When talking Vietnamese crops, the buzzwords are rice or coffee, but this may change with companies eyeing up the next potential: cacao in Vietnam. Lorcan Lovett follows the trail from cacao farm to chocolate factory. Photos by Vinh Dao, make-up by Dieu Truong

There’s a boundless energy about 65-year-old Thai Xuan Quang that would trump a gang of sugar-high toddlers.

The farmer, whose youthful complexion and stentorian voice animates whoever’s closest, has been a whirlwind since rushing out of his one-storey house in the rural central highlands of Vietnam and on to the potholed road to welcome us.

It’s not just Quang who’s getting excited about the fruit of his modest two hectares, located about 60 kilometres from Buon Ma Thuot, the capital city of Dak Lak province: investors, suppliers, producers and, most importantly, chocoholics are on edge too, because the world is facing a cacao shortage and Vietnam may just have the answer.

Cacao in Vietnam. Lorcan Lovett follows the trail from cacao farm to chocolate factory in Vietnam“I began cacao farming 10 years ago and it was very new to me at that moment,” recalls Quang, leaning off his elaborately carved furniture. “I really wanted to try a new thing.”

Quang, a well-known farmer in the community who formerly grew coffee and cashew nuts, was asked by American company Cargills in 2005 to take part in its training programme to help develop the country’s cocoa industry.

More than 12,000 Vietnamese farmers took part in the scheme, learning techniques for cacao growing before it’s processed into cocoa, which is used for butter, powder or liquor (non-alcoholic) for chocolate.

Two years earlier, charities, governments and companies keen to capitalise on an abundance of ideal land for cocoa development came together in the SUCCESS Alliance and began pumping millions of dollars into agriculture and networking, training 22,000 small hold farmers in the process.

There were under 4,000 acres of cacao plants in Vietnam when the alliance began planting seedlings in 2004. Today there are more than 54,000 acres in the southeast, central highlands and southwestern regions. While it’s completely overshadowed by the country’s 10.3 million acres of rice, cacao is growing steadily.

American food manufacturer Mars Inc is unlikely to upend its buying strategy because of Quang’s land, although it will listen to a chorus of Quangs which is why co-operatives sharing the produce, not the hectares, work well in the area.

“I did a good job so [Cargills] made me the leader of the co-operative,” Quang, a grandfather of six, says. “From then on, I got trained by the foreigners. The project supplies the cacao [seedlings] to all the farms here so that’s why all of them grow it on their plantations.

“On my own plantation, I take care of the technological stuff and have other workers to take care of the trees. Productivity is really high.

“I’m thinking about buying land for the co-operative but I have no plans to expand my plantation.”

Thai Xuan Quang with Marou Chocolates' Samuel Maruta and Vincent Mourou

Thai Xuan Quang with Marou Chocolate

Two companies buy Quang’s cocoa. The co-founders of one, Saigon-based Marou, are here today.

They make their way over to baby cacao trees near the front drive, which will produce roughly three years after planting. Then we walk through the house and into a large tin shed filled with boxes where fermentation takes place. Its stifling heat is palpable against the cooler highland climate.

The rough leathery rinds of cacao pods hang off trees out the back, guarded from tenacious squirrels by the odd metal trap. Unusually, the tree fruits and flowers at the same time throughout the year and one tree can produce up to two kilos of dried beans annually.

Each pod holds about 40 beans enclosed in a white pulp that needs plenty of sugar to ensure good fermentation. High quality artisan chocolate like Marou uses between two to four pods per bar.

Bronzed with shimmers of purple, the beans are kept in boxes for about five days before drying in the sun for one to two weeks.

Crops like coffee and avocado have been overtaken by cacao in the area. We see this at Quang’s friend’s farm where Quang is dubbed ‘the Gordon Ramsey of farming’ after he tuts at a lack of pruning and maniacally rips off branches from the trees. It’s a co-operative after all.

On the first full moon of the year, Quang boiled a chicken and took the feet to a fortune teller, a Vietnamese tradition. He was told one very good thing will happen this year and, looking at the opportunities in the cocoa industry, it’s reasonable to hazard a guess.

The tantalisingly rich aroma of roasting cacao beans wafts over the pastel-coloured buildings of Binh Chieu only to be swallowed by the smog of a busy Saigon highway. Marou’s chocolate factory must be near.

Quang arguably made his own luck when he walked into the factory nine months ago and asked the owners, Samuel Maruta and Vincent Mourou, why they didn’t sell Dak Lak chocolate.

The two Frenchmen shrugged their shoulders and, after vigorous cocoa testing, said why not. Now they have a sixth bar in their world-renowned collection, with each bar hailing from a different region of Vietnam.

Farmers are keen to do business with Marou. As well as being associated with a high end brand that sells at places like Whole Foods and Harvey Nichols, they are paid above market price.

“It is our way of ensuring a win-win situation,” says Mourou. “We have the highest quality cacao and the farmer is rewarded and will continue to produce that quality.”

Marou are succeeding where their compatriots failed two centuries ago. Cacao was introduced in Vietnam by the French in the late 19th century but it fizzled out. The Soviets had a crack in the 1980s, sending experts to help grow cacao trees, although this, too, collapsed at the same time as their union and so most of the crops were burned.

The advance of public development aid a decade ago has created a rebirth and Marou has taken this further, being the first artisan chocolate maker based in Vietnam and aiming to make Vietnamese chocolate a widely recognised gourmet treat.

Marou focuses on quality rather than quantity, with a 25-strong team at the factory producing about 30 tonnes of chocolate a year. For larger producers, the market has never looked more enticing. In June, cocoa prices reached a four-year high, selling at USD $3239 a tonne.

Cacao boards undercutting farmers by paying a fixed price per tonne, ageing trees and eroding wages are just some of the reasons the world’s two biggest exporters — Ghana and Ivory Coast — are struggling to satisfy the USD $120 billion global confectionary industry.

This is matched against an unshakeable appetite for chocolate in the west and growing demand in Asia which, by 2018, is forecast to consume 1.096 million tonnes, a 27 percent increase from 2013, according to Euromonitor International Ltd.

Vietnam also saw its confectionary market increase by 12 percent last year, reported research group Mintel. Meanwhile, demand for cocoa increases between two and three percent a year and industry experts say one million tonnes of cocoa needs to be sourced over the next decade to keep pace.

Eyes are on equatorial countries like Vietnam, which currently only makes up 0.1 percent of global production — 5,000 tonnes, according to the International Cocoa Organisation.

However, companies believe this can reach 50,000 tonnes within 10 years.

Managing director of Puratos Grand-Place Vietnam, Gricha Safarian, said at an industry conference in April that converting rubber and coffee plantations was the answer.

Back at the factory, the journey of the humble cacao bean continues. Once dried, it becomes a stable commodity like rice and is kept in sacks, sometimes for several months.

In the next room there’s a retired coffee roaster, converted for cacao to help launch the company, which sits in the corner next to its noisy upgrade.

The 120-degree roasting lasts for about half an hour, causing that potent aroma. Newly roasted beans are sent through a machine that splits the brittle shells from the meat inside, called the nib, that’s used to make chocolate.

Mourou walks me to the next stage, a room lined with metallic machines which grind and shake out the cocoa butter for about 24 hours.  The butter is then mixed with recipes, tempered to give the chocolate a nice shine and then moulded in the fridge before being hand wrapped and sold to a market of 70 percent exports and 30 percent domestic.

“That [target market] is what we set out to do,” Mourou says. “Be a brand that makes high quality chocolate from only local ingredients and that is very present in Vietnam but also in exports. Mourou, who also handpicks cocoa for Belgian master chocolatier Pierre Marcolini, says Vietnam has more of a taste for sweet, creamy and cheaper chocolate like Kit Kats and Oreos.

“None of us knew anything about chocolate before we started Marou,” he adds. “We had to learn that on our own.

“We were both chocolate enthusiasts. For me, it was associated with only good things. It fell in line with my values and what I wanted to do next. It was perfect.

“We did this very quickly from idea to selling our first chocolate bar — all within nine months which is insane.

“The hope now is to retain all of our values instead of losing what we are about in order to be in all the supermarkets across Europe.”

Mourou says the cacao industry is much fairer to farmers in Vietnam compared to Africa. “It’s a very different situation,” he says. “Farmers here are educated. They choose what they want to grow.

“Still, Vietnam can become a more important producer of cacao, but right now it is far from being in the top five.”