Award-winning Malaysian bean-to-bar producers elevate local chocolate


Yesterday marked World Cocoa and Chocolate Day, which values and celebrates the work of smallholder farmers from cocoa-producing countries around the world.

Interestingly, chocolate has a history that dates back over 3,000 years when the people of the earliest communities in central America ground cocoa beans into a thick liquid to be consumed as a drink.

From those seemingly innocuous beginnings, cocoa has traversed the planet, from Europe to virtually every other continent in the world, changing shape and form and enjoyed in chocolate bars, drinks, desserts and so much more.

These days, the global chocolate market is immense. In 2021, it was valued at USD46.6 billion (RM213 billion) and is expected to grow 5% every year until 2029.

In Malaysia, cocoa was once a huge commodity, so much so that at one point, the country was the third largest producer of cocoa in the world. These days, those numbers have faltered but Malaysia still remains one of Asia’s biggest cocoa producers.

But despite the national association with chocolate that dates back decades, most Malaysian cocoa is exported and consequently there are woefully few bean-to-bar chocolate producers in the country and by extension, very few opportunities for Malaysians to savour single-origin Malaysian chocolate.

The natural farming practised by the Orang Asli communities mimics the way that cocoa was grown by ancient civilisations in the Amazon basin thousands of years ago. — CHOCOLATE CONCIERGEThe natural farming practised by the Orang Asli communities mimics the way that cocoa was grown by ancient civilisations in the Amazon basin thousands of years ago. — CHOCOLATE CONCIERGE

Still, an intrepid few have braved the unknown and embarked on a journey to produce Malaysian chocolate from scratch. There are only a handful of these bean-to-bar producers in the country but the work they are doing has been instrumental in elevating homegrown artisanal chocolate and developing a burgeoning local appetite and appreciation for chocolate that is 100% Malaysian.

Chocolate Concierge

Chocolate Concierge is one of the pioneer bean-to-bar chocolate producers in the country and the brand’ s founder Ong Ning-Geng, better known as Ning, has been instrumental in spearheading the growth of the artisanal chocolate movement in Malaysia.

Ning has been a key figure in elevating and championing Malaysian artisanal chocolate and has been making 100% local chocolate for over a decade now. — CHOCOLATE CONCIERGENing has been a key figure in elevating and championing Malaysian artisanal chocolate and has been making 100% local chocolate for over a decade now. — CHOCOLATE CONCIERGE

But first, what is a bean-to-bar producer? A bean-to-bar producer is essentially an entity or person that takes charge of the entire chocolate-making process from farm level (growing, harvesting and fermenting the cocoa beans) to actually making the chocolate (roasting cocoa beans, conching, tempering and creating chocolate bars and other chocolate products).

Ning began his journey 12 years ago with rudimentary kitchen tools – he roasted his chocolate beans in a home toaster and used a blender to create chocolate bars! He confesses that was the point that he “got bitten by the chocolate bug”.

Since then, he has gone from strength to strength. Ning now has one plot of land that he owns in Raub, Pahang and another one in Bentong, Pahang that he operates. He also works with a series of contract farmers and perhaps most interesting of all – his biggest source of cocoa beans are from Orang Asli farmers, from the Semai in northern Pahang to the Temiar in Perak and the Dusun in Sabah.

“I don’t speak for all Orang Asli, but for many of them, their settlement is so far removed that they are not applying pesticide or fertiliser. So they practise natural farming and their cocoa trees are planted under jungle trees like petai or durian trees.

The bulk of the cocoa beans that Chocolate Concierge gets is from Orang Asli communities. Pictured here is cocoa from the Semai. — CHOCOLATE CONCIERGEThe bulk of the cocoa beans that Chocolate Concierge gets is from Orang Asli communities. Pictured here is cocoa from the Semai. — CHOCOLATE CONCIERGE

“This is shaded planting which is how cocoa was originally grown in the Amazon basin thousands of years ago. So the beans that come out of this kind of agricultural practice are a really good expression of the natural taste of cocoa,” he explains.

Ning says his decision to become a bean-to-bar producer was tangentially tied in to wanting to make quality Malaysian chocolate.

“Initially I didn’t want to own or operate a farm, but it was such a key piece of the puzzle in ensuring the quality of chocolate, post-harvesting. And I needed a facility close to the plantation, so I thought I might as well plant cocoa in the place.

“And when the outfit is bean to bar, we can integrate and retain more value by having ownership of the whole value chain, so there is more value that we can devote to the upstream section. For instance, when we work with our farm partners, we pay as high as RM24 per kilo, which is way above market rate,” he says.

Chocolate Concierge's 70% Kelantan chocolate recently bagged the World 50 Best at the Cocoa of Excellence Program, a global competition. — CHOCOLATE CONCIERGEChocolate Concierge's 70% Kelantan chocolate recently bagged the World 50 Best at the Cocoa of Excellence Program, a global competition. — CHOCOLATE CONCIERGE

Ning’s hard work has manifested in awards aplenty for Chocolate Concierge. In fact, the brand’s 70% Kelantan dark chocolate was most recently awarded the World 50 Best at the Cocoa of Excellence Program 2021, a highly respected global competition designed to recognise the work of cocoa farmers. Chocolate Concierge also bagged a best in class for single origin chocolate at the Anugerah Industri Koko Malaysia 2022.

Still, there are challenges galore to being a bean-to-bar producer in Malaysia. Ning says climate change has been particularly detrimental to his business as single-origin chocolate relies on specific terroirs to make specific chocolate. When a particularly area is ravaged by floods (something that has been happening a lot lately), he cannot simply swap it with chocolate from another area. This then affects his overall line-up.

Ning is very happy to share cocoa beans from his farm with anyone interested in making chocolate, as he believes there is room for more chocolatiers in Malaysia. — CHOCOLATE CONCIERGENing is very happy to share cocoa beans from his farm with anyone interested in making chocolate, as he believes there is room for more chocolatiers in Malaysia. — CHOCOLATE CONCIERGE

But perhaps the biggest challenge of a business like his is the fact that Malaysians have preconceived notions of Malaysian chocolate, and the general perception is that it is inferior to imported variants.

It is why Ning has embarked on a mission to educate the Malaysian consumer through other channels, namely chefs and restaurateurs.

“My mission is not to convert people, it is just to let them taste and make up their own minds and the way I do it is by engaging with professionals. Because I am one man and this is a tremendous task, so rather than engage with consumers, I work with other professionals in F&B, like fine-dining chefs, baristas and bakers. When they are convinced, they convince the diners. So that is the strategy I have embarked on,” he says.

Jaws and Claws

Jaws and Claws is a Sabah-based bean-to-bar chocolate producer that is the brainchild of sugar artist Josephine Lu, who started the outfit in 2018.

Lu was inspired to start her own cocoa plantation after making her own chocolate (she is a certified chocolate-taster), sourced from 100% cocoa liquor (the stage after cocoa nibs are ground).

Lu is involved in every aspect of growing cocoa at her Sabah farms. Here she is pictured helping to dry the cocoa beans. — JAWS AND CLAWSLu is involved in every aspect of growing cocoa at her Sabah farms. Here she is pictured helping to dry the cocoa beans. — JAWS AND CLAWS

“I thought if I am sourcing the cocoa liquor, why not make the chocolate myself? I am in Sabah and cocoa is readily available here, so it is about expanding and producing different chocolate products.

“By doing this, I can make something 100% purely from Sabah – from the cocoa to the cocoa butter, so it is very exciting to be able to do that,” she says.

Lu works with six single estate cocoa farmers in Sabah (she owns one of the farms) and provides facilities like fermentation and drying for all the farms. She says one of her biggest challenges at the beginning was getting farmers to understand her vision and what was required to make quality cocoa.

“Bean-to-bar chocolate is pretty new in Malaysia and the challenge is that farmers do not know what you are doing or what you need. They only know how to plant, harvest and ferment to their standards. But as a chocolate-maker, we need more than that.

“So it took me two years of working on the farms with them and going back and forth and doing research and development before I even started producing a single chocolate bar. After those two years, that’s when they realised, ‘Okay, this is how I can improve cocoa production,’” says Lu.

Although Jaws and Claws has only been in business for a few years, its single origin Sabah chocolate has bagged awards aplenty. — JAWS AND CLAWSAlthough Jaws and Claws has only been in business for a few years, its single origin Sabah chocolate has bagged awards aplenty. — JAWS AND CLAWS

All that hard work has paid off as Jaws and Claws’ chocolate has earned accolades aplenty since its inception. In 2022, the brand scored a silver award in the International Chocolate Awards 2021/2022 Asia Pacific for its bean-to-bar single estate Goshen Grove, alongside a host of other awards. The brand has also earned recognition on the local front, having recently been awarded the Best Agricommodity Start-up of the Year 2022 by the Malaysia International Agricommodity Expo & Summit, among many others.

“For me, it’s a milestone, because it’s something I have been trying to do for so many years – to show that we actually produce cocoa of such quality and we are as good as what others have sold overseas,” says Lu.

Moving forward, Lu is looking at investing in more machinery for her chocolate production and will also be furthering her education as a chocolate taster.

According to Lu, the work of a bean-to-bar producer is far from glamorous and involves heaving heavy sacks of beans and sticking their hands into wet beans during the fermentation process (pictured here). — JAWS AND CLAWSAccording to Lu, the work of a bean-to-bar producer is far from glamorous and involves heaving heavy sacks of beans and sticking their hands into wet beans during the fermentation process (pictured here). — JAWS AND CLAWS

While she believes there is room for more bean-to-bar producers in Malaysia, she says newbies have to be prepared to put in the work in order to thrive and grow.

“If you want to be a real bean-to-bar maker, a lot of the time, it is not sexy. We are up at the farm heaving sacks of dry beans or doing the fermentation. Our hands might be dipped into smelly wet beans – it is dirty, sweaty and hot – basically not glamorous at all.

“So if someone really wants to do this, why not? I would salute those who really go hands-on into this and involve themselves in the entire chocolate-making process. Because you really need to have passion to do this,” she says, laughing.

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