The first time I tried a chocolate bar made with Vietnamese cocoa beans, I knew I’d found something special. Luxurious gold-and-green paper unwrapped to reveal shiny, snappy chocolate with flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, and coconut. It was made by a company called Marou: Vietnam’s first bean-to-bar chocolate company. This impeccable bar made me want to seek out more bars made with Vietnamese cocoa beans, and more Vietnamese brands. Thankfully, craft chocolate makers around the world have been using Vietnamese cocoa beans, and a handful of bars made in Vietnam, Japan, and France have even won international awards. As of 2019, Marou had counted 20 Vietnamese bean-to-bar makers.
But COVID-19 has hit the country hard economically: Take, for example, the 19.8 percent drop year over year in retail sales just in July. No one feels this more strongly than small businesses like many of these chocolate companies.The local bean-to-bar industry is at a crossroads as the biggest craft chocolate company encounters a hardship, tourism is at a standstill, and small businesses struggle with lowered demand.
Leadership is challenged
Since the middle of the 19th century, Vietnam has had a tiny cocoa export industry. But before Sam Maruta and Vincent Mourou founded Marou Chocolate in 2010, there weren’t any commercial brands making bean-to-bar chocolate. That’s not surprising, since the bean-to-bar movement only began to gain worldwide momentum in 2005. What is surprising: How quickly Vietnam’s cocoa and chocolate scene gained notoriety around the world. Within a few years, consumers in the US and France were clamoring to get their hands on Vietnamese-made chocolate.
In many ways that’s due to Marou’s influence. At Maison Marou locations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the company produces gorgeous chocolate bars as well as mouthwatering eclairs, opera cakes, and chili-cinnamon hot chocolate that will make you weep with joy.It prides itself on its commitment to farmers and fine-quality chocolate, and it paved the way for an industry of folks making chocolate from scratch in cocoa-growing regions, in particular in Vietnam.
Maruta in particular championed Vietnamese-made cocoa: He’d lived in Vietnam since 2005 and had been obsessed with chocolate for as long as he could remember. But in January 2021, he passed away.
While many wonder how Marou is doing and whether it will survive the double tragedy of Maruta’s death and the pandemic, Mourou said the company has managed to maintain “completely intact.”
“It was a huge loss,” Mourou said. He explained that in 2020, Maruta and he had drawn an updated vision for the company and secured investors.
“When we hit 2021, Sam was no longer with us, but we had the vision and we had the backing and so we went strong,” he said.
They’ve used the three-month shutdown to plan new products and organize the team.
“Part of our vision is to really bring chocolate to more and more Vietnamese,” Mourou said. “Up till June was a full-steam-ahead type of energy, and now we’re ready for things to pick up again.”
Demand is down
Even though much of Vietnam remained open during 2020, many craft chocolate companies felt an immediate effect.
“Before the closure of the shops, we already saw a drop in the business, as no tourists could travel to Vietnam,” said Marc Van Borren, the founder of Belvie Chocolate. Fortunately, Belvie has been able to export, including to a few new markets.
Mourou agreed that exports have been “the bright spot” and noted that Marou’s exports are up 50 percent. Even though local demand and production are down, the company has still been buying cocoa beans at the same rate as before. They’re storing them — piles and piles by this point — for future use.
However, smaller businesses can’t operate this way. Though Tbros Chocolate has also begun exporting (customers can now find their bars across Asia, the European Union, and North America), co-founder Truong Minh Thang is mostly concerned with the local market, where “revenue decreased much.”
“We can not deliver orders for foreign customers including cocoa beans and chocolate, '' he said. Due to social distancing, he has been unable to travel to cocoa farms. He’s worried about the financial effects on the farmers: Around the world, including in Vietnam, most cocoa farmers live hand to mouth, and a pandemic has only made the matters worse.
Van Borren also commented that Belvie is having a tough time and that the new sales channels “ didn’t completely compensate for the pre-COVID business.”
Hope for the future
Even though exports are the bulk of sales at the moment, Mourou said that he’s noticed a big increase in local interest in chocolate bars, in particular in Hanoi. Maison Marou in Hanoi makes almost twice the amount of sales than the shop in Ho Chi Minh City. Marañon Chocolate’s Brian Horsley said he was impressed by the local interest at Marou’s shops, in that “95 percent or more of the clientele were local Vietnamese who have bought into fine flavor chocolate and are willing to pay the price for it.”
This enthusiasm makes sense to me: I use chocolate made with Vietnamese cocoa beans in my chocolate tastings all the time because of their fruity complexity and high quality. Almost all the cocoa beans in Vietnam are one of four genetic varieties, but the flavors are much more varied and exciting. That’s because cocoa beans have terroir: Like wine grapes, they taste different depending on where they’re grown.
As chocolate expert Max Gandy of Dame Cacao explains, “All the subtle flavor differences between the provinces are truly due to their unique growing conditions,” as well as the care farmers take in fermenting and drying the beans.
It follows then that Vietnamese cocoa is also one of the most expensive types in the world. While the market price is approximately $1.27 USD per pound, Van Borren said Belvie pays about twice as much, and Mourou said Marou pays about 50 percent more than the market price and gives bonuses and other perks.
To make their sourcing and farm gate pricing transparent to clients and customers, Mourou said they regularly publish a Sourcing Report on their website, with the 2019/2020 report coming up soon. Tbros' Thang, meanwhile, reassured that “all production processes are recorded to trace and monitor quality. If you buy our chocolate or cocoa beans, I can let you know when chocolate [is] produced or beans are fermented and dried. This information is transparent.”
These high prices and traceability means that Vietnamese cocoa farmers are benefiting. “People are making a living,” Mourou commented. “They’re sending their children to university, they’re buying tractors, they’re improving their homes.”
Meanwhile companies like Tbros are adding value to the cocoa supply chain in innovative ways. Thang and his co-founder Nguyen Duy Thong have been creating new products like “violet chocolate,” made from “violet cocoa beans,” and cacaocha, a fermented cocoa bean drink made with cocoa husk and nibs, which has recently been awarded multiple stars from the UK’s Great Taste 2021. (Tbros has smartly registered patents for its two new products.)
While Tbros looks for new ways to use cocoa beans, Marou is focused squarely on chocolate bars. They’ve created a line of mini bars sure to woo the Asian market. The bars feature tropical fruits and nuts, and the smaller size makes them perfect for snacking. They’re hoping to launch before the end of the year.
Despite these new innovations, the landscape remains a challenging one. COVID-19 cases are down, but they’re still much higher than they were in, say, July of this year. Craft chocolate companies have partially figured out new sales channels, but as the country struggles, so do these small businesses. Yet many entrepreneurs remain optimistic about the future as well as committed to the Asian market. “We want to offer a chocolate experience to the Vietnamese and other Asian countries,” Mourou said, explaining the company’s commitment to the continent. “We’re based in Asia. It’s where we live, and it’s our backyard. That’s part of our future.”