By Lu Yawen
We’re no stranger to chocolate and yet Jerome Penafort, founder of Mr Bucket Chocolaterie, wonders why so little of us know about where cacao is grown. A plant native to the Amazon forest, it’s travelled across the world to countries such as Africa where most of the world’s cacao is imported from.
Not to be outdone, Indonesia was once the third largest exporter of cocoa beans in the world only trailing behind the Ivory Coast and Ghana. Although Asia’s production of cacao has fallen as a whole, what remains are smaller farms that afford a traceability and transparency.
We have a chat with Penafort as he explains why it’s the smaller cacao producers in the Asian region that has gotten his attention.
What inspired you to want to showcase Asian cacao?
Most consumers are unaware that chocolate comes from a fruit called cacao. The general perception is that the best chocolate comes from Europe, where in fact, no cacao grows there. Cacao trees grow 20 degrees north and south of the Equator, and there are many cacao farms found around Asia. The chocolate produced from Asian cacao is just as, or even more delicious than those from other parts of the world. These farmers have for the longest time been unnoticed and unappreciated with chocolate brands being the focus — and this is something we want to change. We should all know and appreciate where our food comes from.
We work directly with farms from all around Asia, including Malaysia, Thailand, India, Philippines and Vietnam. We wish to be the vessel that shares the stories of these farms and farmers.
Why do you think there’s a lack of appreciation for cacao produced in Asia?
It starts with the lack of awareness of cacao actually growing in Asia. Asia is also not known to be a producer of fine chocolates. It’s only recently in the last 10 years that the artisanal chocolate community emerged, so it will take time for consumers to learn and understand what artisanal chocolate is. Think about artisanal coffee: It only really gained popularity in the last 5 years even though it has been around for 10 to 15 years. A certain critical mass is necessary.
Are there any differences between cacao from Asia and the rest of the world?
Just like coffee and wine from estates around the world, the environment the cacao trees grow in — the terroir — affects their flavour profiles. Our single estate chocolate bon bons are a great example. Our 64% Dark Chocolate, made from cacao sourced in Malacca, Malaysia, has notes of honey and malt. And our 80% Dark Chocolate, made from cacao sourced in Anamalai Hills, South India, has strong flavours of dried raisins and cashews.
How big is the market for cacao produced in Asia? Why?
I believe it will be as big as cacao grown anywhere in the world. Even though the category is really still in its infancy in terms of awareness and popularity, chocolate originating from Asia has already found its way to several US and European retailers. Quality-wise, Asian chocolate is as good or even better than those found in other parts of the world, so it’s only a matter of time before it can be found all over the world.
How did the name Mr Bucket Chocolaterie come about?
Growing up, my favourite book was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. At the end of the story, Willy Wonka handed over his factory to Charlie Bucket, the main character in the story. Mr. Bucket is our interpretation of Charlie all grown up, and how the story continues.
Where does Mr Bucket get most of its cacao from?
Our cacao is sourced from all over Asia. Some of the farm estates we currently source from: Triang Bera from Pahang, Malaysia; Calinan from Davao, Philippines; Anaimalai Hills from Tamil Nadu, India; Panchor from Malacca, Malaysia; and Vung Tau from Ba Ria, Vietnam.
Why have you chosen these countries? What makes them special?
It isn’t so much the country that determines where we source cacao, but more about the quality of cacao and the relationship we have with the farmers. Before we decide to buy cacao from any farm, we go through a vigorous R&D process to test the quality and flavour of the cacao by making them into chocolate using different variations of roast profiles and recipes.
Have your previous experiences (in finance, real estate and co-founding Benns Ethicoa) informed the way you manage Mr Bucket?
My experience in private equity real estate provided me with a good foundation in understanding the value of investing as I was part of the investments team looking for opportunities around the world. I was also the secretary of the ESG committee which afforded me a good understanding of sustainability. With Benns Ethicoa, I learned about farmer relationships and chocolate making, and got to know the Southeast Asian cacao landscape in depth — which in turn inspired me to start Mr. Bucket.
What other collaborations are you working on currently for Mr Bucket?
To celebrate our 1 year anniversary on 5 November 2021, we launched a collaboration with local creative studio Tell Your Children in a very special way, releasing a limited-edition chocolate bar and graphic T-shirt to celebrate this milestone. Our Loopy Surprise Chocolate Bar and Forest Forager Tee has been really well received. The chocolate bars are now sold out but we still have limited sizes available for the tees.
In line with this milestone, we also collaborated with book distributor Times Reads to organise a fundraiser to inspire and rekindle the child-like spirit we have in all of us. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl has always been an inspiration for us, so we put together 50 sets of Good Deed Bundles consisting of a copy of this childhood classic and a box of 12 bon bons. Proceeds from this fundraiser will go to the Singapore Children’s Society. We’ve raised more than $2,000 so far.
In time for the festive season, we worked with Brass Lion Distillery again in another spirited collaboration to create a luscious and full-bodied Cacao Gin. This pairing of sustainable and ethically-sourced Southeast Asian cacao with The Singapore Dry Gin is perfect served on the rocks with a slice of orange peel, or paired with ginger ale. This gin starts with notes of chocolate and nuts, followed by a kiss of citrus and a touch of floral undertones.
Also for the festive season, we collaborated with artisanal soap brand Gentle Mood. Inspired by the flavours and layers of the Peppermint Cookie bon bon, one of our limited-edition Festive Collection flavours, we created a limited-edition Peppermint Soap Bar made with luxurious Cocoa Butter and Cocoa Powder. It’s refreshing, light and great for the holiday season.
What are your plans for the brand five years from now?
In the short to medium term, our mission is to change the perception of chocolate from Asia — that it is just as good or even better than those found in other parts of the world. In the longer term, we hope to revitalise the cacao industry in Asia, in which farmers start focusing more on quality knowing there is demand from makers like ourselves. In this way, they will be able to create opportunities for themselves to improve their livelihood.
Our overall goal is to be a change leader in the Asian chocolate industry and represent Singapore and Asia on a global stage. In order to do that, we will need to significantly grow our product range, as well as our physical and digital footprints.