I was in Missouri sometime in mid-2014 when I happened to encounter chocolate brand Askinosie Chocolate’s rustic packaging proudly labeled “77% Davao, Philippines Dark Chocolate.” Little did I know that just a few hours’ drive from where I was standing was Springfield, Missouri; some 8000 miles away from the Philippines, where some of Davao’s best cacao beans travel to become world-class chocolate.
Shawn Askinosie, a former criminal defense lawyer who found his calling with chocolate, sources his cacao from four regions: Davao, Honduras, Tanzania, and Ecuador. He first visited Davao in 2008 in search of a new bean source and has since become the first chocolate maker to export cacao ever since the industry’s decline in the late eighties. The chocolate he has produced with Davao cacao have gone on to garner international acclaim and have landed on the pages of publications such as foodandwine.com and the Wall Street Journal. His entry into the local industry will be considered one of the first ripples in a revival long overdue.
Cacao was once—and still is, to some extent—abundant in the Philippines. A combination of circumstances, however, held the country back from its path to becoming a major exporter of the crop back in the mid-20th century when cacao plantations operated by multinationals dotted the Philippine landscape. The implementation of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), coupled with a faltering market and a nasty infestation of pod borers left the industry spiraling down until it hardly exported anything in 2002. Farmers chopped down their cacao trees in favor of other higher yielding crops like bananas. The plant would continue to grow throughout the Philippines, but its potential was all but forgotten.
Things seem to be on an upswing, however. In light of panicked news headlines warning of a global cacao shortage by 2020, the Philippines’ potential to become a major player in the global cacao industry was thrust into the spotlight again. It is part of a handful of countries situated near the equator blessed with conditions perfect for the cacao plant to flourish. The country is poised to take advantage of the rising demand for chocolate. The Cocoa Foundation of the Philippines crafted the “Roadmap for Sustainable Cacao in the Philippines” in 2006 with the goal of producing 100,000 metric tons per annum of cacao by the year 2020. While Davao has been the center of the industry’s revival (it does account for more than 70% of the country’s cacao production), Edward David, CocoaPhil’s president is optimistic for the rest of the country to follow suit. Cacao trees can grow almost anywhere in the Philippines where there are coconuts, and this in itself presents an appealing opportunity for land owners and farmers seeking some extra income. The foundation has been focusing their attention on Luzon and Visayas as of late and has seen a surprising influx of professionals, from doctors to architects, attending their seminars and workshops, interested in entering the cacao business.
While the industry is still in the infancy of its revival, cacao trees have been growing on our lands for about 400 years. Sources vary, but as the story goes, the Spanish first brought cacao—then a highly valued commodity —to the Philippines from Mexico in the mid-to-late 17th century where its introduction would then serve as its gateway to the rest of Asia. The Spanish would then go on to colonize the country leaving its trail of cacao behind, where Filipinos quickly picked up the habit of drinking tsokolate made from tablea. The plant would continue to find its way onward, in the shores of Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, all now players in the global cacao industry. Indonesia is currently the world’s third biggest grower of cacao, while the Philippines contribute about less than 1% of the world’s supply—a funny thing considering how our cacao was deemed comparable to that of the highest quality cacao enjoyed in the West centuries ago. With good quality cacao literally growing in our backyards, it is ridiculous to think that we import as much as 75% of our local demand for chocolate.
When I spoke to the CocoaPhil about the challenges of reviving the industry, Oji Reyes, the organization’s corporate secretary, said that we had to work towards becoming an exporter of fermented cacao beans. Fermentation is essential to bringing out the complexity of chocolate but this hasn’t been fully exploited by local manufacturers. For decades, we’ve been importing the fermented cacao beans for our own domestic chocolate production when in fact we had all that we needed in our own shores.
Organizations such as the Mars Cacao Development Center in Davao and the CocoaPhil have worked tirelessly to provide farmers and land owners with the resources to grow high-quality cacao beans and save the floundering industry. Mars is, of course, the global manufacturer of chocolate favorites such as Snickers, Twix, and M&Ms, and do have some vested interest in the sustainability of our cacao. However, the knowledge they have infused into the industry has been integral to the rebirth of local chocolate. Prominent local chocolatier Malagos Chocolates, for example, have received training from the Mars Cocoa Sustainability Program. Just last April, its “Malagos Premium Unsweetened Chocolate” was awarded a Bronze Award for the Best Unflavored Drinking Chocolate category by the Academy of Chocolate.
What’s truly exciting in the local industry right now is our growing ability to produce quality chocolate for ourselves. Barring the three years it takes for a cacao tree to bear fruit, it takes approximately 18 days to produce a single bar of chocolate, from bean to bar. Since Askinosie’s arrival in the Philippines, local chocolate makers such as Theo and Philo, Magdalena’s Cacao Bean Chocolates, and Malagos Chocolate, have proceeded to convince people in and outside the country that we have the cacao, the skill, and the passion to produce chocolate at par.
What’s your take on the local chocolate industry? What’s your favorite local brand? Tell us with a comment below!
A big “thank you” to Edward David and Oji Reyes from CocoaPhil, Gerry Baron from Magdalena’s Cacao Bean Chocolates, Philo Chua from Theo and Philo, and the folks at Malagos Chocolates for lending me their time and expertise.