Written by Joe Cummings
“The Plant Issue”, October-November 2023
Thailand has never been a major grower of cacao, harvesting a modest 1,500 to 2,000 metric tonnes in a good year. But with Thai artisan chocolate trending steadily over the last eight years, local growers are struggling to keep up with demand from discerning chocolatiers supporting the bean-to-bar movement that links boutique tastes with local-first sensibilities and environmental sustainability.
Centred mainly in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, influential Thai craft chocolate makers include Kad Kokoa, Xoconat, PARADAi, Shabar Chocolate, Siamaya, Mark Rin, Pridi Cacao, Matchima Chocolate, and Kan Vela Chocolate, none of which existed a decade ago. All source their cacao beans from farms found in 10 provinces. Importing cacao is out of the question, not just out of loyalty for Thai produce, but because imported beans are highly taxed by the Thai government.
Although the chocolate-making tradition followed in Thailand descends from the European chocolate houses of Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and France, Thailand’s more recent inspiration can be traced to Vietnam’s Maison Marou, which turns local-grown cacao into what The New York Times once dubbed “the best chocolate you’ve never tasted.” Founded in Ho Chi Minh City by two French expats in 2011, Marou produces chocolate that has been considered revolutionary in the way the products are created directly from beans selected at the source. Having control over everything from farm to bar means being able to offer unusually complex, finely tuned chocolate.
Partially inspired by Marou, two Thai ex-lawyers, Nuttaya and Paniti Junhasavasdikul, founded Kad Kokoa a few years ago in Bangkok’s Suan Phlu neighbourhood. The country’s most successful craft chocolate brand has grown from a single café and production facility to several outlets around the city and a separate factory off Rama III Road. Along with its signature single-origin bars from Chiang Mai, Chanthaburi, Chumphon, and Prachuap Khiri Khan, the chocolatier produces bonbons, enrobed chocolates, cacao tea, and most recently Kosapan Cacao, a rum distilled with cacao beans. The company distributes in Thailand, Japan, and the United States and boasts awards earned in competitions such as the Asia Pacific International Chocolate Awards and London’s Golden Bean.
Cacao farming starts with the cultivation of Theobroma cacao trees, which bear fruit pods containing cacao beans, the primary ingredient used to make chocolate. The trees grow best in tropical regions near the equator, such as West Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, where climates provide warm temperatures, high humidity, and regular rainfall. Cacao requires well-drained soil and protection from strong winds and are often planted under the shade of taller trees or with other crops to protect them from direct sunlight.
Gastronomer Lifestyle recently visited three cacao farms in Prachuap Khiri Khan province that supply beans directly to Kad Kokoa. Speaking with Khun Tong, a cacao farmer and broker who helps coordinate the supply, we learned how these farms and several others in the province (as well as in Chumphon, the next province south) work closely with Kad Kokoa to ensure that the quality of the crop and the crucial fermenting and drying processes meet the rigorous demands of the chocolatier.
Cacao beans—actually seeds—are taken from papaya-shaped cacao pods that grow directly on the trunk and branches of the tree. According to Khun Tong, it takes a minimum of 20 months for a cacao seedling to mature and produce cacao pods. Once mature, the red and yellow pods can be harvested by hand once every 20 days, with the largest harvests occurring during the rainy season. After harvesting, the farmers open the pods and remove the seeds, which are encased in a soft, slightly sweet, white pulp. The pulp can be used to make cacao juice or fermented into alcohol, but only the seeds or beans can be used to produce chocolate.
Once removed from the pods, the beans, along with the surrounding pulp, are placed in shallow rectangular wooden boxes, covered with a layer of fresh banana leaves and left to ferment for five to seven days. The banana leaves help contain heat rising from the fermenting beans, a crucial step in developing the potential flavour of the beans. Following fermentation, the beans are spread out in the sun to dry, a process that can take up to a week and is necessary so that the beans can sorted, bagged, and stored without succumbing to mould or bacteria.
Once the chocolatier acquires the beans, they undergo several more processes to transform them into chocolate products, including roasting, cracking, winnowing (removing the shell), and a refining process called conching. Then the chocolatier grinds the cacao beans for up to 48 hours to produce chocolate liquor, which will be further processed to create cocoa solids and cocoa butter. These components, along with other ingredients like sugar and milk (for milk chocolate), are combined in various proportions to create different types of chocolate. Next, the chocolate is tempered, poured into moulds and cooled.
“Here in Prachuap, we’re expanding all the time,” says Khun Tong, who used to grow coffee in Ranong before starting a cacao farm in Prachuap Khiri Khan three years ago. “I could only harvest coffee once a year, but with cacao, we can harvest all year round.”
All three of the farms we visited planted cacao trees among other crops, including coconut, pineapple, and chilli, a practice that promotes healthier soil compared with monoculture farming. “We don’t use any chemical fertilisers, just cow manure,” he says. “Rats and squirrels, the fruit’s only predators here, are relatively easy to control without chemicals.”
Most cacao grown in Thailand are one of three local hybrids: Chumphon 1, Chumphon 2, and IM.1. Khun Tong tells us that Chumphon 1 is the most popular with chocolate makers due to its taste and resistant to insects, among other favourable qualities.
Leo Sebag, chief operating officer at Kad Kokoa, reports that 2022 was a good year for the chocolatier, with expanding sales and the opening of additional outlets in Sukhumvit and in Soi Lang Suan.
“We’re getting closer to real European- style production with the addition of enrobed chocolates,” he says. “Our Kosapan Cacao rum, our first ‘beans to bottle’ product, is made from single- origin cacao grown in Chanthaburi. We sell it by the bottle and also serve bespoke cocktails made with it. We’re also offering three wines at our locations to pair with our chocolates: Meyer-Fonné Riesling Reserve from Alsace, Martinez Cava from Spain, and Grifoll Vermouth from Spain.”
Pastry chef Antonio Yang, who presides over The Sukhothai Bangkok’s extravagant twice-monthly chocolate buffet, says Thai chocolate is becoming increasingly popular throughout the country. “Chefs in Thailand have realised they’ve got a great product right here and they’re making more effort to integrate Thai chocolate into their recipes.
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