In a market dominated by foreign brands that cater to the masses, a growing number of chocolatiers are creating a niche for their artisanal products.
LIM Jialiang of Demochoco is a small-batch chocolatier. That means he hand mixes his ganache, is anal about pairing ingredients, and uses seasonal produce imported from abroad. He is one of a growing number of chocolatiers here who are pushing their craft to the next level, by introducing daring flavours and single-origin couvertures.
Mr Lim spent two years and S$15,000 experimenting before launching his business last week. For him, it all began in 2014, on a trip to Paris. "I scrimped on meals just to afford the chocolate there - the flavours were amazing. I wanted to do that in Singapore where we are at the crossroads of East and West, with so many exciting ingredients and combinations to try."
That's why despite being a struggling bohemian type who works in the evenings at a craft beer hawker stall, Mr Lim travels twice a year to source for ingredients and inspiration.
Ask, and he'll rattle on about provenance and manufacturing methods, from couvertures to Kyoto's patented matcha grindstones, or yack about his blend of fresh bentong ginger and spices for his masala chai truffles.
In a scene dominated by foreign brands which cater to the masses, or restaurant pastry chefs doing a side gig, indie types such as Mr Lim are hoping their artisanal chocolates and edgier flavours will eventually follow the same trajectory as craft beer and nut butters.
Leela Titus of Leela's Fine Chocolates, for instance, retails bonbons made from Valrhona couverture in flavours such as mandarin, tea and biscuits, and rosemary and olive oil.
This ex-lawyer started experimenting in 2013, and went full-time a year later, catering mainly to corporate orders and events. She recently launched a webstore to reach out to more customers.
"I love playing around with unusual flavours and shapes - it gives me a chance to unleash my artistic side," says Ms Titus. "My greatest pleasure is seeing a customer's suspicion and hesitation turn to a smile as they enjoy a challenging flavour."
Ms Titus is not the only professional who answered the calling; ex-banker Anjali Gupta started Anjalichocolat over a year ago, and now runs a boutique and atelier in Loewen Gardens near Dempsey Hill. She picked up the craft in Istanbul, then honed it at the Callebaut Chocolate Academy in the UK.
While Ms Gupta adopts a classic approach to balancing her flavours, she loves using an assortment of spices as well. "Given that I'm Indian, and have lived in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico and Turkey, I am comfortable with pairing different ingredients and spices with my chocolate."
However, though she started out working with unusual ingredients such as stilton, curry leaves and seaweed, maturity has taught Ms Gupta to practise restraint, so that "chocolate (remains) the main event".
That's something that Jay Chua of Wild Nibs strongly believes in as well, except he is taking it to a whole new level. He anticipates a chocolate revolution here on the scale of the third-wave coffee movement, so like local coffee roasters, he has begun roasting cacao himself. He uses ethically sourced single-origin beans (which drive up the cost of raw materials by over 30 per cent) in a backbreaking process that requires hours of hand-sorting, winnowing, grinding and ageing.
Mr Chua is inspired by the 10-year-old craft chocolate culture in the US and UK, and aims to be one of Singapore's first local "bean-to-bar" makers within the year.
Currently, he uses single-origin chocolate and cacao nibs to make chocolate chip cookies, so those with more discerning palates can choose between the floral, mocha accents of Ecuador versus the honey notes of Tanzanian cacao.
"The industry isn't focusing enough on flavours, quality and provenance - it's a packaging game right now, and many well-known luxury brands here retail very generic chocolates," says Mr Chua.
"But food culture is steering towards transparency - consumers are questioning sources, manufacturing process and additives."
There's a darker side to the business, however, as many hopefuls have come and gone. The main challenges include producing and storing this highly perishable treat, on top of the typical pitfalls of being in F&B.
For instance, The Chocolate Atelier along Joo Chiat closed just around end-February. Its founder Reto Marzari - a Swiss-born chocolatier who has been in Singapore for 20 years, with over 50 years' experience - says he will never touch the chocolate retail business again, and is looking for collaboration or to work out of a cafe space.
Initial investments totalled S$100,000, and the atelier did well until foot traffic decreased due to competition from new shopping malls in the area.
Prohibitive costs for new entrants include a proper chiller (about S$5,000), not to mention setting up a prominent boutique space to get the word out, he says. Raw material prices have also seen an increase of 20 to 30 per cent in the past four years. That's partly why craft chocolates are so expensive to make, he explains.
Even popular dessert cafe Wimbly Lu Chocolates has trouble selling their truffles at S$2 a pop - only 2 per cent of customers are likely to buy them.
Chocolate desserts, on the other hand, are part of the reason the five-year-old cafe has a strong following.
"Demand for truffles is very seasonal; they fly off the shelves on Valentine's Day, but the typical cafe crowd doesn't come here for artisanal chocolate," says founder Lim Wee Bin.
It's not all bleak however, as the founders of Chocoelf have found a way to cater to a niche market. They sell sugar-free chocolates in truffle, bar and even Merlion shapes, with flavours such as curry, kaya, orchid, durian, ginseng and chrysanthemum.
Co-founder Josephine Lee says these unusual local flavours sell almost as well as their regular flavours (such as almond or dark chocolate), and they are popular among tourists as well as locals who buy them as gifts for foreign clients.
She says: "Chocolate is a difficult industry, but it's growing.
There are more people buying it these days - Asia is one of the largest chocolate-consuming markets now.
Singaporeans are definitely interested in chocolates; after all, every time people travel to Europe, one of their first stops is a chocolate store."
Wonderful whirl of chocs
Where to go for a little sweet indulgence.
Tel: 9683 2136
OFF-THE-SHELF ingredients are just too mainstream for this hipster chocolatier; Lim Jialiang recently travelled to Marukyo-koyamaen's plant in Kyoto for green tea to use in his truffles, while picking up sake lees and kinako (roasted soy flour) along the way for experimentation. You'll find his matcha truffles on his webstore launched last week, which features six different flavours per month.
The soft, creamy confectionery is mostly made from single-origin Valrhona couvertures, which include a sophisticated Earl Grey truffle, a whisky truffle made from Suntory Hibiki 12, and even a wacky salted egg and cereal creation.
Prices range from S$16 to S$19 per 100g. Delivery charges start from S$9, free for orders above S$120.
WHILE speciality coffees are now the new normal in Singapore, craft chocolate is another matter. Wild Nibs is probably the first indie cacao roaster, which uses fair trade beans with no vanilla or soy lecithin added.
Founder Jay Chua painstakingly hand-sorts the single-origin beans, roasts them, then winnows to remove the husks.
The nibs are used in cookies (S$25 for five huge ones), or ground in a melangeur (a vintage cocoa grinder) and aged for a month before they are tempered and moulded into bars for chocolate workshops and appreciation sessions.
If you just want the goods, try the Balao 75 per cent cookies (floral, mocha and cream with a hint of spice), or the Kilombero 67 per cent cookies with floral and honey notes.
Leela's Fine Chocolates
Tel: 9339 3940
IN her previous life, Leela Titus was a lawyer. In 2013, however, she gave up the courtroom for the kitchen and has been making and designing chocolates by hand for the last three years.
She gets her couverture from Europe (such as Valrhona), and holds workshops for chocolate-making and appreciation.
Her classic chocolate truffle flavours (above) include raspberry and mint, while more unique flavours include tea and biscuits, chai, and even a rosemary with olive oil.
Aside from that, she also does chocolate-coated honeycomb, chocolate lollipops and even edible footwear (think high heel shoe-shaped chocolate).
73 Loewen Road, #01-15/16
Tel: 6509 6800
Open daily 10am-7pm
TUCKED away in Loewen Gardens (near Dempsey Hill), this charming chocolate boutique and atelier offers a mix of classic and adventurous products.
It's also an idyllic setting for events or workshops with a cosy 20 pax space which opens out to a lawn.
Founder Anjali Gupta uses Belgium couverture, fruit puree, and whole spices.
Crowd-pleasers include Rum and Raisin or Toasted Almond Rochers, but try also exciting flavours such as the peppery Star Anise or Mayan Chilli Bonbons. Prices range from S$14 for a four-piece box to S$56 for a large box with 12 pieces.
Wimbly Lu Chocolates
15-2 Jalan Riang
Tel: 6289 1489
Open Tues to Fri, 12.30pm - 10.30pm; Sat and Sun, 9am - 10.30pm; closed Mon
YOU might be familiar with the desserts on display at Wimbly Lu in Jalan Riang but have you ever noticed that they have a whole display case of chocolate truffles right next to it?
These chocolates are all made in-house by their chocolatiers, who use a couverture that they get from Belgium.
There is a total of nine standard flavours, including a silky dark chocolate, a milk chocolate, salted caramel, Earl Grey, rum and raisin, and milo - all going for S$2 per piece.
On occasion, they also do special flavours such as Christmas pudding, fig or cranberry and white chocolate.
This article was first published on April 9, 2016. Get The Business Times for more stories.