Cocoa Through the Lens: A Chocolate Revolution in Thailand

Author and Photographer Lucy O'Bryan

Sharing the Story of Cocoa
Dr. Sanh La-Ongsri and his family at the MarkRin Chocolate Factory in Chiang Mai Province, Thailand. Photo by Lucy O’Bryan, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand, April 2019.

Well-informed coffee aficionados are probably aware of the transitions underway in Thailand’s coffee sector, which has long been identified primarily with the bulk robusta beans grown in the country’s southern reaches. In contrast, far fewer people are aware that a virtual chocolate ‘revolution’ is also happening in the country, making it poised to add yet another product to the kingdom’s list of culinary delights.

Decades ago, agricultural development institutions in southern Thailand, such as the Chumphon, assisted farmers in adopting cocoa trees. As a result, some ‘commodity’ cocoa production emerged alongside the robusta coffee and rubber that dominate the region. It was in this area that Dr. Sanh La-Ongsri, an expert in beverage crops and later a lecturer at the Agricultural Production Faculty, Department of Horticulture at Maejo University, launched his almost 30-year quest to develop the ideal Thai variety. His cocoa creation is the IM1, which is derived from a hybrid of Criollo Amelonado ICS from Peru and a heartier Forastero variety developed at Luzon University in the Philippines in the late 1990s. The IM1 has a number of characteristics such as rapid growth, high yield, and drought resistance that make it well suited to Thailand’s varied climates and terrain. It performs well in the mountains around Chiang Mai Province, which has an average elevation of 300 meters (1,000 feet) and a cyclical wet and dry tropical climate. After three to four years, the trees produce a pod with an average of 30-40 seeds each and a fat content up to 52%. Importantly, the IM1 is a ‘fine flavor’ variety that produces an aromatic, complex flavored bean ideal for high quality single-origin chocolate.

Although fewer than their specialty coffee counterparts, a number of entrepreneurs have taken on the challenge of producing fine flavor Thai chocolate, including Kad Kokoa, PARADAi, Shabar Chocolate and Xaconat in Bangkok, and notably, Dr. La-Ongsri himself through his MarkRin Chocolate company in Chiang Mai.

We drove out to the MarkRin workshop on the outskirts of Chiang Mai on a blisteringly hot morning in March 2019, to be warmly greeted by La-Ongsri’s charming daughter Irin and her brother Mark, who have both grown up learning chocolate-making from their mom. The two siblings were quickly joined by Dr. La-Ongsri and his gracious wife, Kanokked La-Ongsri. The new workshop they had designed had just opened. In fact, it was so new that some sections of the impressive modernist structure were still under construction. But my first and most lasting impression was that the epic agronomic journey Dr. La-Ongsri had traversed in order to breed a uniquely Thai variety of cocoa bean, and the impressive chocolate making operation he was constructing, the most ambitious in Thailand, were also the bedrock of what is at heart a truly family business. The son and daughter even lent their names to the company—perhaps a chocolate dynasty in the making.

A Thai farmer selects saplings at a MarkRin nursery in Chiang Mai Province, Thailand Photo by Lucy O’Bryan
Staff at a MarkRin nursery with a cocoa pod derived from the IM1 variety developed by Dr. Sanh La-Ongsri Photo by Lucy O’Bryan
Kanokked La-Ongsri at the MarkRin nursery with cocoa beans derived from the IM1 variety Photo by Lucy O’Bryan

After a quick tour around the factory, we headed out of town to our first stop, a nursery from which the company is disseminating the IM1 variety to farmers. MarkRin Chocolate supplies farmers with cocoa saplings grown from mother plants at a network of nurseries located in Thailand’s growing regions spread throughout the kingdom. When we arrived, several pick-up trucks were already being loaded up with saplings, their beds a field of emerald green. After paying a small fee for the saplings, the farmers also receive training in agronomic practices and handling, and MarkRin guarantees them a market for their crops.

Thais have the word sanouk, roughly translated as fun, which is what is much needed to make tough farm work enjoyable. Even in the intense heat of the morning sun, everyone was having sanouk, including farmers that had driven several hundred kilometers from Central Thailand to purchase saplings. They were happily talking about their experiences and their aspirations of expanding their farms and improving the quality of their cocoa. One farmer I met had come from a farm near Uttaradit, a provincial town about four hours southeast of Chiang Mai with his brother. Their first batch of seedlings was doing well so they were buying more in order to expand their area under cocoa. Next we visited a few farms to meet growers. By the time we arrived, the heat was even more intense, but the farmers enthusiastically showed us their trees, which stood near rice paddies and horticultural fields fringed with various tropical fruit trees. Most of the farmers had only recently adopted cocoa but their trees were already festooned with colorful pods.

  • A Thai farmer in Chiang Mai Province, Thailand with a cocoa pod derived from the IM1 variety

    Photo by Lucy O’Bryan

  • Cocoa after pressing at the MarkRin Chocolate Factory

    Photo by Lucy O’Bryan

  • MarkRin cocoa products

    Photo by Lucy O’Bryan

At the end of the day we returned to the MarkRin factory. While Dr. Sanh’s dynamic wife Kanokked, the creative heart of the operation, showed me around the chocolate making machines, Irin got a few MarkRin products together to share with me.

I was eager to start the tasting as she showed me one tantalizing delight after another.

First, there was a rich looking chocolate powder for making hot cocoa, and bags of nibs and beans. Sweet iced and warm drinks, like Vietnamese iced coffee made with sweetened condensed milk, have long been a staple in Asia, so cocoa is a natural transition.

But the best part of any visit like this is of course tasting the star attraction. As she drew some dark chocolate out of the swirling conching machine, a wonderful aroma filled the air. Her chocolate had a strikingly deep and rich body, with complex overtones of cookies and berries, just like we expect from fine flavor chocolate. With farmers snapping up trees from the company’s nurseries to plant them in the four corners of the kingdom, I imagine it won’t be long before the flavors of these products are well known throughout Thailand and beyond.

In addition to the generating improvements in farmer incomes through cocoa adoption, MarkRin Chocolate is also involved in a number of social development projects aimed at expanding opportunities for marginalized populations in Thailand. For example, the company also implements a program called 60+ though which MarkRin, in collaboration with the Asia-Pacific Development Center on Disability (APCD) provides on-the-job training to people with disabilities in order to provide them opportunities for employment in the cocoa industry. Their 60+ United Nations chocolate made by these employees is offered for sale at the souvenir shop in the lobby of the United Nations Building in Bangkok.

  • Dr. Sanh La-Ongsri’s daughter Irin and son Mark

    Photo by Lucy O’Bryan

  • Mark making chocolate

    Photo by Lucy O’Bryan

  • Irin shows off cocoa butter

    Photo by Lucy O’Bryan

Finally, as the day drew to a close, I walked out to the small courtyard that separates the workshop from the family home. There on the patio were grandma and grandpa out enjoying the cool night air in a pair of rocking chairs. I wanted to speak to them, ask them what they thought of the nurseries, the farms, and especially, their opinion of the chocolate but my limited Thai language skills made it impossible. Instead we exchanged a smile and waved to each other. So with three generations involved, this is truly a family business, albeit one on the leading edge of what looks to be a nation-wide chocolate revolution.

Dr. Sanh La-Ongsri and his family with their partner at the MarkRin Chocolate Factory Photo by Lucy O’Bryan

Lucy O’Bryan is an accomplished documentary photographer and Communications Director at Absolute Options (AO). Her work employs tools such as photography and photo blogs, public speaking, and new social media, to enhance promotion and public outreach efforts of organizations around the world. In this role, she has photographed cocoa producers and processors in dozens of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, Africa, and Oceania to enhance linkages between consumers and farmers and promote richer appreciation of the culture and terroir associated with cocoa and chocolate. Visit http://www.lucyobryan.com or https://www.whereintheworldislucy.com/cacao for more information.