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The Cocoa Channel
Lee’s Cocoa adds a refreshing take to Malaysia’s age-old cocoa industry by producing all-natural chocolate products using the cacao it grows locally.
In the town of Banting, Selangor, a drive up a narrow, mud gravel lane leads to a small orange house built of wood and brick, sitting unobtrusively amongst the trees. This is Lee's Cocoa, a cacao farm and business belonging to the Lee family, which also produces its own chocolate.
Adam Lee at Lee’s Cocoa.
“Previously, in the 1980s this entire area was all cacao farm. All the farmers were planting cacao,” says Adam Lee. In 2012, Lee took over from his father in managing the family’s cacao farm and business.
A cacao tree.
Unfortunately, oil palm plantations gradually replaced the cacao farms in Banting as they were more profitable and required less maintenance in the long run. This included some of the land at Lee's Cocoa. According to statistics by the Malaysian Cocoa Board, cocoa production has dwindled significantly over the past two decades.
Although often used interchangeably, cocoa and cacao are not the same. Cacao refers to the raw bean-like seeds (or cocoa beans) of a Theobroma cacao fruit, while cocoa is the product of cacao beans processed and heated through higher temperatures.
The five-acre cacao farm of Lee’s Cocoa currently boasts 200 cacao trees of the Trinitario variety, whose cacao beans embody a stronger aroma and fruity flavour. The plant itself is less vulnerable to diseases compared to other species, and has higher yield.
“Harvesting is one year twice, starting March and around October,” explains Lee. The flower of the cacao tree takes about four months to grow before it’s ready for harvesting. “One tree can produce around 10,000 flowers per year. The [tree’s] lifespan is around 60 years,” he adds.
Lee and his father both tend to the cacao trees in the farm. It’s hard, back-breaking work; they start early in the morning pruning, clearing, checking on the cacao fruits and generally making sure the farm is in order.
Lee holds up a cacao fruit.
Often, the fruits would be swarming with red ants, an indication that they are ripe for harvesting. The cacao fruit itself can also be consumed, its flesh sourish-sweet with a texture similar to mangosteen or custard apple.
A cacao seed cracked open.
But the seeds are the real stars. The harvested cacao beans are left to ferment and sundried before being transported to a small processing facility in Tanjung Sepat, where they are converted into chocolate products.
Making chocolate was never part of the business, but while on holiday in Taiwan, Lee was inspired by the country’s cacao industry. He then ventured into chocolate making – he and his wife even operated a chocolate-themed café in 2013. When the café shut down, Lee shifted his focus towards the farm but continued to pursue chocolate making.
A DIY machine nicknamed "mee hoon kuih machine" is used to crack the cacao seeds.
In 2015, Lee teamed up with his current business partner Eric Khor to completely rebrand and remarket Lee’s Cocoa products under Vive Snack, a range of guilt-free chocolate and cocoa snacks for the health conscious.
“We don't use stabilisers, lecithin emulsifiers at all,” says Khor, referring to the ingredients commonly found in commercial chocolate. “We call these artisan chocolates – it lets you taste the real [cocoa] beans.”
From left, Eric Khor and Adam Lee at their cacao processing facility in Tanjung Sepat.
Aside from chocolate, Vive Snack is known for its cacao nibs, which can be eaten on their own or as a healthier alternative to chocolate chips in baking. One of its latest products, dark chocolate peanut butter, is made with 65 percent dark chocolate, sea salt and cinnamon, and has even drawn comparisons to Nutella.
Khor stresses that Vive Snack products are fully natural and undergo minimal processing in order to retain as much of the ingredients’ original taste and nutritional value. As such, numerous vegan, vegetarian and paleo restaurants use Vive Snack products in their food and drinks.
Cacao seeds are put through a grinder for 24 hours or more to create cocoa mass.
For instance, Paleolicious, a paleo restaurant with outlets in Kepong and Desa Sri Hartamas, use Vive Snack's Raw Cacao Nibs in their smoothies and cacao powder for the cheesecake. “[Vive Snack] are providing real food for consumers,” quotes a restaurant representative. “At the same time, they are promoting local farmers. We encourage people to eat real food and here's where Vive Snack can support [the cause].”
The range of chocolates by Vive Snack.
Through Lee's Cocoa and Vive Snack, Adam Lee and Eric Khor's dedication in promoting healthy eating and innovation in the local cacao industry shines through. The duo’s wish of seeing the brand as a worthy Malaysian representative in the international market seems well within reach.
Address: Lee's Cocoa farm, Jalan Banting Sepang, Batu, Selangor. Vive Snack processing plant, no. 13 Medan Selera, Lorong 3, 42800 Tanjong Sepat, Selangor. Tours by appointment only. Browse through the products at www.vieverte88.com.
By Lyn Ong
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi
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