Vicky Lin’s Artisanal Chocolate Finds Taiwan’s Sweet Spot

Some of Vicky Lin's products atop a mound of cacao beans. Photo: Stephanie Huffman

Cacai Cacao, Vicky Lin’s bean-to-bar chocolate company is a home business in every sense.

The inspiration for the business came during a 2015 visit to her husband Mark’s family home in the Philippines, a trip that gave her the chance to see several cacao farms that make their own chocolate for turning into finished chocolate products. (Most chocolatiers around the world, in contrast, fashion their products by buying and melting down already-made chocolate.)

“At the time, I knew I wanted to go into the cacao world,” she recalls. “There was just something completely magical to me about cacao, and I knew it was a field I really wanted to work in back in Taiwan.”

Lin initially considered cacao farming, but issues of home life deterred that idea. Based mostly in Taipei (not the most suitable spot for even small-scale farming), Lin’s family splits its time between Taiwan, the Philippines, and Australia – and farming is hardly conducive to a mobile lifestyle.

So she began thinking about ways to get involved with the cacao industry on a different level. That led her to research the idea of creating bean-to-bar chocolate by enrolling in a class offered by Ecole Chocolate, an online educator specializing in teaching students about chocolate.

The class fueled her interest in the industry, and further research (some of which involved copious sampling of various brands of bean-to-bar chocolate) convinced her that the market for high-quality chocolate in Taiwan was bound to rise. After completing the class, Lin took the plunge and started investing in equipment and sourcing cacao beans from farms in the Philippines. She then set up a small cacao processing workshop in the study of her family’s home, a space now almost entirely given over to the production of bean-to-bar chocolate.

“One of the first things I did was buy 20 kilos of raw cacao beans and make various test batches for friends and family,” Lin relates. “There was some trial and error of course, but once an Australian friend who’d been in Taiwan to act as a test-taster went home and wrote me a letter asking if I could send more because he’d become addicted to my chocolate, I knew I was ready to take things to the next level.”

At this point Lin chose the name for her company, inspired by her four-year-old son Xavi’s mispronunciation of the word “cacao.”

“Xavi has been along for every step of the process, and has tasted a lot of the chocolate I’ve made. He makes the sound “Cacai!” to describe chocolate. So I called our company Cacai Cacao, which I think really brings out my own feelings about the wonders of cacao.”

Lin’s base of operations is still the original three-ping space. The equipment includes a stone grinder, a cracker that cracks the beans into a mixture of nib and shell, and a winnower – perhaps the most complex item, created by a local craftsman following a blueprint purchased online – that separates nib from shell using gravity and a vacuum attachment. There are also roasters, various containers for storing and aging the beans, and a table for tempering and creating packaging.

The smallness of the space belies the complexity of the operation. Turning raw cacao beans into finished chocolate bars takes about a week, not counting the aging process (which can take a month or longer). The grinding alone needs two days. For this and other reasons (especially the extremely high quality of every ingredient used), small- batch bean-to-bar chocolate typically costs far more than your average Cadbury confection.

Unlike most store-bought chocolate, the focus of bean-to-bar chocolate is to bring out the flavor notes of the beans, which can be surprisingly diverse, complex, and nuanced. Indeed, connoisseurs of fine chocolates use a vocabulary similar to wine sommeliers’ in describing the experiences offered by various blends. Words like grassy, bright, fruity, and floral are heard, together with more expected terms like bitter, cocoa, and nutty.

Lin currently sources her beans directly from a few small organic farms in Pingtung and the Philippines, with all bars made using beans from a single origin. Fermentation is key to the flavor of the finished product, as beans that have undergone a good fermentation process have more complex flavor notes. Fermentation is a skill in and of itself, and Lin admits that in this regard Taiwan cacao growers still have a bit to learn from their Philippine counterparts.

“The farmers I’m working with in Pingtung have been improving, and recently I’ve been encouraging them to get their skills up to an even higher standard,” Lin says. “But they haven’t been at it as long as my Philippine suppliers.”

Consistency is another issue with Taiwanese cacao beans. The growing region in Pingtung is slightly cooler than the area in the southern Philippines where her other source farms are located, causing an occasional batch of subpar beans. “The cacao is still pretty good, but not quite good enough for me to put my company name on, so we turn it into hot chocolate mix and give it to friends,” Lin says of the less-than-perfect beans.

Still, Lin keeps working with Taiwan suppliers, as she sees great potential for bars made from locally grown beans. Flavor is key, and though some bean-to-bar makers mix other items like dried fruits and nuts into their finished product, Lin does not, preferring to highlight the natural flavors of the cacao.

Indeed, the only differences in the bars she currently offers in her still-small selection comes from the percentage of cacao in each, with the remainder consisting of sugar and coconut butter. The other source of flavor difference in Cacai Cacao products is the beans’ origin.

“Demand for cacao is high globally, and Taiwanese cacao production is so small that there isn’t even enough for export,” Lin explains. “This makes my single-origin Taiwan bars quite distinctive, further driving demand.”

Visual appeal is another factor, with Cacao Cacai coming in both disk and bar shapes that have been pressed with various Aztec patterns that also serve as the company logo. “There’s a strong connection between the eating of cacao and the Aztec culture, so we wanted a pattern that is both visually appealing and honors this cultural connection,” she says.

Though still a small business by any standard, Cacai Cacao has clearly grown out of its infancy, and Lin is currently creating a larger space for both production, storage, and sales, as well as serving as a classroom in which to give customers a full bean-to-bar cacao experience, including tours and taste-pairings.

Sales channels

Given the limited supplies, Lin’s products are still hard to find in Taiwan. “Most of my current customer base is made up of serious connoisseurs, or people who look at chocolate as a product consumed not just for pleasure, but for its well-documented health benefits,” Lin says. “This kind of customer is willing to go the extra mile to find a product they want.”

The Siu Siu Lab Art and art center in the hills near the National Palace Museum regularly stocks her chocolate, and Cacai Cacao products are sometimes sold at farmers’ markets around the city. But most of the sales currently are conducted over the internet, including through Facebook.

Lin is also looking at offering her chocolate through other retail outlets, and notes that she has been approached by Carrefour. But for now, Lin is focused on quality rather than the quantity that such an arrangement would likely demand.

“One of my goals in starting this company was to bring the exquisite flavor and health benefits of genuine cacao products into the Taiwanese market,” she says. “In addition to education, another goal is to help cacao farmers, who are often exploited by large companies, to earn a better income for their work.”

The popularity of bean-to-bar chocolate is on the rise both globally and in Taiwan. Thanks in part to Lin and a few other producers, Taiwan has taken preliminary steps into entering the larger arena of luxury chocolate production. Will Taiwan be able to make its mark in that world, as it has with coffee beans and single-malt Scotch? Will Taiwan ever produce an internationally renowned bean-to-bar chocolate maker?

Faced with this question, Lin, still in her small chocolate production facility that just a few years back was her father’s three-ping study, smiles. “Absolutely,” she says, pausing to nibble a 90% Cacai Cacao bar. “And I will be one of them.”