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Wilfred Ng: My Bean to Bar Adventures



Beans to bar artisan chocolates has been gaining popularity in our region for the past two years. Using typical kitchen equipment and tools, almost anyone can now make their own unique chocolate from cacao beans. My first experience with beans to bar chocolates came about when I attended Chocolate Academy, a course conducted by Chef Jean Marie Auboine from Las Vegas on 23rd September 2017.

 

Despite having been in the chocolate manufacturing industry for the past 15 years, I was fascinated by what I had learnt about beans to bar chocolate. There is simply so much emphasis on bringing out the natural flavour chocolates. More than just tasting good, bean to bar chocolate making is about creating healthy goodness directly from its source, using simple but high quality ingredients to make a high quality product. 

During the course, we got the chance to make a wide variety of chocolate, both dark and milk chocolate, each of different cacao content. We also had the opportunity to try out cacao beans from Philippines, Madagascar, Indonesia, Costa Rico, Venezuela, India, Tanzania & Ecuador. Each chocolate from a specific bean origin had its own unique flavour profile, be it fruity, astringent, acidic, woody or earthy. Some even had a coffee taste (not artificially induced)! The flavours of each piece of chocolate were so special I just had to try my hand at making some, and that marked the beginning of my bean to bar chocolate-making journey.
 
Right in our backyard (Malaysia) 

In 2018, I had a great opportunity to explore and visit a cacao farm in the Sungai Ruan estate located in Raub district, Pahang. Who knew there were cacao farms just 2 hours away from our factory. Raub Pahang is well known for producing a top-grade durian known as “Musang King”.

I got a chance to interact with the Koh family who own the farm estate and believe it or not they have been practicing cacao farming for over 33 years. Though cacao farming has been losing its popularity in Malaysia over the years due to high labour cost and low profitability, the Koh family has kept its passion for cacao farming, instead of switching to farming more profitable crops like Durian which many farms in area have done.

 
One of the cacao breeds the Koh family grows is called PBC130. This variety possesses a large pod and has large fruitful seeds embedded inside the pod. It has a higher cocoa butter content compared to other breeds and releases a strong fragrance from its flower during the pollination period. This cacao variety is very rare as it is highly susceptible to diseases. This is another reason which makes cacao farming very challenging and why many farmers choose to switch to more resilient crops.

The Koh family utilizes a unique management system to control the spread of cacao diseases. One of the proudest techniques they came up with involves crossbreeding PBC130 with other cacao breeds that have stronger defensive characteristics against cacao diseases. This allows them to preserve and grow this rare breed in their farm. The Koh family harvests, ferments, dries, packs and sells their cacao locally. In spite of what everyone around them is doing, I love that they have kept their passion for cacao farming and have a great desire to continually improve the quality of their produce.

A trip to Vietnam

After spending several months working on some Vietnamese beans and testing them with different roasting profiles and recipes, I felt that the quality of the beans could be improved. Even before visiting the farm, I started to communicate frequently with the farmers to improve the aroma and flavour of the cacao beans by making improvements to their post-harvest processing techniques.

The cacao beans were reduced in acidity through higher roasting and longer conching hours, resulting in a slight wine-like acidity with fruity and nutty end notes. I was fascinated with the results and the next thing I knew I was on a plane to Vietnam to visit the cacao farm! I couldn’t resist.



The cacao beans were from a farm owned by a company named Le Vu, in Vung Tau, located in southern Vietnam. It was two and a half hours drive from Ho Chi Minh City and Mr Tran Van Thanh, owner of the farm warmly welcomed us. Mr Thanh started cacao farming 15 years ago. With an estimated 24 hectares of cacao farming land and another 15 hectares with new young cacao trees (3year old), the estimated capacity of the farm has reached 13 tons per month. His farm produces Trinitario cacao beans. Around the farm, we could also see pepper, rubber, cashew nut and avocado plantations.
 
Vung Tau, together with Dak Lak and Tien Giang were the first three provinces in Vietnam to have farms that obtained a UTZ certification, which is given out to farms that practice sustainable farming. To obtain the UTZ-certification, cocoa producers have to demonstrate good agricultural practice, efficient farm management and responsible cocoa production. Mr Thanh does not use pesticides or fertilizers in his farms, and his cacao beans are harvested from December to April during the dry season. He currently supplies his cacao beans to local companies in Vietnam (including Marou), as well as to manufacturers in South Korea and Japan.

It was my pleasure to be the first chocolate factory in Malaysia to import his beans. He also produces cocoa butter, cocoa mass and roasted cacao nibs on his farm.

To conclude the trip, he offered us cacao wine made from his cacao beans. With a smooth mouthfeel and chocolatey aroma, there was no sweeter way to end the trip!

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