Siblings Raiz the Bar with Hong Kong's first bean-to-bar chocolate factory
Siblings hope to wow Hongkongers with their fresh spin on chocolate
Hong Kong has no shortage of outlets to buy chocolate - from mass-produced bars on supermarket shelves to jewel-like bonbons in speciality chocolatiers. The quality of chocolate sold in these places could not be more different, but they have one thing in common - they're all imported.
Transforming the seeds (also known as beans) of a fresh cacao pod into edible bars of chocolate is a slow, labour-intensive process. Every chocolate maker in Hong Kong used to import large blocks of ready-made high quality couverture chocolate, which they then melt, flavour and mould because no company in the city was willing to make it from scratch. That has changed, however, with the recent opening of Raiz the Bar, Hong Kong's first bean-to-bar chocolate factory.
Behind the company are sisters Priscilla Soligo and Rachel Whitfield. They source cacao beans directly from an organic farm in Indonesia, work with the growers to ferment and dry the beans, then ship them to Hong Kong whole. This close relationship they have with the growers is at odds with the more conventional method of going through a broker.
Making chocolate in Hong Kong might seem rather counter-intuitive, given our long, steamy summers.
"Having the constant wrath of Hong Kong's humidity and heat for most of the year has certainly been a challenge - but one that we have thankfully overcome in our factory. Keeping the factory dry, consistently watching the temperature and ensuring we temper our chocolate correctly has been our saving grace," Soligo says.
Despite being Australian-Canadian, Soligo is proud to have her product made in Hong Kong.
"This is our home now and where all of our children have been born, and we want Hongkongers to have it freshly made right here."
Willy Wonka would be impressed with their set-up in an industrial building in Kwun Tong. The facility is filled with specialist equipment that removes the husk from the bean, then grinds, mixes and smooths the paste to bring out the flavour, then tempers the chocolate to give it a sheen and snap.
The mixture is carefully hand poured into moulds and various fruits and spices are added to create different flavoured bars.
One thing they don't do - which again sets them apart from traditional chocolate makers - is roast the beans. Soligo entered the industry as a raw food chef, and her nutrient-oriented approach means that none of the ingredients are heated to over 47 degrees Celsius.
"We choose not to roast our beans as we want our customers to benefit from the naturally occurring medicinal compounds in cacao," she says.
Chocolate contains phenylethylamine, a neurotransmitter dubbed the "bliss drug", as well as flavanols, compounds that are thought to benefit short-term memory and even reduce the risk of heart disease. Raw food advocates believe these benefits are vastly reduced when high heat is applied.
Raw chocolate has a reputation for being gritty, chalky and bitter, but Soligo says: "You won't find that with our bars as our beans are a little more buttery compared with many South American basin beans."
She says the Indonesian beans work well with the techniques and processes she's taken over two years to develop. For example, they conche (mix, scrape and agitate) their beans for four days - more than double the time of most premium chocolatiers. The resulting bars are smooth and full of flavour.
Raiz the Bar's retail range has six flavours, many with intriguing ingredients such as an unusual pairing with chai spices, chipotle chilli and chaga mushroom.
Soligo says: "We weren't sure if the combination would work cohesively or not. After many attempts we launched our Love Me bar and the response was overwhelming. The warming chai spices come first, followed by a subtle lingering of the chipotle chilli shortly after. Chaga mushroom is touted as the 'king of mushrooms', and is used for immune support and in traditional Chinese medicine, so we wanted to see if we could play with that, too."
For chocolate purists, she suggests the Balance Me bar. "It has both [cacao nibs] and a high quality, mineral-rich unrefined sea salt, fleur de sel, adorned on the back. The salt brings out the complexities of the chocolate and accentuates the fruity and earthy notes that are indicative of the Indonesian terroir, as we are a single-origin bean to bar. The nibs add not only more flavour, but, in particular, texture and crunch to the bar, which is a really interesting contrast."
Before the end of the year, they plan to introduce three more flavours.
Although the chocolate itself is cold-processed, Soligo says it's also good for cooking. "Many chefs nowadays are connected to their food source and choose to support fresh and local. Usually, couverture is sourced overseas without the traceability of ours and contains refined sugar and other less desirable ingredients, plus orders often have to be in large quantities.
"The beauty about what we offer is that we are a small batch maker and because we manufacture fresh chocolate locally here in Hong Kong, smaller quantities can be ordered."
Since introducing wholesale couverture, their products have begun to attract the attention of local pastry chefs, so expect to see their chocolate in restaurants around town as well as on shop shelves.