Tokyo Cacao is pushing the boundaries of cacao production with the first ever chocolate bar of entirely Japanese origin. The chocolate lineup is produced from trees grown in the Ogasawara Islands, which fall under Tokyo’s jurisdiction despite being nearly 1,000 kilometers away from the metropolis.

From 2016-20, Japan’s chocolate market grew at an annual rate of 4 to 5 percent, making the country Asia’s largest chocolate consumer per capita. But the production of cacao beans, the most important ingredient for making chocolate, has historically been confined to warmer, tropical regions, particularly West Africa, Indonesia and South America.

After an eye-opening visit to a cacao farm in Ghana in 2003, growing the tree in Japan became a goal for Tokyo Cacao’s president, Masayuki Hiratsuka. Following another research expedition to Vietnam in 2006 to further understand the production process, the chocolate company finally settled on the archipelago’s Hahajima island.

A sweet harvest: The Tokyo Cacao team holds up cacao pods from its farm on Hahajima island. | COURTESY OF TOKYO CACAO
A sweet harvest: The Tokyo Cacao team holds up cacao pods from its farm on Hahajima island. | COURTESY OF TOKYO CACAO

Hahajima’s location — outside of typical cacao-growing regions — necessitates additional measures to successfully grow the tree. “The process of producing cacao pods for beans requires a temperature and humidity control method unique to Japan,” Shin Hiraoka, development officer at Tokyo Cacao, says. Cacao tree seeds were imported from Indonesia, and today Tokyo Cacao cultivates 502 trees.

Before becoming chocolate, cacao fruits, or pods, are harvested and broken open. Seeds are extracted from the pods for further processing, at which point the seeds are referred to as beans. According to Hiraoka, “the fruit pulp inside has a sweet and sour taste, with an aroma similar to lychee.

“Cultivation and harvesting is carried out by farm staff on Hahajima island … and fermentation carried out in a laboratory in Soka (Saitama Prefecture),” Hiraoka continues. “Depending on the harvest, we can collect anywhere between 10 to 100 kilograms of beans at a time.”

Split open: Cacao fruit pulp has a sweet-sour taste and a lychee-like flavor. | COURTESY OF TOKYO CACAO
Split open: Cacao fruit pulp has a sweet-sour taste and a lychee-like flavor. | COURTESY OF TOKYO CACAO

Starting a cacao farm in Japan, however, was more difficult than anticipated. After five years of trial and error, which included the loss of 167 cacao tree seedlings to unknown causes; conditioning the local soil; and finalizing the construction of a sturdy grow house, it was finally possible to start making chocolate. However, perfecting the first Japanese-grown chocolate took several more years of development, the results of which only became available this past year.

The majority of chocolate produced for Japanese consumers can be traced back to the country of origin, but not necessarily the region or farm where the cacao beans are grown and processed. This system can make quality control more difficult, and creates an inherent disconnect between farmer and consumer.

Bean-to-bar chocolate focuses on fixing this disconnect, and involves developing relationships with farmers and processors, and the bean-to-bar sourcing method often offers increased quality and traceability. Many craft chocolate makers fill the market niche for higher-quality products that emphasize high flavor notes and ethical sourcing, which aligns with how Japanese consumers approach chocolate.

“In Japan, I have heard chocolate being described as something special, a luxury item,” says Hiraoka. “I think the quality and lineup of chocolate in Japan has improved significantly, especially over the past 10 years, creating a demand for more and more specialized products.”

Bean-to-bar has recently taken Japan by storm, with new, innovative chocolate makers entering the market. Craft chocolate maker Vanillabeans opened its first of four retail locations in 2014, followed by Green Bean to Bar Chocolate in 2015 and Dandelion Chocolate Japan in 2016.

While many bean-to-bar chocolate makers differentiate products based on cacao origins, Tokyo Cacao has entered the market with a chocolate of entirely new provenance, what it calls “soil-to-bar.” Its flavor has “a refreshing acidity that hits the tongue and melts smoothly, with a fruity scent,” Hiraoka says.

“We have prioritized romance over business sense,” he continues. “Growing cacao in Japan was the dream.”

For more information about Tokyo Cacao and to purchase chocolate bars online, visit www.tokyo-cacao.com.

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