Taste Test: Celebrate Philippine Cacao with Local Bean-to-Bar Dark Chocolate

Filipino chocolate is going places, with more producers realizing the potential of the Philippines as a source of topnotch cacao. What better time to celebrate than by exploring the growing world of chocolate bars made not just locally, but with our very own beans?

Cacao in the Philippines is nothing new. Purportedly first brought in from Mexico as part of the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade in the 17th century, cacao has since found its way into Filipino culture—most commonly in the form of tablea for making the drink known as tsokolate. In spite of a growing demand for chocolate however, the Philippines relies heavily on imports—which is a shame considering our climate and soil are favorable for growing cacao. Thankfully the local industry is back on its feet with the formation of the Philippine Cacao Industry Development Council and the Cocoa Foundation of the Philippines’ Roadmap to Sustainable Cacao in the Philippines.

While cacao has been, and still is, most commonly turned into tablea, the farmers and other players in the local industry inevitably branched out. Over the past few years we’ve seen the rise of locally-made chocolate bars from our very own cacao beans—either grown from the chocolate maker’s own farms or sourced from other local farms around the country. Also known as ‘bean-to-bar’ chocolate, these creations are made with the producers overseeing the entire process—from the cacao bean to the finished bar—meaning they get to control every step according to their specifications, which helps ensure quality.

Bean-to-bar chocolate

The Mast Brothers controversy in the US may have given it a bad name, but true bean-to-bar chocolate is more than just a buzzword, with the movement returning glory back to the bean itself. In contrast to industrial methods that hide the unique properties of the cacao bean—or use bad beans and cover them up with heaps of sugar—bean-to-bar chocolate takes good beans and celebrates their nuances. Better yet is the ethical advantage that comes with it: supporting farmers by working with them directly, and—in our case especially—bringing recognition to cacao grown in our local landscape.

Though not always the case, these bean-to-bar creations can be single-origin (e.g., using beans sourced from one particular region or farm) or single-estate (using beans grown from specific plantations). This does not necessarily make them “better”, but the uniformity can better isolate and reveal the specific flavors and qualities of certain beans.

All chocolate starts with the cacao plant.

Many factors—both based on nature and nurture—play a role in the resulting character of the chocolate. But it all begins with the cacao plant. Though there are about 10 genetic varieties all in all, three major varieties in particular stand out: Criollo, the rare breed (thanks to its high vulnerability to environmental hazards) believed to have the best flavor; Forastero, the most commonly grown variety with its ability to withstand a wide array of environmental conditions; and Trinitario, a hybrid of that combines the desirable flavor of Criollo and the high yield of Forastero. Forastero, with its less complex character, is generally cultivated for mass production. Criollo and Trinitario, on the other hand, are what predominantly constitute the category known as Fine Flavor Cacao (FFC) and are thought to have better flavor.

Locally, some regions, such as Davao, Batangas and Bohol, are better associated with cacao than others, but cacao can grow almost anywhere in the Philippines there are coconuts. “The Philippine climate is the best to grow cacao,” shares Mia Concepcion, Media Information Administrator and Marketing officer of non-stock, non-profit organization Plantacion de Sikwate Cacao Producers Association (PDS), citing factors such as the country’s ample rainfall and ample sunshine, flat terrain, fertile soil, and use of organic inputs in certain regions. Better yet, the Philippines is able to grow all three kinds of beans—even the rare Criollo, which the folks of PDS are in the process of searching for in hopes of coming up with a cacao blend called Filipino Aromatico that could put the country on the world map.

As a living, breathing thing, the cacao plant is subject to its terroir—factors such as climate, soil, and topography. The same variety could taste different when grown in different regions, as the soil will differ based on other crops in the area. Batangas, for example, is also home to kapeng Barako which, when intercropped with, results in bolder tasting cacao. In areas that grow lots of mangoes, like Camiguin or Cebu, even cacao varieties that are naturally sour can taste less acidic. Rex Puentespina of Malagos Chocolates credits much of the fruitiness of their bars to the presence of many fruit trees in the foothills of Mt. Talomo. Arvin Peralta of Hiraya Chocolates shares that using beans from cacao farms intercropped with fruits and vegetables such as pomelo, banana, tomatoes, lettuce, and green beans contributes to their chocolate’s sweet, fruity notes, while Chocoliz’s distinct flavor comes about from cacao plantations with citrus, banana, and coconut trees in between.

More flavor comes from the post-harvesting processes: fermentation (which reduces the tannins naturally present in the beans), drying, and roasting (which darkens their color and brings out the best flavors of the bean, if done right). The mixture is then ground into a paste, known as chocolate liquor or cocoa mass. Other ingredients such as sugar, milk, and more cocoa butter may be added and the mixture is then subject to refining, where the particle size of cocoa solids and sugar crystals is reduced; conching, where the mix is combined and aerated at a high temperature to get blended thoroughly, further infusing the flavor components into the cocoa butter (which further reduces excess acidity and bitterness) and smoothening out sugar and cocoa particles; and tempering—cycles of being cooled and warmed until it reaches the proper temperature for an even crystals and a shiny surface.

Our Taste Test

There is more to the flavor of chocolate than just bitterness and sweetness. You have a full range of flavors to explore, especially where bean-to-bar chocolate is involved. Much like coffee or wine, based on the terroir, you’ll find nuances that can go from being fruity, grassy, flowery, nutty, even spicy.

Certain characteristics are conventionally associated with “good”, well-made chocolate, including an evenly-colored, glossy appearance; a “clean” snap (e.g., a solid noise when you break it apart); a smooth texture; and of course, a complex aroma and flavor.

A number of our local bars may take on a very different, less refined, more rustic style. As conching is a time- and energy-intensive process, it’s understandable that some producers might carry it out for only a short period of time or skip it altogether—resulting in a grittier product, theoretically speaking. “The machines are expensive,” shares Mia. “We have government supplied machines but the smoothness cannot be achieved through that.” Other companies, such as Chocoliz, intentionally go for a minimally-processed, rustic style to retain the cacao’s health properties. In our view, this does not make them inferior; in fact these characteristics only add to their unique charm.

None of us have undergone any formal training on how to taste chocolate (although the author admits to being a geek who stalks sites such as Chocablog regularly), and are not here to dictate what is “good” or “bad”. What we do have are the willingness to learn and open minds, and we bring them forth as we explore the many possibilities of chocolate production and flavor nuances of our local beans.

For consistency and for the best balance between bitter and sweet—although the term does not directly refer solely to the level of bitterness—we went with the bars from each brand with the cacao percentage closest to 70%. All bars were stored and consumed at room temperature in a cool place as close to the purchase date as possible. To account for the possibility of defects, such as fat or sugar bloom and exposure to other stronger aromas due to less-than-ideal storage conditions from resellers, we repurchased (from different stores whenever possible) and re-tasted bars 1-2 weeks in between each session.

MALAGOS CHOCOLATE 72% dark chocolate

BEANS: Trinitario from Mt. Talomo, Davao
INGREDIENTS: cocoa liquor, cane sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin
contact: Facebook / Instagram / Website

Award-winning Malagos offers a good snap and a thin but smooth melt with very little grit. The bar holds a mature aroma: part-fruity, part-spicy, immediately bringing to mind a hearty red wine. Once on the tongue, it starts on a plum-y, berry-like hum that seamlessly makes way to a metallic fruitiness and a peppery warmth. Consistent with the aroma at the start, it finishes with the deep fruitiness of red wine that is fervent, but restrained.

theo & philo 70% dark chocolate

Beans: Trinitario from Davao del Sur
Ingredients: whole cacao beans, cocoa butter, whole vanilla beans
CONTACT: Facebook / Instagram / Website

Theo & Philo also offers a good snap and a smooth melt. With a strong note of vanilla to round out the acidity, the bar comes off as tasting “milkier” by association to some members of our team. Past that, a dusky, roasted thrum emerges with a whisper of fruit (berries and cherries come to mind) to complete the flavor circle. The balance of flavors is wonderful—bitterness, fruitiness, and earthiness all come represented equally into a singular sensation, with no one party overpowering anything else.

coco dolce 65% dark chocolate

Beans: Trinitario from the Subasta Farmers Association, Davao
Ingredientscacao beans, organic coconut sap sugar, cocoa butter, virgin coconut oil and vanilla
CONTACT: Facebook / Instagram / Website

Among the more unique bars on the lineup, this bar immediately delivers a distinct smoky fragrance that a member of our team likens to coffee and cigarettes.  Virgin coconut oil in the mix lends this a coconut-y undertone (which combined with the smokiness, evokes pianggang) and a mouthfeel that seems waxy initially, but feels lush on the tongue as it melts. All in all: different, but delicious.

Risa chocolates 70% south cotabato

BEANS: Trinitario from South Cotabato
INGREDIENTS: 70% dark chocolate (cacao mass, cocoa butter), sugar
CONTACT: Facebook / Instagram / Website

Risa’s also shows good tempering with a glossy surface and a good snap. A sniff introduces spicy undertones; our amateur palates can mostly identify cinnamon, black pepper and clove. It melts mostly smooth; and though it uncovers some grit at the end, we don’t particularly mind because the flavor blows us away. The text on the back of the box mentions caramel and spice notes and they are right: as a square disintegrates on the tongue you get the warming sensation of cinnamon and pepper, the butterscotch-y cradle of caramel and a marvelous, buttery texture. It ends with just the right amount of the cacao’s acidity, waiting to be rounded out by taking another square.

hiraya chocolates 72% single origin dark chocolate malabog davao

BEANS: Trinitario from Malabog, Davao
INGREDIENTScacao beans, cocoa butter, refined sugar
CONTACT: Facebook / Instagram / Website

This bar sits in between being rustic and sophisticated, with a texture that is starts smooth but reveals a powdery grit as it melts. Though sweetness predominates at the start, it eventually makes way to a fruitiness happily bolstered by cinnamon and yeast. The combination loosely evokes warm pan de sal on a mellow Sunday morning.

kablon farms dark chocolate 70% (cane sugar)

BEANS: Trinitario from their own farm in Tupi, Cotabato
INGREDIENTScacao, cane sugar
CONTACT: Facebook / Website

Another in-betweener with a glossy surface (though some bars can come dusty) and good snap. It uncovers its rustic roots as it melts, revealing a fine grit that feels similar to sandpaper as you rub it against your tongue. The flavor is predominantly fruity, evoking wine and berries similar to Malagos—but more robust, with a charred character and more emphasis on acidity.

kablon farms dark chocolate 70% (coconut sugar)

BEANS: Trinitario from their own farm in Tupi, Cotabato
INGREDIENTScacao, coconut sugar
CONTACT: Facebook / Website

The use of coconut sugar on this alternative version not only lends undertones of coco jam (which at first feels out of place but blends in perfectly, albeit gradually), but helps round out the acidity, resulting in a marvelously balanced bar with a subtle tropical character.

chocoliz 70% cacao bar

BEANS: Cross-bred mixed varieties sourced from Dingalan Aurora and Tigaon Cam Sur
INGREDIENTSwhole cacao nibs, brown sugar
CONTACT: FacebookWebsite

A rebel of a bar if there ever was one, Chocoliz proudly proclaims that it is not, in fact, chocolate, but a minimally-processed cacao bar that purposedly retains the bean’s natural character. Open the wrapper and you find a dark brown bar with an uneven surface and visible particles. A sniff introduces a smoky aroma, and on the tongue you get a robust, roasted flavor—it’s similar to coffee, and almost savory. The uneven texture adds to its rustic appeal as you get nibby bits that brush the tongue against as it melts. Decidedly gritty with distinguishable granules of sugar and ground cacao suspended in the mix, this bar carries a crude “homemade” feel that is far from the conventional chocolate bar. And that is exactly what we love about it: it’s a unique concoction worth celebrating.

MAgdalena’s 70% cacao bean chocolates

BEANS: beans with physical characteristics of strains of Criollo and Porcelana (although, they note, this has not been DNA tested)
INGREDIENTS: real cacao beans, natural cocoa butter, raw washed cane sugar, organic vanilla powder, soya lecithin
CONTACT: Facebook / Website

Technically not a bar; no less delicious. Magdalena’s takes on a mostly fruity, cherry or blueberry-like tone, bringing cola to mind, rounded off by the woody tinge of vanilla. It does not overwhelm with bitterness or acidity; it manages to harmonize all flavors with each other to achieve the best balance. Each piece melts thin but feels relatively smooth, though occasionally you’ll find crunchy bits of nibs that add textural interest.

ORO 75% pure dark chocolate

BEANS: Trinitario from Siera Bullones, Bohol
INGREDIENTS: Filipino cacao, cacao butter, brown sugar
CONTACT: Facebook / Instagram / Website

In each box you get four individually-wrapped portions that offer a good snap, a glossy surface. The aroma alone—a savory, yeasty fragrance likened to “roasted meat”, “Knorr seasoning” or even “Vegemite”—makes for an intriguing start. But as it melts (which it does remarkably smoothly), it brings in the malt-y, butterscotch-y nostalgia of caramel that comforts the inner child before gradually weaving in a deep, mushroom-y essence and finishing with just enough acidity to perk up the mix.

tigre y oliva sta. maria 70%

BEANS: mostly Trinitario with a small percentage of Forastero from Sta. Maria, Davao
INGREDIENTScacao, sugar
CONTACT: Facebook / Instagram

Unwrap the bar from its visually appealing package and you get a glossy bar with a good snap. Past the initial aroma of cinnamon, its melts to a flavor that starts milky, only to take on a sharp, acidic turn that can feel startling but awakens the senses. Though the bitterness is minimal it eventually settles on an earthy, mushtoom-y tone that concludes the mouthful. And while it’s not completely smooth up to the end, the bar has a creamy mouthfeel that feels wonderful on the tongue.

TIGRE Y OLIVA STo. tomas 73%

BEANS: Trinitario (single-estate, e.g. grown on specific plantations) from Sto. Tomas, Davao
INGREDIENTScacao, sugar
CONTACT: Facebook / Instagram

A much fruit-centric bar with a bright, peppery aroma you could almost describe as “zesty”. On the tongue it also melts to an acidic, citrusy ripple that takes center stage—even more so than in the Sta. Maria—and retains its presence up to the very end. A hint of cinnamon that peeks out from behind the scenes with a peculiar mineral grassiness to back it up, but this finishes with pronounced zing that stimulates the senses.

TIGRE Y OLIVA subasta 70%

BEANS: mostly Trinitario with a small percentage of Forastero from Subasta, Davao
INGREDIENTScacao, sugar
CONTACT: Facebook / Instagram

In contrast to the previous two, the Subasta bar features a more rounded, and far less acidic profile and a cooler-toned hue. With even more of the earthy, leather-y aroma brought on by the Sta. Maria, this bar progresses from spicy to musty to full-on umami as it melts, ending with a deep mushroom-y melody that resonates long on the tongue. Though it definitely takes some getting used to, this bar is our favorite among the Tigre y Oliva trio.

the verdict

Many of the bars here surprised us with characteristics we had never encountered in chocolate. The wide variety of flavor notes, consistencies, and snap quality on these bars go to show complexity of cacao and the myriad of possibilities in the chocolate-making craft. But it all begins with the bean, and it’s about time we celebrate our very own.

There is more to these chocolates than just the gustatory enjoyment they provide; they are a reflection of the process, where every step plays an important role in the end product. The next time you have a hankering for chocolate, consider going out of your comfort zone and picking up one of these bars.

Special thanks to Mia Concepcion of Plantacion de Sikwate Cacao Producers Inc., Rex Puentespina of Malagos Chocolate, Philo Chua of Theo & Philo, Arvin Peralta of Hiraya Chocolates, Ernesto Pantua of Kablon Farms, Gerry Baron of Magdalena Bean-to-Bar Chocolate, and the kind folks over at Chocoliz, Risa Chocolates, Coco Dolce, Ginto Luxury Chocolates, Tigre y Oliva, and the Cacao Growers sa Pilipinas Facebook group for sharing their knowledge and insights on the bean-to-bar process.

6 Responses

  1. Malagos is fruity. Orange and cherries?
    Theo Dark choco is hard for me to make an impression
    Oliva (blue wrapper) is milky. My sister and I are debating whether it is pineapple or mango. We only agreed on its acid notes.

    1. Hi Chris! Yep, the Oliva bars do have a milky feel to them (and a buttery melt that we’d associate with milk chocolate) but they’re made with just cacao and sugar- pretty sure it has a high percentage of cacao butter in there. Their Sto. Tomas (red) bar is the most acidic of the lot — we love it!

    2. You have a nice taste vocabularies. I wish I could do the same. Will try to taste the other chocolates and see if I can also taste the same 🙂

  2. I’ve only tried the first two, sadly. Looking forward to getting my hands on the rest of ’em.

    1. Hey Volts! Ooh, Malagos and Theo & Philo? And yeah, they’re all definitely worth seeking out! :DD Let us know what you think of them if ever!

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