In the chilly confines of his production plant, Rex Puentespina and his staff are tinkering with the formula for a magical mixture. He studies numbers on his laptop and takes a quick glance at a whiteboard.
Let’s use a different kind of sugar. And let’s try a lighter roast on a new batch of beans,” he tells the factory manager. Filling the air is the hum of food machinery, the kind that’s been romanticized and fantasized about by sweet-toothed, starry-eyed foodies. The scent in the room is divine. In one corner, a mixer steadily churns thick brown liquid and from a nearby tube – more like a gaping faucet, really – oozes the elixir of the gods: dark, sensuous, heavenly chocolate.
I sample a piece of the product Rex is making – the single-origin, 65% Malagos Dark Chocolate Bar. It’s a deliciously bittersweet candy. The flavor is reminiscent of local tablea but it’s more intense and velvety. The morsel goes down smoothly like a finely made chocolate suisse. It’s the kind of chocolate that delivers a shot of adrenaline. This is good stuff, I tell him.
“That’s one of the rejects,” he sheepishly replies. “The sugar has too much moisture in it.” He points to a barely visible, off-color line on the back of another sample. “You may not be able to taste the difference but you can sure see it on the bar,” says Rex. Standards have to be strictly maintained, he explains, so this one item that won’t be leaving the factory.
Until recently, such quality control was rare in the Philippines, at least as far as the local chocolate industry is concerned. In a country where cheap, mass-market chocolates are the norm, Rex’s company is one of just a handful that has successfully crossed into the gourmet realm. Ever since it’s introduction in July last year, the Malagos signature chocolate bar has drawn the attention of top local chefs and garnered positive reviews at international food expos.
Rex belongs to a family that commands vast plantation holdings on the slopes of Malagos, just outside Davao City in the Philippines’ Mindanao region. Famous for their orchid and flower orchards, the Puentespinas have, since 2004, set aside 24ha of farmland for the growing cacao trees (also called cocoa trees). It’s these trees that produce the raw material for his delectable chocolate, which means his product is one of the few in the country that’s wholly made in-house – from farm to factory.
Rex is far from alone in his pursuit of chocolate perfection. In recent years, the highlands around Davao have become a source of truly outstanding cacao. Unlike other Philippine provinces, this region has no history of growing the legendary crop. Chocolate came to the Philippines during the colonial era, when Spanish friars imported cacao seedlings from Mexico. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s – several centuries later – that cacao plantations began to appear on hillsides in Mindanao.
For decades, the farms around Davao were in the business of churning out “bulk cacao,” the low-quality kind used in the production of cosmetics and soaps and as the main ingredient in local, mass-market chocolates. A USAID-funded initiative helped upgrade the industry in the mid-2000s, but it wasn’t until 2008 – when cacao industry experts predicted an imminent market crash – that Philippine chocolate began drawing attention beyond the nation’s borders.
Faced with an impending cacao shortage, foreign buyers began looking for suppliers aside from the usual Indonesian and West African sources. One of these buyers was Shawn Askinosie, whose Missouri-based confectionery produces award-winning artisan chocolate. So distinctive was the flavor of Davao cacao – he has described it as “dry, like a full-bodied, well-aged red wine” – the Askinosie placed an order for seven tons of cacao beans from local organic farmers. From this shipment he made the first batch of now-famous 77% Davao Dark Chocolate Bar. It was experiences like these that encouraged local farmers to invest in cacao trees. Today, select beans from Davao reach customers in the US and Europe through huge, high-end chocolatiers like Switzerland’s Barry Callebaut and commodity brokers like London’s Armajaro.
Back at the Puentespina Farm, Rex takes me on a quick tour to bring me up to speed on the chocolate-production process. It begins in the fields, of course – around 17,000 Trinitario hybrids flourish in what amounts to his family’s backyard. On this early June morning, the farmhands are at work harvesting thick, brightly colored cacao pods from the trees. The fruits are carted to a facility where they’re cut open and their seeds are collected. A few days of fermentation in specially made boxes follows – this important step brings out the full flavor of the cacao – before they’re placed on sun-drying beds. When processed properly, the seeds resemble dark brown, chocolate-scented pebbles. These are then roasted in a specially made machine, and afterwards winnowed and ground to produce the basic ingredient for that thing we love most.
At the Malagos farm, the end result is what many consider to be the gold standard when it comes to Philippine-made gourmet chocolate. Currently, there are only a handful of names in this elite class of local manufacturers. Not surprisingly, they’re all upstarts – and they all source their cacao beans from Davao. Theo & Philo came first in 2010 with its line of inventive concoctions (read: chocolate laced with Pinoy ingredients like green mango, barako coffee, and even fiery siling labuyo). Soon after, Malagos Chocolate and Cacao de Davao arrived with their own takes on the classic dark cacao bar.
Davao’s growing reputation for quality cacao isn’t just affecting local chocolatiers. “Every year the price of cacao beans has been increasing,” says Sam Hao, a wholesale commodities buyer in Malagos. “These days, the price of Davao cacao is actually higher than the international standard. Thankfully, this means better incomes for the local farmers.”
In the village of Gumalang, just a few kilometers down the road from the Puentespina property, I talk to farmer Michael Gaborne, whose family runs a 1.5ha orchard. Gaborne has just sold 153kg of freshly extracted, “wet” cacao beans to a local buyer. In two weeks, he’ll complete another harvest. “Cacao is selling really well!” he says, clearly relishing the fact he hasjust P5,049, a windfall compared to the earnings from his other crops. “Three years ago, we replaced some of our durian plants with cacao. Now we want to devote all our land to growing this tree.” Puentespina readily acknowledges that the demand for Davao cacao is steadily increasing but says the challenge is to maintain the high quality for which it has become known. As far as his brand is concerned, the next step is to go fully organic – forgoing chemical additives – while continuing to pursue the company’s aim of seeing its chocolate bars on the shelves of premium supermarkets in the United States and Europe. “Davao chocolates being sold in US-based natural and organic chain Whole Foods. Now that would be great!”
As for the rest of Davao’s cacao growers, they’ve got plenty to keep them busy. Seventy percent of national output (that’s 10,000 metric tons) comes from these parts, yet the Philippines’ cacao production isn’t even enough to meet domestic demand. There’s also the challenge presented by Mars Inc – a world-famous maker of Mars, M&M’s and Milky Way – which hopes to buy 100,000 metric tons of this country’s cacao. Davao’s farmers are rushing to plant more trees every year, and other growers throughout Mindanao are getting in on the action.
“Perhaps in the near future, chocolates will become an emblem of Davao, like its ethnic minorities, the Philippine eagle and the durian,” muses a local tourism officer. When that day comes, it’s a good bet the chocophiles throughout the world will be celebrating Davao’s dark, delightfully decadent bean.”