For most of us, chocolate means happiness; it is known to boost endorphin levels and its antioxidant properties have health benefits. While chocolate tasting can be one of the sweetest ways to earn a pay-check, it is still in a nascent stage in India.
Meet Poonam Chordia - India’s first female chocolate taster. Along with her husband Nitin, who is also a chocolate taster, she started Kocoatrait, the world’s first zero-first waste chocolate, last year in Chennai.
The allure of chocolates
Poonam’s foray into the craft chocolate industry was spurred by her husband’s passion for chocolates. “Nitin was working as a retail consultant earlier, and played a key role in the setting up of the first Godrej Nature’s Basket in Mumbai. A large part of his job entailed tasting chocolates and deciding what could go on the shelves and what couldn’t,” she shares.
The couple’s love affair with chocolate started when Nitin tasted sample chocolate bars by Amedei, an Italian artisan chocolate manufacturing company, in 2007. Poonam recalls, “He told me that it tasted uniquely fruity, with a gush of orange flavour. The cover did not mention any other ingredient and stated that it was plain chocolate. He called the exporter who told him that the distinct flavour was due to the cocoa beans. That’s when our interest in chocolates was aroused.”
While Nitin moved abroad after a job change, Poonam stayed back in Chennai with her in-laws to care for their children. (Poonam has a post-graduate degree in mass communication and had worked with WPP as a media buyer for a few years till the birth of their first child. The now couple has two sons, aged 12 and seven.)
What remained unchanged as Nitin shifted base was the couple’s interest in chocolates. “During Nitin’s stint abroad, he also visited several chocolatiers. He came back to India in 2014 and decided to start something on his own.” Poonam, who was waiting for the right opportunity to start working again, found this to be the perfect chance.
Starting up in Craft Chocolate
The duo ventured into the craft chocolate industry in 2015. Poonam tells MAKERS India, “We started buying chocolates, added our own inclusions, made our bars, and sold them after getting FSSAI license. We also started an educational initiative called Cocoashala under which we conducted workshops and classes in Chennai to educate people about dark chocolates, bonbons, truffles and their health benefits. We also supported chocolate brands like Marou, Pachari, Mason & Co., Pascati, Indah, Bean Therapy, and Earthloaf, with their distribution in Chennai.”
The couple’s decision to start up in the unchartered territory of craft chocolates was met with confusion and bewilderment from their friends and family. “They did not understand what we were up to. Nitin was used to it as he had received similar reactions when he was pursuing retail management in 2003 when no one knew about organised retailing in India. He has been my shield every time we would have to explain what we were doing.”
Official Chocolate Tasters
While the couple were researching the bean-to-bar chocolate making process, Poonam also completed Level 1 and 2 in chocolate tasting from the International Institute of Chocolate and Cacao Tasting (IICT) in the UK by 2018. (Nitin had cleared Level 2 in 2016.)
She says, “Level 1 and 2 are short courses for which we only had to take short trips and did not have to shift bases. We would travel together and each time we would include chocolate exploration trips across Europe in our itinerary.”
For most people, a career in chocolates tasting is the stuff of dreams. Poonam describes the reaction she gets from people with mild amusement, “People are almost always taken by surprise and their first reaction is ‘What! Seriously!?’ which is followed by a smile and a ‘You got my dream job!’ However, I tend to introduce myself as a chocolate maker and not as a taster as many do not take it seriously.”
After arming themselves with the chocolates tasting certification, Nitin started visiting cocoa farms in Karnataka, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh, to learn more about its growth cycle, the fermentation process etc.
Simultaneously, they made bean-to-bar chocolates on a trial basis for a year, while continuing to hold workshops and chocolate tasting sessions (which helped them stay afloat). They started Kocoatrait in February 2019.
Kocoatrait chocolates are sold in multiple stores and retail outlets across Chennai and through the Kocoatrait website. Each chocolate bar weighs 40 gms and are sold in two variants – one costs Rs 190 and the other Rs 235. Other products which are sold under the Kocotrait brand include cocoa powder, baking bars and sugar-free health bars.
The couple also sells chocolate-making equipment – many of which were improvised and assembled by Nitin - to people who were interested in starting a chocolate business or making chocolates at home.
The Good Samaritans
Kocoatrait chocolates are also the only bean-to-bar chocolates made using organic Indian origin cocoa beans and organic Khandasari sugar which is non-refined. Poonam explains, “We do not use any emulsifiers and 99% of the other ingredients are also organic, which makes them purer than chocolates available in the market.” The packaging is also reusable and biodegradable.
The manufacturing of the chocolates generates negligible waste. Poonam claims that the outer parts of the cocoa beans are used as manure and water collected in the dehumidifiers is used to wash utensils and fed to the plants. “We have also innovated and created the world’s most energy-efficient cocoa cracker and winnower. It uses very little electricity compared to the popular vacuum suction technology,” she tells MAKERS India.
Kocoatrait employs persons with disabilities from the Chennai-based NGO V-Excel for packaging the chocolates. To ensure the safety of the workers, the brand uses water-based ink for packaging because plastic ink is carcinogenic in the long run. “We are also striving to use renewable energy to reduce our carbon footprint,” Poonam adds.
Since its inception, orders have grown by 200-300 times with a majority sold in stores. Kocoatrait has presented its products to Niti Aayog , which later tweeted about their efforts, thereby increasing their credibility in trade. Plans of scaling up and exporting chocolates are in the pipeline for Kocoatrait. Poonam surely is living a sweet dream.
(Edited by Athira Nair)