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After craft coffee and beer, it’s chocolate’s turn

Industrial chocolate has dominated for decades, giving India a chance to do craft chocolate right by perfecting every process, from harvesting to fermenting. Some entreprenuers are doing just that

Chaitanya Muppala, founder, Manam Chocolates and Distinct Origins
Chaitanya Muppala, founder, Manam Chocolates and Distinct Origins

The raw cacao fruit tastes a little like custard apple. You break the soft outer shell with gentle pressure and extract the individual pods, arranged in two rows inside, to bite into the flesh. It is a bit sweet and a bit tart and quite a bit sour with a distinctly fruity aroma; if you’re tasting it for the first time, it is hard to imagine that this is what ultimately yields rich, brown chocolate—the two seem to taste nothing alike. However, more experienced palates, like that of B. Venkateswara Rao, whose 12-acre cacao farm in Gangannagudem village in Andhra Pradesh’s West Godavari district we are in, can apparently detect distinct flavour notes. “We grow banana, coconut, pepper on the same farm, so these flavours do get into the fruit and the seed,” he explains, plucking another cacao fruit from a tree and expertly breaking it open to offer us more of the pods.

The process of making chocolate essentially involves gradually eliminating the fleshy, fruity part of the pod and getting to the seed. The way this is done can add layers of flavour to the final product—and this is what Hyderabad-based craft chocolate brand Manam Chocolates and its parent company Distinct Origins has set out to do, partnering with over 100 farmers like Rao in the West Godavari district, which has emerged as India’s top cacao-growing region over the past few years.

“We realised that along with industrial chocolate companies, even some makers of craft chocolate were starting with the cacao bean after it had gone through several crucial stages of processing, like fermentation and drying. The way these are handled is not always ideal,” says Chaitanya Muppala, founder of Distinct Origins and Manam Chocolates. Manam is not the first Indian craft chocolate company to work with the Indian cacao and take it beyond what industrial chocolate makers need. As Lounge reported in 2019 and 2021, a clutch of home-grown brands are spearheading the move towards fine chocolate, among them Puducherry-based Mason and Co., Naviluna from Mysuru, Pascati from Mumbai, Kocoatrait and Soklet in Chennai, and Paul and Mike in Kerala. Over the past couple of years, newer bean-to-bar brands like La Folie and Subko Cacao have made polished and assured entries into the Indian craft chocolate market. However, most of them start with roasting the bean, and keeping complete control over the entire process from harvesting to fermenting and drying is what Manam is doing differently, says Muppala. “Like coffee and beer, craft chocolate is reaching a certain momentum in India. But unlike these products, where we have followed trends set in the West, we have an opportunity to lead. Craft chocolate is still pretty nascent across the world because of the dominance of industrial chocolate for decades. That’s what we are trying to do at Manam — create processes and standards that will be ahead of the curve globally,” he says.

Fermentation unit at the Distinct Origins fermentary
Fermentation unit at the Distinct Origins fermentary

To do this, Distinct Origins set up a cacao processing facility in Tadikalapudi, West Godavari district, in 2021, taking over an old tobacco factory. It is certainly the largest of its kind in India, and estimated to be second largest in the world, and refined the steps of processing cacao— largely by trial and error —over three years. For instance, fermentation is often done by cacao farmers simply by leaving the fleshy pods in gunny bags open to the elements for 2-3 days, while drying is done by laying the fermented pods on sheets. In contrast, Manam has created a proprietary method of fermenting the beans in stacked wooden crates monitored for temperature, pH levels and humidity using IoT technology for 5-7 days, while the drying process involves spreading them out on moveable racks, turning them over frequently by hand to ensure the bean is thoroughly dry—essential to producing a pleasant bitterness and bringing out desired flavour notes. Then comes sorting and bagging, during which defective beans and debris are removed by hand, and the beans are graded by size to ensure an even roast.

The company hopes to collaborate with craft chocolate makers from across the globe and has invited small brands from outside India to make use of the Distinct Origins fermentery to experiment with various processes, the better to understand how small differences in beans and techniques can create unique end-products.

“Indian cacao has languished for decades because there was no attempt by industrial chocolate makers to do the best with the bean,” says Muppala. “Whatever deficiencies the bean has — and we did not get the best varietals when cacao was first introduced in India in the 1960s by a multinational corporation — can be overcome through better processing, but industrial chocolate is focused solely on productivity as they can compensate for the lack of flavour through artificial flavouring agents. It’s only over the past few years that craft chocolate makers in India realised that we were ignoring the potential of the Indian bean,” he adds.

Muppala, however, does not diss industrial chocolate. “It was our first taste of chocolate. That Dairy Milk bar has a lot of emotion, a lot of nostalgia attached to it,” says Muppala, currently India’s first and only Level 3 Certified Chocolate Taster. He says the attempt at Manam has been to recreate some of that joyful experience of eating chocolate — essentially, taking the snobbery out of craft chocolate and making it something to have fun with as well as appreciate. The newly launched Manam Chocolate Karkhana in Banjara Hills, Hyderabad, is an experience centre of sorts where visitors can see the entire chocolate-making process from the roasting stage onwards.

The products are designed to showcase the versatility of Indian cacao
The products are designed to showcase the versatility of Indian cacao

Behind floor-to-ceiling glass walls, the beans are then crushed in industrial size churners over several stages, mixed with sugars and centrifuged, till the thick, rich liquid chocolate finally reaches the chocolatiers working on creating products out of it — ranging from Malt Chocolate Truffles made with a 43% Malted Milk Single Origin West Godavari Chocolate; Blueberry Dragees coated in yogurt, creamy white chocolate and toasted sesame; a Crunchy Almond & Coffee Chocolate Spread made with 45% Single Origin, West Godavari chocolate. Meanwhile, their signature tablet (what they call chocolate bars) collection offers 43 tablets such as The Chocolate Maker’s Single Farm Series, which spotlights beans sourced from individual West Godavari farms; The Chocolate Maker’s Single Origin India Series, made with cacao from select cacao growing regions in India; and The Creative Fermentation Series, tablets crafted with cacao that’s been creatively fermented with unique native ingredients including Mango-ginger, Pedda Rasalu Mango, Chakkarakeli Banana.

The company has launched with 45 product categories and over 250 plus offerings, from signature tablets (what they call chocolate bars) to bonbons, truffles, nama, barks, fudge, rochers, clusters, macarons, spreads, cakes, pastries and drinking chocolate, apart from a range of ingredients for bakers. The range too sets the company somewhat apart from other Indian craft chocolate brands, which have mainly focused on the chocolate bar, although brands like La Folie and Smoor have created products like sablé cookies, macarons, and spreads besides working with bakers.

“Our aim with the 2023 range is to demonstrate just how versatile Indian cacao can be,” says chef Ruby Islam, who heads the chocolatier team at Manam’s ‘karkhana’, leading us to the chocolate lab where customers can make their own chocolate bars using a mix of milk, dark, and white chocolates and a numbers of additions like dried fruits, coffee, nuts and various sprinkles. “Ultimately, all this is a homage to our farmer partners, who are creating a revolution in Indian craft chocolate.” Nearby, a bobble-head figure of B Venkateswara Rao, complete with his signature shoulder-towel, nods as if in agreement.

The writer was in Hyderabad at the invitation of Manam Chocolates.

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