From seedling to bar

Assoc Prof Dr Sanh and Kanokked La-Ongsri. Photos: Nianne-Lynn Hendricks

MarkRin Chocolate was born out of the love for chocolate by Assoc Prof Dr Sanh and his wife Kanokked "Thip" La-Ongsri, who also created it as a long-term research project in Chiang Mai. Sanh found that the agricultural geography of Thailand qualified for planting cacao trees. The first cacao plant in Chiang Mai, Sanh crossed two cacao varieties and created his own hybrid called "I.M.1". He and Thip formed MarkRin Farms, to support and form a cooperative, so cacao farmers have a stable occupation since cacao is a monocrop and intercrop. Sanh and Thip also studied and researched cocoa beans fermentation together to develop chocolate from premium quality dried beans.

Why did you decide to grow cacao? It is not part of the Thai flora.

Sanh: My job, as a professor in the horticultural department for Maejo University, Chiang Mai and as a cocoa expert in Thailand, was to study and research cocoa varieties, cocoa physiology and production, harvesting, bean fermentation, roasting and chocolate processing for more than 30 years. I was aware of the advantages of cacao and 10 years ago decided to set up MarkRin Chocolate, which is named after my two children Mark and Irin. Twelve years ago, I decided to grow cacao and to make chocolate to further the understanding of the crop for my students. It is a tropical crop, so it is easy to grow here. We were the first cacao farmers in Chiang Mai.

Where did you learn to make chocolate?

Sanh: Since I teach about beverage crops, cocoa, tea and coffee, I knew the basis of how to make chocolate.

Thip: I used the pestle mortar used to make som tam to first crush cacao pods to make chocolate. So my chocolate recipe is unique and is developed by me, and is organic as much as possible.

Where did you get your first seedling?

Sanh: Around 21 years ago, Maejo University had an exchange programme with the Wichita State University in Kansas, US. One of the exchange professors brought me a seedling that he got from his friend in Peru. I crossed that with a seedling that was given to me by another friend, who was studying in the Philippines. My cacao variety is from two varieties -- from Peru and from the Philippines. It is a hybrid of Criollo from Peru and Forastero from the Philippines. My variety is called 'I.M.1' and it is unique to MarkRin Chocolate. No one else grows it but our farmers, exclusively for us. 'I' stands for Irin, our daughter, and 'M' for Mark, our son. Our I.M.1 variety is registered with the Department of Agriculture and is patented.

Why seedling to bar and not bean to bar?

Sanh: Bean to bar refers to the chocolate maker who buys the beans from farmers. But we are special, we have developed our own seedling for our chocolate, hence we are a seedling to bar company. We don't buy any beans or pods from other farms, but our own. We also ferment our own pods. Cacao is a zero waste plant, it is a world industrial crop, is good for people's health and we can use cacao trees for afforesting and so on.

Where are your farms in Thailand? How do you choose them?

Sanh: Our farms are spread throughout the country, in 30 provinces -- a total of 3,000 rai around Thailand. In the beginning, the farmers approached us when they wanted to plant something else, like in the South, they wanted to plant something other than rubber. Most of the farmers, want to experiment planting new crops so their profit margins increase.

Thip: We have two companies -- MarkRin Farms for our farmer cooperative and MarkRin Chocolate is the chocolate-making part. Our farmers are divided into 11 groups. Each group has a leader or project coordinator who looks after the crops and farmers in the group. They are also responsible for recruiting new farmers and making sure the new farms are up to standards needed to grow our cacao. The farms need to have plenty of water and be 600 meters above sea level, apart from the richness of their soil. That is a must to grow cacao.

We have two kinds of farms. Farmers that grow other crops, like lychee, rambutan, longan, bamboo, eucalyptus and rubber, alongside cacao are not 100% organic. Those that grow only cacao, in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lampang and Lamphung, are organic. This is also reflected in our finished products. Some of them are labelled organic and others are not. All of our organic farmers are in the process of being certified organic.

Where is the market for MarkRin Chocolate?

Sanh: We export to France, Belgium, France, Austria and Japan. However, domestically we sell online, mainly to hotels and restaurants as we sell raw chocolate in large quantities. We are not available for sale in supermarkets or shops. In Chiang Mai, we sell to the Shangri-La Hotel and X2 Chiang Mai. In Bangkok, we sell to Asia's No.14 restaurant Le Du and we feature on their dessert menu. We are also in talks with the two Michelin-star Mezzaluna. Though we have chocolate bars, they can only be ordered online for now.

Tell us about future plans.

Sanh: Next month, we plan to expand our market by teaming up with 60 Plus+ Bakery at the APCD Foundation in Bangkok, which employs people with disabilities, to create a disability-inclusive chocolate production outlet and cafe.

Thip: Me and three of our chefs will train the outlet staff about chocolate, which will be sold here. By the end of year, we will also sell our chocolate bars at the cafe. We also plan to open a shop and cafe in front of our factory and home in Chiang Mai, which is under construction. The shop, which will open in October, will have everything to do with chocolate. We are also producing a range of cosmetics and soaps. They are certified under the Japanese Frozen Foods Inspection Cooperation and with the Thai Food and Drug Administration. We plan to open a chocolate school, where farmers can come and learn everything there is to know about the crop they are growing or want to grow.