It must have been a typically balmy evening in southern India in late 2015 when Karthikeyan Palanisamy and his brother-in-law, Harish Manoj Kumar, started a conversation over a few-that-turned-into-many drinks. Manoj had been growing cacao for over a decade and a half at Regal Plantations, in the foothills of the Anamalai Hills in Tamil Nadu, and was looking to export the beans. Karthikeyan, an entrepreneur with a family-run textile business, was nearing 40 and his dream of entering the food industry was becoming more compelling.
That evening, they decided that if Karthikeyan had to try something different, it had to be right then. Since they had easy access to cacao beans, they decided to try their hand at chocolate in-house. After a few weeks of online research, tinkering and trials, Karthikeyan came up with a batch of chocolate and took it to L. Nitin Chordia, a certified chocolate-taster.
Had Chordia spat out that sample, Karthikeyan says, he would have swallowed his pride and returned to selling clothes. Instead, Chordia spotted potential. So, like many other startups, Manoj and Karthikeyan set up operations in a garage with basic equipment. In June 2017, they launched their first chocolate bar under the brand name Soklet.
Today, Manoj’s family grows 40 tons of beans, exporting more than half. Regal Plantations’ beans were ranked among the top 18 worldwide in the International Cocoa Awards of 2017. With 8,000-10,000 chocolate bars produced every month, Soklet is now a leading brand in India’s bean-to-bar movement, which has been growing steadily over the past eight years or so. Soklet is, in fact, the first tree-to-bar company in India, given that they grow their own beans.
Theirs is the story of a successful journey into a sector once considered too “foreign” for Indians—like wine.
The bean-to-bar chocolate is one where the chocolatier does not buy pre-made chocolate, exercising control over the entire process, from sourcing the cacao to cleaning, fermenting, drying, roasting, cracking, winnowing, grinding, tempering and moulding, even wrapping the finished product. It follows the craft principle of beer or coffee—small batches, focus on quality, premium pricing and careful growth.
The Indian chocolate movement, which started with the aim of ensuring the farmer got a better price for his produce, has evolved into an industry that aims to satisfy the consumer’s sweet tooth in a healthier way, focusing primarily on dark chocolate. Over the past four-five years, both public and private initiatives have tried to increase the domestic production of cacao, boost the quality of yield and improve processing techniques, as Lounge had reported two years ago.
But the attention has now shifted from the cacao-grower to the designers of craft chocolate. If 2020, the first year of the global pandemic, was a slow one for the relatively nascent industry—with constricted supply, limited gifting and a profound impact on innovation—there was also a silver lining. Some Indian chocolate brands continued to experience growth, even if it was 30% against an expected 75%, owing to a “vocal for local” movement, growth in e-commerce and the advertised benefits of dark chocolate.
For while the pandemic briefly brought production to a grinding halt last summer, sales picked up when stores were allowed to open. Many of the makers pivoted—some started displaying at lifestyle stores like Godrej Nature’s Basket and Foodhall. For others, like La Folie, sales moved from 100% offline to 25% online.
The imported chocolate brands now seem limited, unimaginative, saturated in their offerings, says Chordia. Large department stores have started demarcating shelves for Indian craft chocolate, which is becoming increasingly visible—and popular.
According to the Chennai-based Chordia, who is also the chief tasting officer with Cocoatrait, which makes the vegan brand Kocoatrait, 29 companies—small, medium, big—make bean-to-bar chocolates in India currently. His prediction is the number will go into the hundreds by next year.
These chocolates are expensive, at an average of about ₹200 for a 50g bar (to over ₹330 for 65-75g), demanding a few moments of contemplation before purchase. Other challenges remain too. There are only a handful of farming groups that supply to the Indian craft chocolate market. There are issues of funding and logistics, given the summer temperatures.
The process of making chocolate with little investment has evolved as new makers with little to no previous experience continue to pursue their passion, experimenting with flavours to stand out.
“Everyone wants to gift something different, so that the receiver knows the value of the gift,” says Vikas Temani, the business head of chocolate company Paul And Mike, analysing the industry’s potential. “With Indian bean-to-bar chocolates, we have (a variety of) flavours, don’t mass-produce and have reached only the early adopters with evolved tastes. What’s not worked yet is the receiver may not know (or realise) its value (the exclusivity of Indian bean-to-bar, made in small batches).”
TEEMING WITH POSSIBILITIES
Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, David Belo had lived in London for over a decade before he decided on a change of lifestyle. After years of a hectic city life, he sought a place with a better climate and lower cost of living to detox and reset—the quest took him to Mysuru. His resume was already quite layered—bartender, baker, punk rock frontman—when he decided to add chocolatier to it.
The bean-to-bar movement had recently kicked off in the US, in the mid-2000s. There weren’t too many great Indian craft chocolates in the market. Belo, the founder, managing director and executive chef of Earth Loaf Artisan & Raw Pvt. Ltd, decided to use his mixology skills on chocolate and started the brand Earth Loaf (later renamed Naviluna) in 2012. It was among the first Indian bean-to-bar chocolate brands, along with Mason & Co. and Pascati Artisan Chocolate. Soklet, Paul And Mike, Uns, All Things and La Folie followed these pioneers, experimenting with flavours, espousing sustainable methods and trying to squeeze into a market led by giants like Cadbury (Mondelēz International Inc.) and Amul.
They have tried to differentiate themselves with eclectic flavours and packaging—in fact, the use of indigenous fruit or tea distinguishes them even from well-known international brands like Godiva or Lindt.
Paul And Mike: Farmers and Fermenters, based in Kochi, Kerala, produces a 64% (amount of pure cacao in each bar) mild dark chocolate with real pieces of jamun (Java plum). “By 2023, every Paul And Mike bar you eat will help remove CO2 from the environment…,” their packaging proclaims. Kocoatrait’s bars are packed in an eco-friendly, plant-based fabric made using reclaimed cotton and cacao shells. Pascati, with a factory in Hamrapur, near Mumbai, makes a guava, chilli and sea salt flavour bar, advocates fair trade and is certified organic by the US department of agriculture. Mason & Co.—Craftsmen of Chocolate, based in Auroville, Puducherry, produces a 75% peppermint and sweet nibs dark chocolate which is organic, vegan and single-origin. Naviluna’s Tres Bale dark features “three prominent banana varieties from and around the Deccan plateau, including elakki, rasa (nanjangud) & kadu (forest) flambéd, candied and dusted with a hint of Darjeeling tea”. La Folie India’s single-origin 72% has tasting notes of “succulent apples and vibrant red berries with floral hints of honey, raisins, toasted nuts and caramel”.
Developing flavours is both art and craft—it’s difficult to imagine coconut blending with cinnamon or a paan-flavoured chocolate or long pepper, lime and orange used with a 72% dark. “People need a great sense of taste and it takes a couple of years to develop that,” says Belo, who is currently restoring a heritage bungalow in Mysuru for a brasserie.
Improvements in the quality of wines, coffees and teas in India have contributed to refining the consumer palate. Coffee and chocolate are inevitably intertwined—one complements the other.
What has really helped the steady stream of bean-to-bar chocolate companies is the low cost of entry. With an investment of ₹5 lakh, one can set up a unit with the capacity to sell 100kg a month. A production facility does not require space—most makers start from their home kitchens before scaling up. Over the last few years, small-scale equipment has become more easily accessible. Some of the makers of craft chocolate employ only about a dozen people.
Amoolya Anantharamu, co-founder of Bengaluru’s UnsChocolaterie, which started in 2018, was a procurement professional who worked with IBM before she became a self-taught chocolatier. Devansh Ashar was a restaurant manager who experimented with beer, kombucha and chocolate, eventually starting Pascati around 2015. Belo got some primary equipment like a grinder, studied videos on YouTube and made some “crude initial batches” in his home kitchen.
Anantharamu’s love for chocolate developed through science. A cacao bean looks like custard apple, with a pulp around the bean. When bacteria feeds on it, it consumes the pulp, reduces it to alcohol and then gets at the cacao beans. When she was at a cocoa farm four years ago, she got interested in the way cocoa is roasted and ground, with butter coming out of it.
“When you allow the crystals to break apart, you see how science reacts. You get a perfectly tempered chocolate that snaps in your finger. A pulpy fruit like that ends up being consumed everywhere, everyone adores and loves it. This transition from pulp to chocolate is what caught my attention,” she says. “It’s so beautiful you can generate something like this from this fruit.”
GETTING INTO THE DARK SPACE
While dark chocolate is perceived to be good for the heart, the bean-to-bar movement also got an unexpected, indirect boost last year. “The Prime Minister’s office has, over the (span of the) pandemic, spoken of local being vocal,” says Chordia. “That has unreasonably benefitted this movement and others like speciality coffee. The PM’s office has tilted the tide—he has done pre-marketing for us.” The belief is that this prompted consumers to gravitate towards Indian brands in categories such as coffee and chocolate.
It helps that the negative connotation of dark as bitter is changing. “When we started almost 10 years ago, dark was a four-letter word,” says Belo, laughing. “Dark is kadva (bitter) is the perception. It’s not,” says Sanjana Patel, founding partner and executive chef at Mumbai’s La Folie Patisserie. The brand uses Indian cacao in three-quarters of the products it makes. “Sweetness can be manipulated not just by adding sugar but by the way you roast your chocolate.”
The percentage figure found on chocolate descriptions includes both cacao solids and cocoa butter. The solids are bitter, while the butter is smooth and creamy. If a chocolate-maker adds extra cocoa butter to produce a smoother texture, the overall cacao percentage will increase, but the bitterness will not.
The customer demographic for fine chocolate is also changing. Belo, for one, knows his typical customer very well: age group of 24-45, mainly urban, net income of ₹12 lakh a year and above. These are people who pay taxes, file tax returns and are well-travelled, he says.
Soklet’s best-seller, in fact, is a 100%. The one that sells the least is the 40% milk bar because, as Karthikeyan explains, if someone likes that kind of taste, they would end up buying a cheaper Cadbury’s. Most of the queries he gets from customers are about calories and sugar content.
“Whenever we do exhibitions, pop-ups, etc., customers ask which chocolate has the least sugar. Then they pick up the 45-55% bar, instead of 80-85%,” adds Patel, laughing.
SETTING UP FROM SCRATCH
When Karthikeyan was in the US some years ago, he took two bags of beans to Dandelion Chocolate, a small-batch, single-origin maker in San Francisco. The person in charge of sourcing cacao tasted and rejected their beans but was intrigued nonetheless about Indian cacao. They decided to collaborate, the start of a journey that has seen Regal Plantations working with chocolate-makers in the US, Europe, Japan, Malaysia and Dubai.
For most craft-makers, the biggest challenges have been economics and logistics. As a foreign national, for instance, Belo found it harder to get bank loans.
Logistics in a tropical country, where many of the metropolitan cities have summer temperatures in excess of 35-40 degrees Celsius, do not make it easy to move chocolate around. Managing distribution and collecting money from retailers is challenging for some because large distributors are wary of small chocolatiers whose numbers mean nothing to them.
“One ingredient makes the difference between big and artisanal companies. That’s cocoa butter, which melts at 35 degrees Celsius. With vegetable fat (which commercial brands use), chocolates have long-lasting shelf life in the Indian summer. That also results in different pricing—ours is more expensive and melts faster too,” says Mumbai-based pâtissier Toshin Shetty.
Introducing a new sub-category into the market, then, takes time. “It will take 10 years for India for catch on to this chocolate (wave). The biggest challenge is balancing the books and staying liquid while we get market acceptance. Then all investors would want to jump on board,” says Belo.
None of the craft-makers can, naturally, claim to compete with Cadbury or any other multinational firm given their scale, volumes and cash flow. Nor do they see each other as competition for the moment, because the market is too niche. But they are all working hard on factors that will set them apart from the other. Naviluna, for instance, is a cold-processed chocolate that does not roast its cacao, preserving as much of the nutritional benefit as possible.
“Everyone has their own signature,” says Anantharamu, who gets her couverture chocolate from Ecuador, Madagascar and Ivory Coast and will launch her own bean-to-bar soon. “Once you are experimenting with different roasting, fermentation and tempering techniques, I can bet you every chocolatier puts his/her own signature in each process. Everyone works on instinct, perceives it differently. No chocolate tastes the same though all follow the same process.”
They all identify as Indian. Soklet, Naviluna and Uns even opted for distinctly Indian names. Pascati is short for pascatparivesya, which is sweet meal in Sanskrit. Mason & Co. is named after founders Jane Mason and Fabien Bontems. “If I had a choice of naming it anything else,” says Patel, who started La Folie in 2013, “I would choose an Indian brand name over an international brand name. You have to be proud of what you are doing. If not, I don’t understand why use Indian cacao or go through the entire process.”
DECODING THE DIFFERENCE
The notes of Indian cacao are distinct. “It starts with plural notes of vanilla, to spicy notes—strong in India because it (cacao) grows around spices like pepper and nutmeg—probably ending with dried mulberry notes, honey and raisins. This would be Indian cacao,” says Patel.
As in the case of wine, terroir has an impact on the cocoa bean—including the soil, micronutrients in the soil, micro-climate and diversity. In Madagascar, for instance, the soil is reddish, with berry notes. That’s what the cacao bean absorbs, says Patel.
Since cacao grows only 20 degrees north or south of the equator, the states of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are the main producers. Indian cacao, unlike the west African one, is mostly shade-grown.
Produce from Central America, says Patel, has a lot of fat content and the beans are larger, with light lime-citric, tropical flavours. While South American cacao is considered nutty and woody, the Indian one tends to be fruity and sour. “I personally compare it to single malt,” says Ashar. “Whisky is blended for a reason, for consistency. Single malt’s profile changes year on year. That’s nature. Same with cacao—Idukki will be different from Karnataka. This is where you will find nuanced profiles.”
Most chocolatiers agree that it’s fairly easy to correct any lingering perception globally that Indian cacao doesn’t make the grade; better processing is all that is needed. Industrial producers like Nestlé buy cacao that’s not overly fermented, explains Patel, with strong notes of cocoa and caramel. They want to make a chocolate that has a “monotonic way of tasting”.
CHASING THE ROMANCE
Chocolate is inseparable from romance—indeed, uns means love/attachment in Urdu. “We as Indians would love to attach every decision of ours, anything we do has an emotional angle to it,” says Anantharamu. “Not everyone has disposable income in our country, to shell out ₹300. If they are doing it, it’s for something important, to express something, to gift someone or even to make themselves feel good that particular day.”
Belo refers to Naviluna as “72% art, 28% business. My vision for Naviluna is bridging lifestyle with FMCG, using chocolate as a platform. Our message is really to consume less but consume better.”
Like any new business, only the brave will survive the bean-to-bar business. Chordia predicts six-seven national players, 10 each in the top 10 states where it’s sold or is widely available, will remain. For example, Mason & Co. is one of the more nationally visible brands because it’s an early mover, while Naviluna, now ramping up from 40,000 bars of chocolate a year to 50,000 a month, may remain more relevant in Karnataka for the time being.
Even in the US, which has 200-300 chocolate-makers with the best machines, unique flavours and awards, some have started to shut down, says Ashar. “I am not sure if now is the time for the discussion. Eventually, this will happen (in India), but not for another decade. When you look at distribution and get into volumes, it will bring cost down and pay bills.”
Some makers have started scaling up and branching out. Soklet has already launched chocolate spreads and will soon produce hot chocolate mixes, followed by chocolate tea. Pascati wants to be available in all retail outlets and gourmet shops, selling spreads, butter and cocoa powder. La Folie plans to expand to other cities through a central kitchen in Mumbai and become a complete bean-to-bar manufacturer this year.
“I set for myself a goal of introducing craft chocolate in India. If I was making truffles, life would have been easier. Customers will never know how hard it is to deliver this product in the market,” says Belo.
“Do you want it to appear like (the bar) was made for everyone or made specially for you?” he asks. “A lot of people don’t want to fit the mould of society; they want to be individuals. That’s where artisanal products come in—it’s not made for everyone, it’s made for you. For people like you.”
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.