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Challenges and opportunities for fine chocolates in India
Friday, 21 August, 2015, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
L Nitin Chordia
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Certain chocolates are categorised as ‘fine’ based on the raw materials and processes that are used to prepare the chocolate and they justify a premium price due to the flavour profile and overall experience that a fine chocolate is supposed to deliver.

The cocoa fruit is considered the healthiest fruit ever grown! It contains beans that are packed between a white pulp/paste (much like custard apple). The pulp is high in sugar and is edible but is not usually consumed. It aids fermentation and flavour development when they are left to dry in a wooden case.

Chocolates are then made by grinding fermented and dried cocoa beans into a paste (called mass/liquor) and adding sugar. Fine chocolates are more delicately prepared and additional ingredients are added in minimalistic quantities.

With fine chocolates, “less is more.” Most fine chocolates would have only three ingredients, cocoa mass/Liquor (which contains naturally occurring cocoa solids and cocoa butter), sugar and a less than 1% emulsifier. No oil is added to the chocolate. However, it is important to understand that fat is present in its true form (cocoa butter) which comes directly from the cocoa beans. The flavour profiles (fruity, citrus, berries, flowery, tobacco, earthy, woody, caramel, nutty etc.) evolve during the process of chocolate making and are derived from the beans itself. Fine chocolate makers, at times do add certain flavours and other natural ingredients like fruits and nuts to further enhance the overall experience.

The FSSAI has not allowed imports of many popular “imported” chocolate brands due to the excessive amounts of vegetable oil/fats contained in the chocolate and/or their fillings. Not being able to change the labelling (based on FSSAI guidelines) due to smaller forecasted quantities for the Indian market is the other reason why many chocolate brands are unable to sell their product in India. However, in my opinion the real reason why imported chocolates brands face a difficult future in India is that even mass market brands become premium simply by way of price addition along the import process without any real value addition to the product. What this translates to is that a mass market brand selling in super markets in Europe shares space with other more premium chocolate brands. Retailers (and even consumers to a great extent) today go by the price of the product and assume a certain level of quality to take the purchase decisions. Unfortunately, the way our imports pricing structure has been set up, the result is that chocolates which do not cost a lot in their home country, get a image makeover (become premium) in India.

On reading this, you may ask, “what are the fine chocolate brands available in India?” The answer to this may actually surprise you! With the exit of players like Lindt after pleasing the Indian chocolate enthusiast for five years, there is a clear gap in the premium chocolate offering in the Rs 300 per bar range in India. No reputed imported chocolate brand has managed to match Lindt in distribution reach. With challenges in imports becoming more predictable (and less regular), a new breed of artisan chocolate makers in India is seizing an opportunity to fill this gap in the premium chocolate market pretty easily. They have an advantage of making/finishing the chocolates locally. Some artisan chocolatiers start their process of chocolate making from cocoa beans grown in India while some of them use ready to use bulk Belgian chocolates then also add natural ingredients to finish their chocolates. Bean to bar makers like Mason & Co, Earth Loaf and Indah Chocolates and other brands like Bean Therapy and Vivanda Chocolate Co lead this effort of providing the Indian chocolate enthusiast with delicious fine chocolate experience with a lot of diversity in their offerings.

Palates of Indian consumers are evolving and international travel ensures that appreciation of fine foods have become more common now than they were a decade ago. Affordability, as seen in the case of Lindt, is no longer in question in the premium fine chocolate segment. Further good news is that chocolates have been evolving in the gifting industry in India. Culturally, Indians have always invested a lot in gifting. Be it weddings, Diwali, Holi, Eid, new year, Valentine’s, birthday, or anniversary celebrations, chocolates have found a perfect fit in the gifting segment.

Recently, a popular Bollywood actor had sent out a bar of fine chocolates instead of the traditional Indian sweets to his guest list along with the invitation! This is a significant event and argues well for the Indian artisan chocolate makers. The quality of design and packaging offered by these chocolate artisans make them an extremely inviting and tempting proposition. Flavours/ingredients that further add to the attraction are the reason why people now prefer gifting a story rather than the conventional Indian sweet. The wedding and festive gifting market in India may be pegged at many thousand crore and these chocolate makers might never be able to cater to the huge demand. However, even to cater to the wedding and festive gifting markets, there are serious challenges that these chocolate makers have to navigate through. What needs to be noted is that the entire value chain has to be involved in the interest of the best customer experience. The challenges can be grouped into sourcing, education, promotion, packaging, innovation, placement and infrastructure. Let us understand each in a bit more detail:

Sourcing – Sourcing of cocoa beans or bulk fine chocolates are both a challenge in India. For the bean to bar makers, sustainable supply of cocoa beans is a challenge. For the others, sourcing of bulk chocolates is a continuous struggle. The other ingredients used as inclusions in chocolates are also sourced very carefully and chocolatiers are always in the look out for newer ingredients.

Education - Fine chocolates like fine wines need to be appreciated in order to be enjoyed better. They are not supposed to be eaten/munched away! It would be disrespect to the chocolatier in my opinion. This is a challenge, the challenge of educating the audiences, that chocolatiers and retailers have to address. Chocolate Tasting and Appreciation sessions will help a great deal. Chocolate Pairing sessions are going to take this effort to the next level and bring chocolates at the levels of wine appreciation. It’s a pity, wines will never be gifted as easily as chocolates (thanks to the regulations, availability and taboo related issues in India). We should not undermine the role of social media to create awareness and use it effectively to reach out to a larger audience.

Promotions - The proof is always in the pudding. Fine chocolates cannot be sold like a piece of art (though I seriously consider chocolatiers as artists!). They have to be promoted just like any other food products and the best way is simply by letting consumers get a piece on their palates! Sampling of fine chocolates is certainly an expensive exercise. I agree. However, with personal experience, I can say that if sampling follows education, (in that order) a story around fine chocolates can very easily entice a passerby and a window shopper to pull some bucks out of his pocket. We must remember a lot of chocolates are impulse purchase and so is the case with fine chocolates. The only difference being that they just do not get picked up like any other candy bar! However, in respect to social media, I do believe that social media may not be a sales driver for fine chocolates.

Packaging - Packaging of the chocolate has to be aimed at providing the required amount of insulation. Apart from the packaging, the box used to give the customer the chocolate has to be insulated and/or ice cooled. This is essential to ensure the right experience is delivered onto the consumer’s palate.   

Innovation – Innovation in chocolate making techniques and also in introducing new range of chocolates with interesting/differentiated ingredients continuously is nothing short of running a marathon! The chocolatier has to do this several times a year. The same assortment and flavour infusions (except some classic flavours) experience customer fatigue over a period of time and need to be continuously replaced.

Placement - As just mentioned, chocolates are impulsive. However, they cannot just be kept on the shelf in the chocolate category and expected to be picked up. They do need a prominence in the consumers mind share within the store. They need to be kept in the fine foods shelf and paired with (placed next to) wines, cheese, tea or coffee. This sets the right expectations and consumers start to get inquisitive about the offering. The right placement with a bit of sampling and education ensures that the chocolatier gets what he deserves!

Infrastructure -
While the above three challenges are more easily addressable (where there is a will there is a way!), warehousing, transporting and handing chocolates in the store at the right temperature and humidity is the single biggest challenge in my opinion. Temperature and humidity shocks can cause fat and sugar bloom in chocolates and can take away a lot of the good looks and flavours of fine chocolates. The storage infrastructure needed is equal to that while storing wines (while controlling humidity). While transporting it, we need to ensure there are no shocks and humidity does not cause the packaging and texture to be effected. While storing in the store, due to a possibility of handling by customers, we need to be a bit cautious about storing it at the right temperatures and humidity and away from foods whose smell can be picked up by these fine chocolates easily. Some of them have fillings and the fat/butter can change texture and easily ooze out and make the chocolate unsalable.

When we, as an industry, do address these challenges related to fine chocolates and consumers savour them in moderation, chocolatiers in India would get their due and these very challenges would turn into clear opportunities. India needs more chocolatiers to take the fine chocolate revolution forward to satisfy our chocolate cravings. Bye Bye Sugar Cravings!
 
(The writer is chief tasting officer, Cocoatrait)
 
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