south maintains its characteristic sticky and sweltering heat. Cacao, the primary ingredient in chocolate, has been cultivated in Thailand for well over a century, despite the fact that the country’s average temperature is not the kind of scorching you would normally associate with chocolate. Small-holder farmers in Thailand’s south and north have been more interested in cultivating this fruit in recent years since it has the potential to be a significant source of revenue for them. And my, is it ever expanding!

History of Cacao in Thailand

In the late 17th century, cacao was introduced to the Asian continent by way of the Spanish colonial possession of the Philippines. From there, over the subsequent 200 years, it made its way to Indonesia, India, and Malaysia, where almost all of the cacao produced was of the forastero varietal. Cacao first arrived in Thailand 116 years ago, and at first, it was only grown in the south of the country. It was brought there by Malaysian farmers who were trading ideas and crops across the border with Thailand. At first, it was difficult to make out the trees. Only a few decades later, in 1952, the government started providing financial assistance to cacao farmers in the hopes of turning the commodity into a lucrative commercial export.

However, a decline in cacao cultivation in Thailand can be traced back to the year 1997.

This decline is not necessarily attributable to concurrent increases in production in countries that are neighboring those countries. The reason for this is simply that other types of crops that already had a higher value than cacao became more popular. As a result of this slowdown in cultivation, the cacao processing plants in the area of Chanthaburi, which is located in Eastern Thailand, stepped up their production. Cacao had been grown by farmers in the area near where cacao processing facilities were located, but the demand quickly outstripped the supply.

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The cacao was initially imported from Indonesia; however, the burden of the taxes was too high for the processors. Only five or six years ago, about 2013, factories ceased operations and closed their doors forever. Then, after a few more years had passed, the transition into our present-day preoccupation with Thai cocoa started. At first, there were only a few people involved in this endeavor, and they were experimenting with making chocolate using a few small local sources for cacao. But in what seemed like a blink of an eye, many of these projects developed into fully-functioning businesses and brands.

The cultivation of cacao is still considered a secondary activity by the majority of farmers in Thailand, and the profits from cacao sales are more of an “extra” seasonal income than a primary objective. Demand for high-quality chocolate produced domestically is growing, despite the fact that the cacao industry in Thailand is still considered to be a work in progress that faces its fair share of challenges. The cultivation of a refined taste is no longer optional.

A number of locations in the vicinity of Chiang Mai, such as Chiang Rai and Nan, are seeing their respective projects come to fruition right now. The most recent estimates place the annual production of cacao in the Kingdom at a few hundred tonnes, which is a pitiful amount when compared to the hundreds of thousands of tonnes produced in the neighboring countries of Malaysia and Indonesia. But there is no denying that cacao production across the entirety of Thailand is on the rise; the only question is whether or not it is growing quickly enough.

Developing Truly Thai Cacao Varietals

The Thailand Cocoa Center is located in Chiang Mai, in the country’s far north, and has been running successfully for several decades under the direction of professor Sanh La-ongsri and his wife. The Center is still operated as a family-owned and -operated business, and it has been a driving force in the growth of the professor’s own cacao variety in the Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand. Around Chiang Mai, dozens of farms are now growing his I.M.1 variety, which is a cross between a Peruvian criollo and a forastero variety that was developed in the Philippines. Chumphon 1 is another variety of Thai cacao, and it has a much longer and more illustrious history in Thailand than any of the other varieties.

The Chumphon 1 varietal was initially developed in Trinidad as a result of work done by a Dr. Pon, who was responsible for crossing the PA7 and the NA32 varietals. However, it wasn’t exactly created for Thailand when it first started off. However, researchers at the Chumphon Horticultural Research Center in southern Thailand discovered that it resulted in a higher yield, which is why they decided to continue using it. At some point in time, Chumphon 1 emerged as the preeminent variety of cacao plant that was cultivated in Thailand, and it continues to hold that position to this day. Because of its distinctive yellow color, it is easy to identify from a distance, which is both to the great benefit and to the great detriment of the local farmers.

Every single cocoa farmer I spoke to described having problems with rodents and squirrels eating their pods, namely rats. When I went to visit a farming family in the north, I found out that they had planted a variety of other brightly colored and sweet fruits in the hopes of distracting pests from their cacao crop. Unfortunately, it does not have a 100% success rate, as seen by the abundance of hollowed-out pods that are still hanging on the trees.

Sourcing Thai Cacao (Or Rather, Not)

These days, the Chiang Mai region in the north and the center of the country both produce some cacao, but the majority of Thailand’s supply comes from the south. On the other hand, these meager sources of cacao in Thailand are, in a sense, drying up. In the past year or two, cacao farmers in Thailand have begun using their seeds to produce baby trees that can then be sold for profit rather than processing them into cacao beans that are used in the production of chocolate.

This decision results in the farmers making significantly more money in the short term and may lead to significantly more cacao being produced in Thailand over the next few years. However, at the moment it is putting regional chocolate manufacturers in a very difficult position. If farmers are selling their beans, they are doing so at an exorbitant price, around 400 THB (approximately 13 USD or more) per kilogram. In comparison to the prices in other southeast Asian countries like the Philippines or Vietnam, this one is completely unreasonable and unsustainable. The only country that might be an exception is Taiwan, where the starting price for high-quality cacao has increased to 600 New Taiwan Dollars (approximately $20 USD) per kilogram.

Although the farmers can make anywhere from 50 to 100 times as much money per pod on the seedling market, they won’t be able to rely on this source of revenue for much longer because it will run out within the next couple of years. The farmers who planted cacao trees both this year and last year will soon come to the realization that they are unable to harvest and process their cacao in the correct manner. They will find that some of the chocolate manufacturers they had planned to sell to have either gone out of business or switched to other sources of cacao that are more reliable. If farmers decide to keep those thousands of new trees, cacao will once again become a commodity from those trees. That is, if farmers decide to keep those trees.

Revamping Thai Chocolate Culture

As was discussed in the introduction to the topic of chocolate in Bangkok, there are essentially two categories of chocolate that are worth seeking out in the country of Thailand. We have “luxury” chocolate that is imported from Europe, North America, and Japan. This chocolate is perfect for those who are pressed for time and searching for something that is easily identifiable. Then there are the about a dozen places dispersed around Thailand where you may sample chocolate with value-added ingredients.

Craftspeople who take the fruit that grows in their region and transform it into beautiful chocolate are responsible for the creation of chocolate with added value. The part of the market that is taken up by “premium” and value-added brands is only growing, despite the fact that large chocolate brands like Cadbury and Mars take up a considerable proportion of the chocolate industry in Thailand. Events such as the weekly chocolate buffet held in the heart of Bangkok are attracting an increasing number of customers on a month-to-month basis, and the same can be said for the country’s many chocolate manufacturers.

Customers seem to prefer sipping their chocolates at these newly opened handmade chocolate cafés, and then taking high cacao percentage bars home with them to savour on their own later. However, the naturally occurring fruity aromas that may be found in some origins of Thai cacao might be perplexing for them. The typical Thai consumer envisions “genuine” chocolate as having a taste profile that is mostly bittersweet and cocoa-forward. The presence of any other flavor notes may give the impression that the chocolate has spoiled. One chocolatier even shared with me that a client once inquired, “Why don’t you try Starbucks? “, in reference to the fact that the flavors of their single origin chocolates are inconsistent with one another.

Craft Chocolate Makers in Thailand

One of the most established chocolate producers in Thailand, Kad Kokoa, didn’t even open their café until the spring of 2018. When the lawyer couple who started the company happened upon some cacao trees, they were in the midst of researching agricultural practices in anticipation of retiring in the country’s northern region. The couple had put the idea of making a value-added Thai chocolate out of their minds for a few months when it suddenly came back to them. They decided to form a partnership with an established farm in Chiang Mai in order to get the ball rolling on the construction of a brand that is made entirely of Thai chocolate.

The production of chocolate in Thailand is mostly concentrated in two cities: Chiang Mai and Bangkok. These two cities have established themselves as the leading producers of gourmet chocolate in Thailand, despite the fact that the cacao they use originates from all over Thailand as well as the rest of the world. The restaurants Siamaya, Mark Rin, Clean Chocolate, and Aimmika are all located in Chiang Mai. The Bangkok-based company Kad Kokoa began by sourcing their beans exclusively from the Chiang Mai region, but they have since expanded their offering to include beans from three additional regions.

Even though there are currently a few other up-and-coming manufacturers producing chocolate in Thailand using Thai cacao, I have a strong suspicion that there will soon be even more of them. Chocolasia, Kai Cocoa, and Metha Chocolate are three of these manufacturers; however, it is unknown where their headquarters are located given that they do not operate permanent cafes. Xoconat, Sarath N. Chocolatier, Shabar Chocolate, Kad Kokoa, and PARADAi are some of the chocolate manufacturers in Bangkok that focus on using cacao.

Bohnchen Chocolate is yet another manufacturer based in Bangkok that uses imported cacao to make sugar-free chocolate. They go against the grain by doing so. Outside of the Southeast Asian region, there is a Thai expat living in Toronto by the name of Amy from Mojihouse Coffee and Cacao who exports Chumphon 1 cacao. The cacao comes from a collective of farmers in the northern province of Chiang Rai. In addition, a single chocolate bar produced by an American company called Parliament Chocolate uses cacao sourced from Thailand for as long as the supply lasts.

It is difficult to keep up with all of the new bean-to-bar chocolate companies that are springing up all over Thailand these days, some of which are even located far from the country’s major cities. For instance, Matchima Chocolate and Vinn Chocolate, both of which opened their doors for business in 2019, can be found out in the countryside. Even though companies like Myth, Din, and Kanvela are planning to launch their products to the public at some point in 2020, there are almost certainly other projects that are proceeding in the background. The culture of chocolate in Thailand is in its infancy but expanding at a breakneck pace.

The Future of Chocolate in Thailand

Since cacao has only been cultivated in Thailand for a short period of time, the country’s chocolate culture is largely influenced by European traditions. Although almost all of the chocolate in Thailand is imported and of poor quality, the country has seen a significant paradigm shift in regard to chocolate over the course of the past few years. The culture of chocolate in Thailand is unquestionably flourishing, especially now that there are more than a dozen chocolate makers in the country.

Cacao has the potential to develop into a high-earning crop in Thailand, which is something that should not be discounted. A researcher at the Chumphon Horticultural Research Center told me that “there is not enough information sharing on the sides of buyers and farmers,” which is why “the farmers aren’t growing as much as or as well as they could to meet demand.” Farmers don’t judge the value of cacao based on anything other than its potential income because there is no cultural history of cacao cultivation or production.

When selling seedlings brings in such a significant amount of additional revenue, it can be difficult to see the bigger picture of what will occur when local chocolate manufacturers are unable to obtain a supply of cacao. In the interest of preserving their businesses, some manufacturers have already begun to look for cacao in alternative locations. However, only time will tell if the farmers are successful in turning the industry around in time.

Have you ever sampled chocolate that was made with cacao from Thailand?

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What is the famous chocolate in Thailand?

Kad Kokoa. This chocolate store, which has won several awards, is a well-known brand in the Thai chocolate sector and is responsible for redefining the culture of Thai chocolatiers. Kad Kokoa does not use any additives in the process of creating chocolate since the company focuses on the flavors that are naturally present in the cacao bean.

What is the cultural significance of chocolate?

They believed that their gods had bestowed cacao upon them as a gift. They used cacao beans as currency to buy food and other goods, just like the Maya did, but they also enjoyed the caffeinated kick of hot or cold, spiced chocolate beverages in ornate containers. These beverages could be served hot or cold. Cacao beans were regarded as having a value that exceeded that of gold in Aztec culture.

What culture is known for chocolate?

Chocolate in the Middle American region

According to popular myth, the Olmec culture of Mexico was the first known to ingest chocolate, which dates back to around 1500 BCE. New evidence, on the other hand, reveals that the Mayo-Chinchipe civilisation in Ecuador was already cultivating and making use of chocolate approximately 3500 BCE.

Is chocolate popular in Thailand?

Iced hot chocolate and chocolate ice cream cones are two of Thailand’s most popular desserts, especially during the hottest months of March and April. This is due to the fact that Thailand never experiences very cold weather.

What are the 3 main chocolates?

White chocolate, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate are the three primary varieties of chocolate; however, there are several more kinds of chocolate as well, such as bittersweet chocolate, chocolate liquor, cocoa powder, and ruby chocolate.