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Of the Philippines and Cocoa Beans

Faced with a global cocoa crash, chocolate maker Shawn Askinosie sets off for Southeast Asia.

Jun 6, 2009
Shawn Askinosie is at home in the bean field.
Shawn Askinosie is at home in the bean field.
Photography courtesy Shawn Askinosie

When it comes to making chocolate, Shawn Askinosie, of Springfield, Missouri–based Askinosie Chocolate, knows beans.

Chocolate devotees may still recall the chilling prediction made by Sydney-based Macquarie Bank and other experts in 2008: The global cocoa market, they announced, would probably crash for two seasons because crop problems in the Ivory Coast and Indonesia were creating a “supply-side risk.”

Translation: “chocolate shortage!” Two words that sparked panic in the sweet-toothed everywhere.

But Askinosie, undaunted, immediately set out to find a new source of cocoa beans for his boutique brand.

Searching in Southeast Asia

Askinosie had always found Ecuador, Mexico, and Central and South America to be dependable sources of cocoa beans for his select line of small-batch artisan products: several milk- and dark-chocolate varieties; cocoa powder; and the Aski-noshie Bar, a cocoa-nibbed shortbread cookie with a caramel centre, covered in dark chocolate.

But he realised that tightened demand and limited availability would require going farther afield. So he—along with big players including Cadbury, Dagoba Organic Chocolate, Mars, Nestlé and Scharffen Berger—set his sights on Southeast Asia.

Askinosie selected the Philippines because of its storied cocoa history. Nearly 400 years ago, it was the first Asian country where Spanish colonists planted cocoa.

“I prepared for a year to source the right beans and arrange shipping,” recalls Askinosie. “My two stipulations were I had to have beans free of chemical input, and I needed a group of farmers so I could profit-share.” Askinosie employs a “bean to bar” ethos, so he routinely reinvests in the cocoa farmers and cooperatives who supply him. He distributes a portion of his profit to them and places farmers’ pictures on his packaging.

Finding Success in the Philippines

When Edward David, the head of the Cocoa Foundation of the Philippines (Cocoaphil), told him he had located a source, Askinosie booked his flight. But when he arrived at the cooperative, he found nothing! No beans. No alternatives.

An associate of David introduced Askinosie to Pedro Cruz, project manager of Mars’ Philippine cocoa Research Development Center. Cruz wasn’t surprised to learn of Askinosie’s fiasco. But Cruz knew some small-holder farmers who produced a variety of fine-flavour, chemical-free beans and could deliver the 7 metric tons Askinosie required.

With time running out and a hard rain setting in, Askinosie hedged his bets. After a rapid inspection of the beans, he decided to go with Cruz’s recommendation to buy. “I believed in him, that he wouldn’t disappoint me,” says Askinosie, and they settled on a price well over market value.

It was then that Askinosie saw the advantages of working in the Philippines. There were English speakers, as well as a general infrastructure of roads and freight transportation. And “the Philippines is 7,000 islands, so you’re never far from a port. Shipping is much easier,” he says. He is convinced cocoa sourcing from the Philippines and surrounding countries is here to stay.

The sweet reward of Askinosie’s journey? His Davao 77% Dark Chocolate Bar recently made its debut at 250 specialty stores around the world, including Selfridges in London, Takashimaya in Singapore, La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles and Earth Food Store in Sydney. Philippine fine-flavour Trinitario beans give the bars an earthy, fruity, floral taste that’s certain to keep chocolate fans smiling.


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