As the chief chocolate officer at Mirzam Chocolate – the UAE’s first and only bean-to-bar chocolate factory – Kathy Johnston eats a lot of the confection.
“Every day I try five to six batches of chocolate,” she says. “I probably eat 40 grams to 100g every day. To taste, you put a small piece under your tongue, let it melt properly and then move it around your mouth a lot.”
It is a key role at the boutique chocolate factory based in Dubai’s trendy Al Serkal Avenue, which opened last September because Mirzam is part of the new generation of chocolatiers where the focus is entirely on flavour. Unlike mass-produced chocolate that results in a flat product that always tastes the same, craft chocolate aims to do exactly the opposite.
Referred referred to as a craft chocolate producer or, as Ms Johnston prefers “a premium hipster” brand, the factory is the only producer in the UAE to make bars from scratch on site.
“It’s definitely a craft approach, our packaging is all sustainably resourced and recyclable. We have smaller batch sizes but the quality is exceptional – on par with the best chocolate being made in the world,” says Ms Johnston.
And, despite being less than a year old, the brand is already a home-grown success story. This month it will receive five awards from the Academy of Chocolate in London, becoming the first UAE chocolate maker to be recognised by the organisation, which focuses on fine chocolate making and bars with a high percentage of cocoa solids.
The artisan chocolate maker won four silver awards for its products including its 65 per cent Single Origin Dark Chocolate India, Dark Chocolate with Dates and Fennel, Dark Chocolate with Rose, as well as a bronze award for another product.
In May its Dh39 Dates and Fennel product also won an International Chocolate award, reflecting its status as the most popular bar among Mirzam’s customers.
“We make it with UAE grown dates and date syrup mushed together with fennel," says Ms Johnston. "It’s based on a really old Emirati jam made here in the summer with excess dates,” says Ms Johnston.
Step into the factory and a rich aroma of chocolate brownies hits you – a result of cocoa beans being roasted. Visitors to the factory can watch the entire production process from the beans being sorted by hand to the winnowing machine, which separates the light outer husk from the dark cocoa bean nibs inside, the chocolate being ground and later tempered and wrapped. Before the chocolate is tempered it rests for four weeks.
Mirzam, which is named after the fourth-brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, sources its beans directly from Vietnam, Indonesia, Madagascar, India and Papua New Guinea – all countries that were part of the spice route and dhow maritime trading with Arabs in this region.
Only 30kg, or 300 bars, is made per batch with every part of the bean used including its husk, which produces the tea served in the on-site café to ensure there are no wasted by-products. The focus is on sustainability.
“Everything that we sell is made here,” says Ms Johnston. “There is no chocolate coming from anywhere else – you can see the beans, the raw ingredients and the facility and that is it.”
Ms Johnston is quick to point out that she is not the owner of the brand, rather that she was part of the launch team, joining the company in January last year, days before she was due to fly to Switzerland to launch her own fine chocolate factory.
The actual owners, an Emirati brother and sister, prefer to be silent partners with the amount invested into the company also a secret. With the brand not completing a full year yet, Ms Johnston says it is hard to discuss growth and revenue sales.
What she can say, however. is that the company produces between 2,000 to 3,000 chocolate bars a month and that is is adjusting its output all the time to meet demand.
The company experienced production issues in the early stages when it underestimated the nation's appetite for dark chocolate.
"It was a massive risk because nobody was doing it here. Our production dropped because we imported beans but nowhere near enough so we had to get more beans," says Ms Johnston.
But with this business, it is the company's aspirations and the story of how the chocolate is produced that is really important. And Ms Johnston, who has a marketing background tells it very well.
While there are hundreds of chocolate factories in the UAE, according to Ms Johnston, most buy ready-processed compound chocolate in bulk, then melt it down to make into trays of chocolates.
“Because we make chocolate from bean to bar, our speciality is sourcing really high-quality cocoa beans from different countries that the original Arabian spice traders, based in this region, traded with,” says Ms Johnston.
“We buy from countries that don’t traditionally grow a lot because they focus on creating really fine cacao as opposed to the countries with big plantations in South America and West Africa that have an approach that is led by the quantity they can produce for the chocolate market.”
Ms Johnston say craft chocolate making lets Mirzam focus on the taste profiles of chocolate that is made from the beans of one tree.
“So we have five different single origins for our dark chocolate and they are all made with the same recipe – cocoa beans, unrefined cane sugar and cocoa butter, yet they taste completely different – every batch tastes different.” She says cacao is a fruit so its taste should alter according to the seasons, where it is from and its variety.
This makes the farms Mirzam works with an integral part of the production process. Ms Johnston says mass-producing cacao farmers are often paid very little and have questionable production processes.
To encourage sustainability and quality, Mirzam pays its farmers six to seven times what the commodity-listed cocoa price is to ensure time is taken over the fermentation process.
“Also younger farmers are growing up and moving to the city so that knowledge is not being passed down. If they are not paid properly there is no motivation to process properly or stay in that farming loop,” says Ms Johnston.
The craft chocolate industry is in its infancy but quickly following in the footsteps of more established sectors such as speciality coffee from independent roasters or olive oil and cheese.
According to a 2015 report by the chocolate consultancy group Vreeland & Associates, there were only about 100 such businesses in the United States in 2015 with sales averaging US$2 million each and about 100 part-time organisations eager to be join them.
Compare this to the US chocolate market as a whole, which was worth $21 billion in 2014, with just two large companies, Hershey and Mars, accounting for 64 per cent of it.
But that is not to say manufacturers are ignoring the craft chocolatiers. Premium manufacturers such as Lindt & Sprüngli USA are gaining market share in part by coming out with their own craft-like bars.
Aline Ashkarian, says general manager of Patchi in the UAE, says the Mena premium chocolate market will grow from $500m in 2015 to an estimated $855 million at an increase of 10 per cent per year in 2020.
She cites Euromonitor data which says the chocolate confectionery sector in the UAE recorded retail value growth of 14 per cent with retail volume growth of 10 per cent reaching Dh1.4 billion in 2016.
"We at Patchi are still witnessing a healthy double digit growth in the UAE,” says Ms Ashkarian, adding that the Lebanese chocolatier is unfazed by the rise of the craft chocolate industry. “We welcome and support these new trends as they add a special flair to the market.
“There is a noticeable surge in the craft chocolatiers in the region, targeting a niche customer base who would mostly buy their products for their personal consumption rather then for the seasonal gifting on special occasions such as Eid El Fitr, Adha or the end of the year.”
This certainly applies to Mirzam. Its main source of sales is through retail at the factory itself where customers can buy bars or have a coffee and a cake in the café. Visitors can also have a tour of the factory and there are corporate team building sessions or school trip options.
It also has five UAE retail partners including Comptoir 102 in Jumeirah and Ratios Coffee in Sharjah. Overseas it has tied up with a handful of craft chocolate shops in Amsterdam, Basel and London.
While the business has its eye on a tie up with Expo 2020 Dubai as well as international expansion, Ms Johnston says scaling the business needs to done very carefully and slowly.
“So much of the process is done by hand and we cannot achieve the same quality any other way. And as we scale we need to be able to make sure we can recruit properly, that we can source enough cocoa beans. These are small farms, small batches. We need to make sure that the quality of the other ingredients are there and available.”
International exports has challenges such as the logistics of temperature control during transportation she says, plus mass production or mass gifting was never part of the plan.
“You won’t buy a tray of 60 chocolate and gift it to someone, it’s not that kind of product,” Ms Johnston says. ‘We hope to develop Mirzam into becoming a 'Made in Dubai' product. There are several Dubai brands that are known for their exceptional quality and we hope that tourists will come here to learn about the history of the trading and all of those connections and also take something home that was really made in Dubai.”
Another focus will be developing signature products for hotels, rather than focusing on distribution.
"We are not a product that will ever be in the supermarket and will never be likely to."
So who are their customers?
"We have a lot of people coming to buy the single origin dark chocolates because they want a healthy, vegan, natural, fine chocolate option. And they are also buying things like the cocoa nibs and cocoa tea," says Ms Johnston, adding that many Emirati customers are well-informed on diabetes risks, are health-driven and looking for a good quality dark chocolate for their own enjoyment.
Which brings Mirzam back to the importance of taste. So who tastes the batches when Ms Johnston is away?
“I’m never away,” she laughs, “but if I am we have a head chocolate maker so the default batch approval and tasting would fall to him.”