Cocoa Through the Lens – Resurrecting Fine Flavor in Indonesia

Author and Photographer Lucy O'Bryan

Sharing the Story of Cocoa
Drying beans at the ICCRI research station near Jember, East Java. Photo by Lucy O'Bryan.

After a life-long fascination with Indonesia, I finally got my chance to visit last year to photograph the country’s cacao sector. What I saw could probably fill a large book. This is my attempt at summarizing my impressions of cacao farming in this kaleidoscopic nation in one concise article. An enormous archipelago of over 17,000 islands that stretch from the giant rainforest-clad volcanoes of Sumatra and Borneo right up to the remote Melanesian province of Irian Jaya, the East Indies, as Indonesia was once known, have lured travelers with romantic images of palm trees and spices since time immemorial. With over 145 million inhabitants, or about half of the country’s population, Java is the most populous island. It is also where the long and turbulent story of cacao in Indonesia began in the 1880s. That was when European settlers first adopted it to their plantations in an effort to establish a new export crop that would improve the balance of trade of what was then a Dutch colonial territory.

Before I describe my own arrival in Java, I want to make a suggestion. To any reader interested in really delving into the story of cacao in the region, I can’t recommend strongly enough seeking out the captivating work of French economic researcher François Ruf. His readable ethnographies record how initial efforts at establishing an export sector based on cacao had only limited success. He goes on to explain how that changed dramatically in the 1970s when smallholder farmers on the island of Sulawesi began adopting the crop. These farmers leveraged cultivation skills they had gained on the plantations of Sabah in the Malaysian part of Borneo, while also exploiting what Ruf terms “forest rent” e.g., the low cost of land on Sulawesi resulting from access to huge tracts of virgin rainforest available for clearing and planting to whomever had the will to claim them. This was complemented by access to cheap labor derived from government-sponsored “transmigration” schemes that sought to quell a simmering separatist insurrection by flooding the island with settlers from more populous islands such as Bali and Java. The result was a “cocoa boom”, driven by Sulawesi’s smallholders, that quickly turned Indonesia into a cocoa colossus – the third largest producer in the world.


A cacao farmer near Ende, East Nusa, Tengarra. Photo by Lucy O’Bryan.

The situation today is more complicated as rising costs for land and labor blunt these initial advantages making cocoa less competitive against alternative crops, like rice and coir, requiring farmers to adopt more intensive methods and investments to be successful with cacao. None of this is simple. The variable quality of Indonesian smallholder output means that Indonesian beans trade at a discount to world prices (the country is also one of only two major producers that export the majority of beans unfermented). Despite a value-added tax imposed on unprocessed cocoa that resulted in a number of large-scale investments into the processing sector by multi-national commodity firms, production has plummeted by as much as fifty percent in recent years. As a result, in a perverse twist these same companies are now forced to import cocoa beans to keep facilities in operation. On the other hand, the rising market for high-quality chocolate products from interesting single origins has inspired the emergence of small companies in Indonesia crafting exciting new products that appeal to these premium markets. But enough about my research. Before I knew it, I was on my way to the airport.

Following a long trans-Atlantic flight via Tokyo and a short layover in the teeming capital of Jakarta, I found my camera and I traveling by turbo prop planes to the island chain of East Nusa Tengarra. Located in this region is Flores, best known for its proximity to the Komodo dragons. Flores is truly one of the authentic “spice islands”, and its inhabitants farm a fascinating mélange of nutmeg, cloves, peppers and coffee, with cacao liberally blended into their colorful orchards. In small settlements near the main towns of Ende and Maumere, I enjoyed the wonderful aroma of these spices drying everywhere in the open air while the farmers treated me to local specialties such as clove tea. Cocoa cooperatives are active across Flores in trying to improve the quality and marketing of the island’s smallholders, and we visited several groups that are seeking to educate their members in farming techniques and collection schemes. Nonetheless, the remoteness of these islands and the small-scale nature of production means that output is limited and the farms I saw were mostly best described as rustic.

In contrast, despite recent setbacks, Sulawesi remains the center of activity for the cocoa sector, as I discovered soon after my arrival in Kendari in South-East Sulawesi. Several major producers, such as Kalla Kako operated by Yayasan Kalla and PT Papandayan Industries operated by Barry Callebaut, are located in the regional capitals of Makassar and Kendari. In the countryside near these cities, we saw that cocoa farming continues apace, with companies such as Mars and Olam supporting farmers with technical assistance and access to new varieties of planting materials. Roads in Sulawesi seem to stretch endlessly through a green landscape of hills dotted with small towns. At the tiny canteens where we stopped to eat nasi goreng (fried rice) and mi goreng (fried noodles), I slowly picked up enough of the local language, Bahasa, to begin exchanging some pleasantries with the farmers we met. These are hardy rural folk resolutely continuing the tradition of cacao farming, and I witnessed new fields still being cleared in the mountainous interior.

Separating beans at the ICCRI research station near Jember, East Java. Photo by Lucy O’Bryan.

With steely seas shimmering in all directions, the East Indies was living up to its sultry, enticing image on my short flight from Makassar to the famed tourist island of Bali. Something of a world apart, the airport in Denpasar reminded me more of a shopping mall back home in California (except with more Russian speakers). Ascending to the yoga resort-studded up-country settlement of Ubud, I learned that several specialty chocolate producers have emerged here in recent years, such as Elevated Cacao and Bali Spirit. And no wonder – the steady stream of visitors seems to provide a ready firsthand market for their products. In fact, many of the cocoa farms I saw seem to do a roaring trade in tourist visits, with on-site cafes and tasting experiences providing income to these companies even before their products reached the well-stocked souvenir shops where local chocolate products mingle with other exotic traditional homegrown craft foods. On a non-cocoa-related note, one unusual product, kopi luwak, is actually made from coffee beans eaten and digested by wild civet cats (luwak). Though collecting beans from cat poop seems to me sort of counterintuitive, this reputedly improves the flavor (though I did not myself try any of the “outputs” subjected to this process).

At a cacao cooperative near Kendari, South-East Sulawesi. Photo by Lucy O’Bryan.

A cacao farmer near Kendari, South-East Sulawesi. Photo by Lucy O’Bryan.

Crossing the churning straits that separate it from Bali and returning to the island of Java, we experienced what was to be a highlight of the trip when we discovered a very unique approach to resurrecting fine flavor production. It takes flavorful, high-quality beans to make great-tasting chocolate, and no one knows this better than the fourth and fifth generation who oversee the 151-year-old premium Guittard Chocolate Company based in Burlingame, California. In pursuit of high quality, through its Cultivate Better sustainability platform, Guittard has established what it terms “flavor labs” in Ghana, Ivory Coast, and in Indonesia to develop the skills of producer and processors to better leverage the inherent qualities in existing bean varieties. These flavor labs allow researchers in their respective countries to develop the tools and skills required to objectively assess the flavor of different cocoa varieties and incorporate this into their breeding programs and handling techniques. Guittard notes that most cocoa farmers have not tasted the chocolate made from their beans, nor have they had the opportunity to taste the differences among the varieties of their country’s cocoa or the results when harvesting, fermentation, drying, and storage are done correctly and when they are not. The flavor lab program works with cocoa farmers, cooperatives, and extension agents to “learn by tasting” how their skill and craftsmanship can build value and improve marketing.

Tasting cocoa at the Guittard flavor lab in Jember, East Java. Photo by Lucy O’Bryan.

Our visit to the Indonesian Flavor Lab, located in Jember, East Java, made me think of a chocolate-centered theme park, complete with a tram decorated with cocoa pods and vintage photos of farming and processing from around the region adorning the walls of its offices. The lab is operated in partnership with the Indonesian Coffee Cocoa Research Institute (ICCRI) also located in Jember. A key objective is developing better handling for cacao that had previously been dried over open fires that imparted an unwelcome “smoky” odor to the beans. To date, the Jember lab has analyzed 83 samples of beans from Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, one of which was listed as amongst the top 50 beans in the world at the 2019 Salon de Chocolat in Paris. In addition, at its 2019 meeting, the International Cocoa Organization Ad hoc Panel on Fine or Flavour Cocoa reversed a planned decision to drop Indonesia from the list of global fine cocoa producers, instead retaining the level of 1% of the country’s exports as fine flavor beans and thus leaving the door ajar for future development of this premium sub-sector. This visit, the last stop in my tour of the cacao zones of the East Indies, left me with the distinct impression that this diverse country remains firmly attached to its colorful and romantic heritage of cacao farming. We are destined to see much more high-quality chocolate emerging from these still romantic and remote spice islands.


Lucy O’Bryan is an accomplished documentary photographer and is also the Communications Director at GeoBeat Economics and Media. 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. A particular focus of her work is the social development projects that cocoa companies implement in order to improve the living conditions of producers in source countries. Visit her site at: or for more information.