Java's Hidden Chocolate
    Category: Luxury & Lifestyle By : Alissa Gwynn Read : 3849 Date : Saturday, October 12, 2013 - 07:51:18

    Ahmad Zamroni / Forbes Indonesia

    Fruity, leathery and complex—these may not be the first adjectives that come to mind to describe gourmet chocolate. Yet cocoa connoisseurs insist that the explosive flavors of Java criollo, a type of cocoa bean found only in Java, qualify it as the crème de la crème of chocolate. The irony is that Indonesia—the third largest cocoa producing country in the world—is pushing cocoa production to Sulawesi and converting cocoa plantations in Java to palm oil. The result is that one of Indonesia's most valuable agricultural commodities, the prized Java criollo, is slowly disappearing despite demand for it increasing.

    Criollo beans constitute only 3% of the world's cocoa production. Despite their reputation for making the world's best (and most expensive) chocolate, criollo cocoa plants easily get sick and require special care, which is why most farmers instead typically favor the related forastero or trinitario (a hybrid of criollo and forastero) cocoa plants, which are easier to grow.

    Most likely the original cocoa plant from Central America was criollo, and criollo was the first type of cocoa grown in Indonesia from the 1500s and the most widely grown for decades. Even in the 1980s, there was some 30,000 hectares of cocoa plantations in Java. Today that number is 2,000 hectares; all run by the state-owned Perkebunan Nusantara XII (PTPN XII) plantation firm.

    Today Java criollo's scarcity has given it almost mythical status. “To make an analogy with coffee beans, forastero cocoa beans are like robusta—plain, bitter, that's it—while criollo is like the micro-lot of arabica,” says Irvan Helmi, co-founder of the Pipiltin Cocoa, a newly opened premier chocolate outlet in Jakarta. Because of its exclusivity, Java criollo is about 20% more expensive than forastero beans, according to the Indonesian Coffee and Cocoa Research Institute. “Java cocoa is prized for its distinctive flavor; the volcanic soil in Java creates cocoa beans that have a different taste and aroma than beans produced elsewhere. In addition, Java's perceived mystique—volcanoes, the Ring of Fire and the East Indies—appeals to many people,” says Mervyn Pereira, principal of the Chocolate School in Jakarta.

    However, about 90% of the chocolate produced in Indonesia is low quality, known as compound chocolate, while that from Europe or the U.S. is higher quality, known as couverture chocolate. In Europe, those numbers are reversed; with 90% of local chocolates couverture. Few here want to buy the expensive high-end cocoa beans to make couverture. “The demand for criollo domestically is very low,” says Tissa Aunilla, Irvan's sister and co-founder of Pipiltin.

    Thus, nearly all the Java criollo is sold to high-end chocolate makers such as Felchlin in Switzerland, which has a single-origin Java criollo chocolate on its website. However, that is all about to change. Pipiltin recently acquired Java criollo beans from PTPN XII, despite the plantation's initial reluctance to sell such small quantities of criollo beans—300 kg, in Pipiltin's case—to  local companies. Irvan and Tissa have already begun the trial and error process to create their own fine dark chocolate criollo recipe. Once ready, they plan on including the criollo chocolate with their current offerings and encourage couverture chocolate production in Indonesia. Irvan says: “Indonesians like to buy chocolate from Belgium, Switzerland and the U.S., but the cocoa isn't actually from those countries. Basically, the appetite for good Indonesian chocolate is there, but it needs to be ignited and localized.”