As Indian consumers become more experimental in their tastes, a fledgling artisanal chocolate movement is blossoming across the country.
Combining organic ingredients, unconventional flavours, and made-for-Instagram packaging, a handful of small, homegrown brands are setting themselves apart from the sweet, milky, mass-market favourites, such as Cadbury Dairy Milk and Munch, which have dominated India’s booming chocolate market for decades.
Indians consumed an estimated 228 thousand tonnes of chocolate confectionary in 2016, up 50% from 2011, according to market research firm Mintel. Viewed as a convenient and affordable snack, and sometimes priced as low as Rs5, mass-market bars account for 85% of the total sales in the country. Their popularity has made India one of the world’s fastest-growing markets for chocolate, expected to be worth around Rs32,000 crore ($4.97 billion) by 2020, a 160% jump from 2015, Mintel says.
In the midst of this growth, expat entrepreneurs in India’s southern states are targeting discerning consumers with cash to spend by kicking off India’s own bean-to-bar movement. They’re getting involved in every stage of the chocolate-making process, from the farming of cacao beans to the crafting of bars.
In 2011, looking for a change of lifestyle (and weather), David Belo moved from the UK to Mysuru in Karnataka after various stints as a bartender, bread baker, and pastry chef. Having worked with raw chocolate before, he was struck by the potential of India’s small cacao plantations, whose beans have always been overshadowed by those from the world’s largest producers, such as Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, and Ecuador.
So, in 2012, along with partner Angelika Anangnostou, Belo launched Earth Loaf, a brand of handcrafted, single-origin chocolates made using cacao beans from organic plantations in Karnataka. The goal, he says, was to put India on the map in terms of artisanal chocolate.
“The flavour profile of Asian cacao, and Indian cacao in particular, is quite different from central America and west Africa, so we have something very interesting here,” Belo told Quartz. He likened India and other Asian cacao producers to the New World in wine, where non-traditional producers such as Australia and South Africa have made a name for themselves in a business once dominated by old world-players such as France and Italy.
But while cacao has been commercially produced in India since the 1960s, in the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu, its output has remained fairly limited. In 2015-16, India recorded cacao production of 17,200 metric tonnes, according to the directorate of cashew and cocoa development. That’s a little over 1% of what Ivory Coast produced in the same period. It’s no wonder, then, that India’s confectionary and chocolate industries import most of their raw material.
Nevertheless, Belo and his team of eight employees set out to create chocolate bars and bon-bons with Indian cacao, working closely with farmers who produce the beans, and then incoporating ingredients such as coconut, ginger, and gondhoraj limes; jackfruit and black pepper, or even mango, red capsicum, and chili.
Today, the self-funded company produces a maximum of about 150kg of chocolate a week, which translates to around 2,400 bars, priced at Rs335 for 72g. That’s much higher than the cost of mass-market chocolates but still cheaper than Swiss brand Lindt, which is priced at over Rs500 for a 100g bar in India.
Earth Loaf’s chocolates are sold at organic specialty shops and restaurants across the country. They are also available through the company’s own website and other online retailers, besides a handful of stores in countries such as the UK, US, and Portugal. Belo says Earth Loaf recorded sales growth of 45% last year and is set to grow by 50-100% this year. It aims to almost triple its production by the end of the financial year and is in talks with investors for funding.
Meanwhile, in Puducherry, Mason & Co, a smaller operation, is also making vegan chocolates, the result of Australian co-founder Jane Mason’s unsuccessful quest to find chocolate that she could eat after moving to India in 2011.
“I came from a background of eating dark, organic chocolate (with) no preservatives (and) little to no sugar. And when I came here, a lot of the brands that I could find were the mass-market companies, which were high in sugar and milk,” she said.
What started out as a home-cooking experiment with her husband, Fabien, eventually evolved into a business in 2013, with a small, all-female workforce from the region making chocolate that is a world away from mass-produced bars.
For Mason, the goal was to avoid including refined sugar and emulsifiers, used to provide a smoother texture, and to incorporate more cacao, an ingredient used sparingly in chocolates found at supermarkets.
“In an average Dairy Milk bar, there’s probably only 10% cacao, which is the most expensive ingredient. Whereas in our standard bars there would be 75% cacao, and that includes cacao butter,” Mason explained.
The ingredients list of a Cadbury Dairy Milk bar begins with sugar, suggesting that it’s the largest component, followed by milk solids (22%); it also features two kinds of chemical emuslifiers and artificial flavourings. In comparison, Mason & Co’s bars use whole cacao beans and cane sugar, and that’s pretty much it, barring other flavourings such as organic peanut butter or peppermint. This is why its chocolate is priced at Rs295 a bar, Mason says.
“A few people told us we were crazy. They said a dark, vegan chocolate’s never going to work in India,” she added. Nevertheless, 90% of the company’s consumers are Indian, she says, and that reflects a larger shift in tastes across the country. While she declined to share sales and production figures, she said the company has hit its capacity for the third time, and is now building another factory to cater to the demand. Mason & Co’s chocolates are sold both online and at gourmet grocery stores and cafes across the country.
However, despite these positive developments, do India’s artisanal brands actually make good chocolate?
In 2015, the Brooklyn-based artisanal chocolate brand Mast Brothers came under fire after reports questioned the authenticity of its bean-to-bar approach. Arguably best-known around the world for its Instagrammable packaging, Mast Brothers also received heavy criticism from industry experts, who argued that the company’s chocolates were unworthy of their $10 price tag, given that they weren’t actually that good to eat.
For Vikram Doctor, a food writer and the host of The Real Food podcast, some of India’s artisanal chocolate brands have a similar problem, at least when it comes to texture.
“I’ve really tried to eat and like them,” he said in an email. “They are the sort of producer I think is important—really passionate and willing to take trouble in sourcing and processing ingredients, willing to be experimental in their formulations yet also respectful of local tastes. So I’ve bought them, again and again, and… it’s just not happening for me…”
“I find their chocolates too dry and gritty and bitter, which shouldn’t be a bad thing if the bitterness gives way to a great aftertaste, but I’m not getting it with these chocolates,” he added.
That could have something to do with India’s cacao beans themselves. According to Kainaz Messman, founder of Mumbai’s Theobroma patisserie and chocolaterie chain, the problem with Indian cacao is that it’s quite acidic in nature, and can’t yet compare to the beans sourced from the world’s top cacao producers. And that poses a problem for companies attempting to promote a bean-to-bar movement in India.
“While they are taking the trouble to make real chocolate with strong processes, they, like all of us, are getting stuck with an inherent cocoa bean which is of inferior quality,” Messman said in an email.
For this, the only solution seems to be to import chocolate from those who know it best.
When Kuhu Kochar and Tejasvi Chandela decided it was time to do something new after years of working as graphic designer and a pastry chef, respectively, they hit upon the idea of combining their talents to bring something new to India’s chocolate market.
“We thought that chocolate is something that everybody likes, except India does not really have its own chocolate brand that has great packaging and good-quality, good-tasting chocolate with experimental flavours,” Chandela told Quartz.
So, in November 2015, the duo launched Jaipur-based All Things, handcrafting bars and truffles with chocolate sourced from suppliers in Belgium who use cacao beans from around the world. These bars are wrapped up in colourful packaging designed by Kochar.
The idea was to tell a story with each chocolate, Chandela says. So, for instance, the All Things Monday bar, designed to liven up everybody’s least favourite day of the week, featured dark chocolate topped with granola, packaged in a box designed to look like a shirt, and accompanied by a to-do list for every customer. Meanwhile, All Things Childhood was envisioned as a nod to the childhood-favourite flavours of banana and toffee.
And while the pair was initially uncertain about how Indian consumers would react to white chocolate with champagne and strawberries, or Sangria-centred bars, the response was surprising, helped no doubt by the fact that young, urban Indians are travelling abroad like never before, and are being exposed to all sorts of new flavours. Today, the company also creates customised chocolate for clients who, Chandela says, are now looking out for even more unusual flavours, including Japanese ingredients like yuzu and miso.
All Things’ chocolate bars are sold at high-end, gourmet grocery stores and through the company’s website. Priced at between Rs350 and Rs383 a bar, they’re more expensive than Earth Loaf and Mason & Co. According to Chandela, the high cost reflects the price of ingredients and packaging, but so far, she added, none of the company’s customers have complained. During the festival and wedding season of late 2016, All Things made around 8,000 chocolate bars a month, with most of its orders coming from New Delhi, as well cities such as Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Kolkata.
For All Things, the big challenge is handling temperamental chocolate in India’s hot and humid climate. Besides the risk of the chocolate melting on delivery, moisture can also compromise its quality, meaning that the company has to maintain just the right temperature in its kitchen. But on particularly humid days, especially during the monsoon season, production simply has to stop.
However, like Earth Loaf and Mason & Co, All Things also has to contend with the fact that most Indian consumers still have a long way to go before they can really appreciate chocolate that’s not so sweet, and fork over the big bucks required to buy it.
“While they may experiment, most people cannot tell the difference (between) real and imitation chocolate. They still always come back to a sweeter, darker (in colour only), and essence-filled chocolate,” Theobroma’s Messman said.
Moreover, there’s stiff competition from both foreign and local mass-market brands, including Cadbury and Amul, which have noticed the growing interest in premium, flavoured dark chocolates, and launched their own versions at much more affordable prices. For the average Indian customer, these are more within reach and widely available. It may take a lot more time and education to convince more than just a niche group to switch to expensive artisanal brands.
But in a country as populous as India, as Doctor says, even a relatively tiny niche could be enough to sustain a small operation for now.