You don’t need a golden ticket to visit this chocolate factory, but you do have to be able to find it. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll drive right by the Big Tree Farms chocolate production facility, housed in the world’s largest commercial building built of bamboo. Make sure to watch for the big banyan tree, where you’ll turn off the main road, and there, tucked back in the village of Abiansemal, you’ll find Big Tree Farms.
We’re here for a tour, to learn about the company, about the building and its unique design, and about the approach to chocolate making that differentiates Big Tree Farms. Of course, we’re hoping to taste some chocolate too. Our friendly and enthusiastic guide, Ningseh, gives us a quick overview of the factory while we enjoy a complimentary warm chocolate drink (although it’s a humid 30+ degrees so we don’t need any further inspiration to warm up). Energized by the chocolate, and dressed in our mandatory ‘oompa loompa’ sanitation hats, we’re now ready to explore the factory.
Even though the grand opening took place in November 2011, the factory is still a work in progress. The current building houses a warehouse for raw ingredients, production and packaging facilities, and Big Tree Farm’s Indonesian head office. A retail store, commercial kitchen and café are being built out back to better facilitate consumer interest and tours like the one we’re taking. Designed by an American architect, now relocated to Bali, and built with the guidance of a Balinese Master bamboo builder, it’s an unconventional structure, but it works. The walls are woven from strips of bamboo, allowing air to flow through for natural ventilation, and the third floor atrium with its tented roof is completely open, creating a cavernous loft in the treetops. Production areas all have internal glass windows so everyone can see each other. It’s part of the Big Tree Farms belief in transparency.
From a business that started out in 2000 as an organic produce farm on just under an eighth of an acre, Big Tree Farms has grown into a vertically-integrated, multi-product food company with over 14,000 local farming partners and customers around the world. The philosophy is to build a business that works both economically and ecologically, not just for the owners, but for the farmers and communities Big Tree Farms relies on. As we wind our way through the factory, seeing chocolate making in action, we can appreciate the emphasis on transparency and sustainability at every step of the process
To make their organic chocolate products, Big Tree Farms works with over 2,000 farmers on the island of Bali, and another 1,000 farmers in Aceh. The ‘beans’ (which are actually seeds from the cocoa pod fruit) are harvested, fermented and then dried. To keep their products ‘raw’ (raw foods are thought to maintain more of their nutrients that their cooked counterparts), Big Tree Farms never heats the beans above 45 degrees C. Then the beans are crushed to remove the skins and turn the whole beans into nibs. I tried to do this manually – which Big Tree sometimes does at the request of certain customers – and couldn’t even get one flake of the skin to come off. It takes practice and patience to peel the beans. The nibs are inspected and sorted – by hand – for quality control to ensure all the skin has been removed. Approved nibs are then pressed for 8 hours to make cocoa powder, and then further refined for 12 hours to create an even smoother paste. From here, the paste is pressed to separate out the excess oils. This is where the cocoa butter you find in lotions comes from. The cocoa paste is mixed with the right balance of oil and sugar and then tempered to prepare it to be transformed into consumer products. In addition to chocolate bars, Big Tree Farms sells raw cocoa powder, whole cocoa beans, and cocoa nibs.
To sweeten the chocolate, Big Tree Farms uses organic coconut palm sugar, another one of their food products. As it is unrefined and has a lower glycemic index, coconut palm sugar is the current darling of nutritionists. Dr. Oz and other high-profile health experts are touting it as the next ‘big ingredient’ and suggesting it is a better choice over traditional refined cane sugar (your basic white sugar used in many commercial food products and one of the targets in the obesity crisis).
Organic, raw, nutritious chocolate – is this the ultimate feel-good, guilt-free indulgence? You’ll have to try it and decide for yourself. Big Tree Farms is certainly working hard to give you as many reasons as they can to help you feel good about their sustainable food products. And they might just be having a little fun while doing it. Willy Wonka would be proud.
Here is a recipe from Big Tree Farms for their Spicy Morning of the World hot cocoa drink.
This is the Jamu of Cacao that gets our blood flowing in the morning. Morning elixirs are an important for the majority of we humans, everywhere. Every culture, in their own way, greats the morning with some kind of ritual that bridges the dream time to the awake time. Our morning ritual uses our cold pressed raw cacao powder, our SweetTree coconut palm sugar and various spices that not only awakes the mind, but also invigorates the body. Cacao is a stimulant in that it is one of the best vasodilators in the world, which means it expands your veins, allowing more oxygen to flow into your body. So your cells feel alive and awake without the jittery caffeine manky manky.
Recipe (always adjust for personal preference):
2 cups hot water
4 heaping tablespoons Big Tree Farms raw cacao powder (6 tablespoons if you like it really rich)
4 tablespoons SweetTree coconut palm sugar (or sweeten to taste)
2 tablespoons CocoHydro coconut water powder (original flavor)
1 Pinch of Big Tree Farms Balinese sea salt
2 Pinches of cayenne pepper
Dash of freshly ground nutmeg
Sprinkle of cinnamon
Stir the above ingredients in an oversized mug that requires you to use 2 hands to bring it to your lips. After all, this is a morning ritual and using two hands tends to make you appreciate the moment all the more. We love using coconut milk to give it a little bit of extra richness and mouth feel, but you can you use whatever kind of milk you prefer.