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.