Jose Sugban showing off the Auro Chocolate bar made exclusively with cacao beans from his farm in Paquibato, Davao.
Food & Drink Features

One humble farmer from Davao is now among the 20 best cacao bean producers in the world

Thanks to the young and enterprising duo behind Auro Chocolate—and their local farmer partners—Philippine cacao is making a name for itself in the highly demanding world of fine chocolate.
Feliciano Rodriguez III | Nov 23 2019

“We nearly didn’t make it,” says Kelly Go, co-managing director at Auro Chocolate. “He had no passport, not even a proper birth certificate.”

Go is recounting to us how hard it was to bring cacao farmer Jose Sugban, or Mang Jose, to Paris, France, to attend the Cacao of Excellence Award ceremony at the prestigious Salon du Chocolat. Mang Jose recently made history for being chosen as one of the top 20 best cacao bean producers in the world.

Mang Jose receiving his award in recognition for the quality of his cacao.

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“Being named in the top 20 is such a big achievement for us and Mang Jose,” recounts Mark Ocampo, also managing director at Auro Chocolate, the cacao bean-to-chocolate bar brainchild of the two business partners. “All the cacao beans chosen in the top 20 are winners. There’s no ranking. If you’re in the list, it means you’re one of the best in the world. Which means a lot for us and the country.”

Young entrepreneurs Mark Ocampo and Kelly Go.

“It was really miraculous,” adds Go. “We got (Mang Jose’s) visa two days before we were supposed to leave for France. It was meant to be.”

Jose Sugban is one of the original farming partners of Auro Chocolate, and his journey to become one of the top cacao bean producers in the world is intertwined with the journey of business partners Ocampo and Go into the world of chocolate.

 

White chocolate with moringa

ANCX recently visited Auro Chocolate’s office at the Fabtech Building in Magallanes Village, ostensibly, to talk with the two masterminds of the brand about Mang Jose’s award, but also to get a chance to taste their new chocolate creations.

Open to the public, the chocolate bar at the ground floor of Auro’s Makati headquarters.

At the ground floor cafĂ©, we tried one of their newest concoctions, the 32% White Chocolate with Moringa Pinipig. The bar received its own slew of international accolades: the bronze for the White Bean category at the Academy of Chocolate 2019 series, and a silver in the “White Chocolate Bars with Inclusions or Pieces” category at the International Chocolate Award - Asia Pacific 2019.

Because of its green color, the Moringa Pinipig bar may be mistaken for matcha but the flavor profile is quite distinct.

The bar was very choice, with the familiar bitter malunggay flavor perfectly paired with the sweet white chocolate. The pinipig inclusion, made of pounded and toasted glutinous rice, gave the bar a nice texture and chewy quality.

With coffee and chocolates on hand, we discussed the genesis of Auro Chocolate, and how the brand strives to support local cacao farmers.

 

Genuine inclusive development

Mark Ocampo and Kelly Go met in Chicago years ago, where the two of them studied. Go was then finishing her degree in Political Science and International Studies at the University of Chicago. Mark was studying Advertising and Marketing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

On his and Go’s working relationship, Ocampo says, “Kelly and I do many things together like conceptualizing new products and testing new flavors. We don’t move unless we both agree.” 

The idea to open their own craft chocolate business came from Go’s mother, Jacqueline, about nine years ago. Her mother discovered that artisanal chocolates abroad used cacao beans from Davao. “We didn’t know about it,” says Go. “We were surprised at the fact that people were sourcing good quality cacao from Davao.”

An engineer and chef, Go’s mom decided to go to Davao and see for herself the raw materials available there. After doing a lot of hiking and talking to the local farmers, Go and Ocampo discovered that the farmers grow the extremely rare criolla porcelana variety of cacao beans, deemed by chocolate connoisseurs as the “holy grail of cacao beans.”

The porcelana is as rare as it is expensive, so named because of the immature pods taken from the cacao fruit. The pods are ivory colored and smooth skinned, like porcelain. The flavor profile is much sought after in the world of chocolate—pure in flavor, with notes of buttery macadamia and a delicate spice.

This was a revelation for the Auro team. The farmers simply didn’t know the gold mine beneath them, and so Go and Ocampo endeavored to educate and help the locals.

Just like fine wine, Auro’s premium Reserve line uses beans from a single harvest, the better to highlight the cacao’s distinctive characteristics.

“It was like a treasure hunt,” says Go. “It was also kind of sad, because a lot of the farmers already cut their trees, because no one had the knowledge to recognize their value.” Criollo porcelana has been in the Philippines since the 17th century, brought to us from Mexico by Spanish colonizers.

“It reflects the sad state of our agriculture,” continues Go. “The farmers just decided to cut their trees over time, because the farmers didn’t get a steady income from their cacao farming. Back then, no one was paying them for the criollo, so we decided to open up a small shop to sell chocolate.”

After college, Kelly Go studied culinary arts in Paris, and now takes charge of R&D and operations at Auro Chocolate.

The team realized that opening a boutique shop was not enough to create a sustainable business for themselves and the farmers. “In order to have a sustainable business, we have to make sure that the demand for the raw materials, the cacao, is here, locally, not just for export,” says Go. “The reason why the market keeps fluctuating, making it hard for the farmers to earn a living, is because we don’t have enough local demand for good quality cacao.”

Auro Chocolate decided to design a business that would source directly from local farmers. The business also endeavored to train the cacao farmers with new practices and technologies that would help them have a more sustainable livelihood.

“We wanted to combine craft philosophy with industrial technology,” says Ocampo, when explaining their company ethos. “We love technology and what it can do, but we harness it in a way that is applicable to our craft, upscale mentality.”

Mark Ocampo handles design, production of packaging, and marketing, and is responsible for Auro’s distinctive look inspired by Philippine motifs.

Enter Mang Jose, who was one of the first farmers to go onboard the Auro Chocolate program. The farmer is a maverick among his fellows, as he was particularly open-minded to changing his old ways. “When we were educating the farmers in Davao, a lot of them were understandably resistant. But Mang Jose was so receptive to our training, and in applying new practices to his farming methods,” says Ocampo.

“And we were just very impressed by him and his farm family, and his willingness to not always follow the status quo. He’s a very chill, very cool man. We love his farming philosophy. He told us, ‘I plant what I like to eat’ which is just a simple but very practical way of thinking, right?”

Mang Jose enjoying the sights in Paris, his very first trip outside of his hometown.

Combining craft philosophy, strong farmer relations, industrial practices, and effective marketing, Auro Chocolate subsequently sent samples of their cacao beans (Mang Jose’s harvest was one among others that were sent) to the Salon du Chocolat, the most prestigious chocolate trade fair in the world.

“And we won,” says Go with a proud smile. “Not only did we make it in the Top 50, which was already such a big achievement, but Mang Jose also won the main awards for the Top 20 best cacao in the world. It’s the first time anyone in the Philippines won that award.”

Ocampo shared how the beans in the Philippines have so much untapped potential, if only better post-harvesting and fermentation processes are applied in our farming methods. “We all thought the beans here in the Philippines are sub-par. That’s the impression foreigners, even local chefs, have of our cacao beans. Now we know. We have Mang Jose to thank for that. When you apply good practices in farming, as well as in the post-harvest practices, like what Mang Jose did, we have a world class product in our hands.”

“Here in Auro Chocolate, we are building our country’s reputation,” continues Ocampo. “The prestige of having such an award is not enough. Although it’s already a big achievement, we have to maintain it. We need to introduce better practices to our farming partners, and also find more ways to improve technologies on our side in the manufacturing, selling, and distribution of Auro Chocolate.”

The assorted collection of Auro Chocolate, made with 100% Philippine cacao.

Before ending our chat, Go, with a smile, recounted Mang Jose’s first night in Paris; how he was amazed by the sights of the great European city; how he had his first ever sip of Champagne (and loved it!); and how he was treated like a movie star at Salon du Chocolat, with people lining up to have their pictures taken with him.

“He didn’t speak any of their languages, but they all somehow understood each other,” says Go. “Seeing that, how we helped Mang Jose reach that level, and how our country is recognized for our excellent chocolate, makes it all worth it for us.”

 

Visit aurochocolate.com and @aurochocolate on Instagram 

Photos by Chris Clemente

Additional photos courtesy of Auro Chocolate