Bean There, Done That

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India is catching up with the single-origin movement

WHEN L NITIN CHORDIA was appointed lead consultant for Godrej Nature’s Basket in 2007, his first task was to source chocolate. He spent a year meeting 80 different chocolatiers from around the world, trying to understand what was good and bad cacao. On one such trip, Chordia was working on a presentation when he popped a small piece of chocolate into his mouth. The flavour was so intense and tangy that he thought he’d eaten a fruit by mistake. It was his introduction to single-origin chocolate.

Single-origin chocolate, made of beans sourced solely from a particular region, came up in defiance of commercial brands that use blends with cacao or coffee from several different countries, caring more about volume than flavour or quality. “Pure cacao has never really been in our culture. We grew up with commercial chocolates like Dairy Milk and Kit Kat. Our idea of chocolate is something fiercely sweet. Single-origin cacao offered a diversity and complexity of flavour that I had never associated with chocolate before. It was like having a fine wine. I could taste fruity, nutty and even flowery notes,” says Chordia, the country’s first and only certified chocolate taster.

When he returned home to Chennai in 2013 after completing a course from the London-based Institute of Fine Chocolate, he found the cacao market had deteriorated. “There were import restrictions on cacao and every chocolatier was using compound chocolate [a cheap, low-grade alternative which uses hard vegetable fats in place of cacao butter] in some form or the other,” he says. And while the single-origin movement in cacao (and later coffee) was making headlines abroad for protecting small estates from corporate exploitation and consumers from substandard produce, India, the 13th largest producer of cacao and sixth largest producer of coffee in the world, remained happily unaware.

“By 2014 we could get Snickers, Mars and Bounty readily in India. Cadbury was buying our cacao and Mars had plans to do the same. And the market was ecstatic, but it was largely an illusion—volume might have gone up, but quality was abysmal. Commercial chocolate uses so much sugar and milk that the bean is almost destroyed and artificial cacao flavour needs to be added in the end. Corporate chocolatiers would happily throw in cacao from ten different countries because all that matters to them is bulk manufacturing and consistency. The beauty of artisanal or single-origin chocolate is that every chocolate can voice a flavour of its own,” says Chordia. That same year, he started Cocoatrait, a 20,000-member strong community of chocolate lovers, through which he’s been championing single-origin, and of late, single- estate cacao. While the former helps preserve the identity of cacao from a single region, the latter encourages individual growers to invest in the quality of their product.

“The 20 degree north and south rule, which says that this is the latitudinal extent for growing cacao, is a myth. The cacao bean reached India as early as the 1780s. I recently found historical documents that prove that cacao was even grown in Bengal and Maharasthra until a century ago. Cacao really came up in the 1900s when Cadbury started planting beans in the country. It’s ironic that we associate chocolate with Belgium, France, Switzerland and Italy, when in reality these countries are processors of chocolate, not growers. India, which is both, has the potential to make a name for itself in the chocolate world if farmers are encouraged to grow high-quality, rare beans,” says David Belo, a former British bartender who relocated to Mysore three years ago to start Earth Loaf, an artisanal chocolate company that uses only locally sourced, single-origin cacao and ingredients. He says he came to India at the start of the single-origin movement, because he was intrigued by how chocolate, typically seen as an indulgent product, could be changed to something healthy by not over-processing the bean (which destroys the antioxidant benefits of cacao) and lowering the amount of unhealthy fat and sugar added to the final bar. “Single-origin doesn’t only mean high quality for the consumer, it means a better flavour profile and a healthier product. For the grower, it means a better return on investment,” he adds.

Every bean has its own distinct taste: fruity, nutty, boozy, winey, oaky, you name it. Single-origin coffee lets us explore and appreciate these flavours in vivid detail

Since cacao trees take four to six years to start producing beans and around 250 to 300 trees are needed to produce enough quantity for the grower to be able to ferment his own beans (a certain amount of cacao pulp is needed for the chocolate flavour to fully develop), cacao farmers need chocolatiers like Belo who are willing to pay a high price for quality beans. Belo is also working with small plantations in Kerala to help them churn out enough cacao for a single-origin bar which Earth Loaf is planning to sell from September onwards. “Cacao production in the state is slowly becoming more viable. A few rubber estates are now turning to cacao growing,” says CT Kuruvilla, founder of Cocoacraft, a chocolate producer based in Kochi.

In the 1980s, India became a huge producer of cacao but it soon turned out to be a commercial disaster with farmers paying more for transportation than what they earned. “Farmers didn’t understand the worth of their own crop back then. Some still don’t and they grow it as an intercrop in coconut and areca nut gardens,” says Chordia. Luckily, there are plenty who do understand. Homegrown chocolate brands like Mason and Co, Pascati, Bean Therapy, Smitten Bakery, All Things, and Cocoacraft are not only sourcing Indian-origin chocolate but also trying out working relationships like ‘Bean to Bar’, sourcing chocolate directly from an estate, and ‘Tree to Bar’, which involves directing the fermenting and roasting process of the beans.

“Chocolate is all about letting the flavour of the cacao shine through. Every bean has its own traits. A great bar of chocolate to me should reflect the characteristics of the original bean,” says Fabien Mason, co-founder of Mason and Co. A French cacao purist, Mason runs the company with his wife Jane in Auroville, Puducherry. He feels it is up to chocolate makers to fight the degradation of cacao quality by working closely with farmers. While there is demand for cacao by bulk corporate buyers such as Mondelez International group (which purchases most of its beans in the country), Lindt and Mars, Mason says that they couldn’t care less about developing the profile of cacao. “They just want beans. The flavour of the bean is of little importance [to them].”

In India, the four cacao-growing regions of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala all bring a different flavour profile to the table. Chordia finds Andhra cacao an intense, average quality bean; Kerala nutty; Karnataka intense and earthy; and Tamil Nadu fruity. “It would be a shame if these flavours are lost for a bastardised cacao bean that some corporates encourage farmers to grow. This bean has high productivity, resistance to disease but is a flavour black hole. Single-estate or origin cacao offers something different—it is a medley of astringency, bitterness and acidity that is unique to that area,” explains Chordia.

Interestingly, the DNA of Indian cacao has several similarities with Venezuelan ‘Criollo’ cacao because it was this plant that historians claim made its way to Tamil Nadu in the 16th century. “The Government is now working on developing indigenous varieties of cacao by crossing two genetic varieties of beans to make a hybrid. If this is successful, then we will see a greater diversity of flavours from Indian cacao,” says Chordia. He adds that Indian chocolate is already generating a buzz internationally and production is projected to increase by 60 per cent over the next decade. “I recently took three bean-to-bar chocolate samples—Earth Loaf, Mason and Co, and Pascati—from India to Amsterdam for Chocoa, the world’s largest fine chocolate fair. They were a huge hit. Global appreciation for Indian chocolate is growing. Now it is up to the producers, governments and chocolatiers to turn it into a success story.”

WHILE CACAO IS a work in progress, coffee has already started to reap the benefits of the single-estate movement. Starbucks has announced it would start selling single-origin, small-lot coffee from India in the US from next year. Last year, Indian coffee exports saw a 13 per cent jump with the Robusta variety increasing by 23 per cent. And while an extremely hot summer this year means coffee production may fall by 8 per cent for the first time ever, farmers remain optimistic and unaffected. Nishant Gurjer, a sixth-generation coffee grower from Chikmagulur, Karnataka, is one such hopeful. Gurjer, who studied Business and Engineering in Bengaluru, now runs Sethuraman Estate, a 220-year-old coffee plantation that is the largest producer of Robusta coffee in the country, exporting nearly 220,000 kg of beans every year. He also retails his own coffee under the brand Kaapi Royale. “You can tell that Indian coffee has finally come into its own because we are now exporting to coffee-growing countries like Peru. Sort of like selling ice to an Eskimo,” says Gurjer. When he started work on his estate, it sold only Arabica bean, as did most of the country. “I did a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis and realised I could either produce average quality Arabica or excellent quality Robusta. I opted for the latter. Robusta is a hardier, more adaptable plant. Indian Robusta has an intense, earthy flavour that is highly appreciated globally, especially in the US where they enjoy strong black coffee,” adds Gurjer. Indian Robusta is doing so well that it was the first to be certified in the R Grader Q Robusta programme (a global coffee rating scale) by California-based Coffee Quality Institute. Till date, 10 of 13 coffees to be certified on the scale from around the world are Indian-origin Robusta coffees.

Single-origin cacao offered a complexity of flavour that I had never associated with chocolate before. It was like having a fine wine

The demand for single-origin is a godsend for farmers like Gurjer. “Unlike in the West, Indian buyers lack sophistication when it comes to purchasing beans—all that matters is price. If you do the math, a kilo of coffee will produce around 70- 80 cups of brew. If you pay Rs 30-40 more for the beans, it comes down to hardly 50 paisa more for a cup of excellent quality coffee. I would be doing a disservice to my own product if I reduced the price simply because buyers cannot see beyond ‘profit’,” he says. But with retailers and customers now recognising the worth of single-origin coffee, Gurjer is finally selling B2C in India. “I sell half a kilo or a kilo of beans to individuals now, including the French embassy in Delhi. To me, I’d rather my beans were appreciated than spend my energy on procuring large volumes.” He has also started organising relationship-based beans (the coffee world’s equivalent of Bean to Bar chocolate), which gives buyers a chance to spend time on his farm, supervising their beans from harvest to the roasting stage.

“The age of blended coffees is finally fading in India,” says Krittivas Dalmia, co-founder of Kaffa Cerrado, an artisanal coffee company that imports single-origin coffee from 12 countries around the world. Dalmia, a New York University graduate, says when he returned to India three years ago, he was shocked to discover the sugary, milky concoction that was called coffee. “The flavour of the coffee bean gets lost in a blend,” he adds.

Blue Tokai, another single-origin coffee retailer, profiles the flavour of Indian coffee beautifully. Founded by Namrata Asthana and Matt Chittaranjan, all their beans are sourced from single- estates in India and then profiled according to taste. Biscuits, chocolate, caramelised nuts, cherry, flavours seldom associated with coffee, are now proudly displayed on packets. “Indian coffee is so diverse. Yet, every bean has its own distinct taste: fruity, nutty, boozy, winey, oaky, you name it. Single-origin coffee lets us explore and appreciate these flavours and characteristics in vivid detail. It also helps encourage and keep small coffee-growing estates in business,” explains Chittaranjan.

Unlike coffee and chocolate, tea has been big on single-estate for a while now. Happy Valley Tea Estate in Darjeeling sold its own leaves as early as the 1850s. It is now an industry that is able to prove how beneficial the movement really is for estates and consumers alike. Growers are so secure in being able to achieve appreciation and price for high quality produce that many are ready to reintroduce plantations in regions.

In 2003, while on a holiday with his family in Dharamshala, tea specialist Abhai Singh made a surprising discovery: a 100-year- old tea estate in the midst of pine-covered slopes. Abhai, who had been managing tea estates in Darjeeling for the past 48 years, was even more startled to learn that tea had been growing on the lower slopes of the Dhauladhar range since 1849, even before it had reached the eastern part of the country. By 1892, almost 9,000 acres of the Kangra belt grew tea under British supervision. Unfortunately, earthquakes, outdated infrastructure and poor communication links with the outside world had since destroyed the industry here. Yet, the climate, mist, elevation and soil had remained the same—perfect for the China Tea Bush to flourish. Abhai Singh, along with his son Kunal and daughter Anamika, decided to give the neglected estate a second chance. Today, the Manjhee Valley Tea Estate grows 500 acres of tea, some of which is exported to Japan, the UK, Spain, France and Singapore and sold through gourmet tea houses such as Mariage Frères in Paris.

“It takes time and effort to grow tea, especially because all our leaves are hand-plucked and some of them even hand-rolled. But what you end up with is a luxurious, almost exotic product,” says Anamika, who runs Anandini Tea Room in Gurgaon and Delhi, the retail branch of the estate. The tea room also doubles up as a classroom; anyone can walk in to sample the Manjhee Valley teas and discover the flavour profile of single-estate products.

“Single-origin and its offshoot single-estate are being packaged as a revolution of sorts in India. It’s evident in tea—Darjeeling, Assam and Nilgiri have become globally-revered names now, as have some of the older tea estates. But now we are seeing the same impact in coffee, chocolate and even cheese. That is why customers are so excited,” says Suchir Suri, founder of Food Talk India, an all-India community of food lovers. Last year, the Park Hyatt in Chennai used single-origin Indian chocolate to create an 8-course meal that included dishes like Pecorino in chocolate, beef in chocolate, chocolate risotto and chocolate martini. Several global brands like Switzerland-based Chocolat Stella and Austrian manufacturer Zotter have started producing single-origin bars with Indian cacao, selling them alongside Ecuador, Costa Rica, Madagascar and Trinidad cacao bars. With tastings, talks, events, forums and even single-origin-inspired food festivals coming into fashion, the revolution has only just begun.