My last couple days in Bali came to a close last week after a flurry of incredible adventures and extraordinary experiences. Only three days before my flight to my next exotic location, the island of Crete in southern Greece, I had the great pleasure of meeting Emerald Starr, the “chocolate man of Bali”. I was sitting in my favorite raw/vegan cafe just outside of the center of Ubud, having a coffee and a quick bite to eat with my dear friend Kayla Rose, when all of a sudden a kind-looking, elderly gentlemen appeared behind me and set a hand on my shoulder. At his arrival Kayla jumped up with a delighted giggle and rushed to bear-hug the man. Obviously they had known each other for quite some time and their reunion had been eagerly anticipated by both of them. Kayla then introduced me to Emerald. The warmth that emanated from this man and his light, gentle gaze instantly put me at ease. After Kayla introduced Emerald to me, he leaned in for a long, solid hug, then without letting go of my hand stood back and looked directly into my eyes, “It’s very nice to meet you,” he said, his voice velvety smooth and humming with energy.
Characters like Emerald are rare. However I have been fortunate throughout my life to meet quite a few. These are the Yoda like, Gandalf-esque humans that maintain a grounding force around them that brings other individuals near and instantly treats them as family. These people have endless amounts of knowledge collected from long lives full of adventures and trials and who take each of those moments and continuously reflect on them throughout all their walks of life. I recognized Emerald for who he was immediately; patient, wise, and full of endlessly fascinating stories.
The three of us sit around our small table, Emerald and Kayla chatting as I simply soak up the love and tranquil calmness that seemed to gush from our little collective. They spoke of past adventures and times and new business plans that were still to be seen to. As I listen and absorb I slowly learn more about Emerald and his connection with Kayla.
It turned out that he owned a small up and coming chocolate company that operated on the Eastern side of the island. Kayla was helping to promote the chocolate brand, a completely organic and sustainable dark chocolate label that is slowly trying to change the way we view, see, and produce chocolate. As they talked I must admit I began spacing out and concentrating elsewhere, primarily on the beautiful plate of food that sat in front of me, and the next thing I know Kayla is tugging my sleeve and informing me that we were invited to go down to the site of the chocolate company, which also works in collaboration with a small-scale organic luxury retreat, to enjoy and photograph both facilities.
The next day I found myself in the back of a hired car weaving its way through the chaotic traffic so regularly found in Bali. Kayla and I sat chatting and enjoying a slice of rich chocolate cake purchased from Bali Buda, “Chocolate on the way to chocolate!” Kayla had screamed when she had arrived earlier that morning to pick me up. The car ride lasted for a little over an hour and a half however no part of the ride was dull. With reggae tunes playing, Kayla to chat with, and the incredible endless view of temples and tameless jungle passing outside the window, I was fully entertained.
After over an hour in the car we came to the dirt road that lead to our destination. Riveted in holes and littered in loose gravel, the driver cautiously made his way down the path. On either side of us lay dense jungle gradually giving way to large clusters of palm trees, grass, then rocks and finally crystal blue ocean! The scene was breathtaking. We pulled up to the entrance of the Jasri Bay Estate, the retreat that we had been invited to stay at for the night. Two smartly dressed gentleman opened the car doors and greeted us with friendly smiles and welcome drinks, they then escorted us to our private villa.
The two-storey tribal wooden building overlooked the main pool and grounds which stretched to meet black lava rocks that dipped off into crashing waves and the ocean below. The sky was so clear that you could see right across the ocean to the neighboring indonesian island of Lombok. Inside the villa was crowded with exquisitely ornate statues and beautiful colorful paintings in both the traditional and modern Balinese styles. Kayla and I immediately made a beeline for the bed and slow motioned jump-flopped directly on top of it, sprawling ourselves across the luxurious down feathered douve. “Want a tour?” Kayla asked me… I followed her outside and around to the front of the villa where the lawn overlooked the ocean. Below our villa was another section of the same villa that had been turned into yet another extravagant room, this one on ground level. From here you had direct access to the large shared pool which had a giant yin-yang artfully designed in black and white tiles glistening on the bottom of the deep end. On the opposite side of the property sat a small honeymoon villa that was situated in a slightly more private location and had its own pool and yard, including a path down to the black sand beach. Between this and the shared lounge area by the pool was the largest of the rentable villas on the estate. This is where we met Emerald, his associate, and friends for lunch.
The open air dining/living area of this villa opened directly out onto the perfectly manicured lawn. As we approached we could see an immaculately set table with three figures sitting on either side of it. As we got to the glass doors, swung open wide to let in the playful ocean breeze, Emerald himself appeared accompanied by his young associate Anket Rauniyar, a 21-year old businessman from Nepal. “Oh you made it!” Emerald called from across the room as he saw us, throwing his hands up as his face alighted with the largest of smiles, all white teeth and dimples. He gave us both big hugs and introduced us to his collected gang of friends and colleagues. As Emerald took his place at the head of the table, uniformed servers appeared holding trays ladened with beautifully arranged dishes, all made using completely organic and sustainable ingredients either sourced from Jasri Bays’ organic garden or an organic farm located in Central Bali. As we ate, Emerald began telling stories of his life in Bali as well as what inspired him to start the Sorga Chocolate company. I soon learned that there was a very good reason why he was known as the chocolate man of Bali.
When Emerald first came to Bali in the 1990’s no one was making chocolate, yet the Dutch, colonizers of Bali, had brought over three of the best quality varieties of cacao beans to the island over 250 years ago which had thrived in Bali’s tropical environment. These three being;
- Criollo, the rarest variety of cacao in the world with a white colored pod.
- Foresterro, a very common yet high quality cacao, comprised of several different genetic groups, resulting in differences in shape, color, and taste.
- Trinitario, which has one of the finest cacao flavors, grows very easily, and is very disease resistant. Trinitario originated in Trinidad, thus the name, is also a conglomerate of distinct cacao varieties
Over hundreds of years these varieties of cacao cross-pollinated to create a unique variety, or clone now found in Bali. After the Dutch colonization nobody in Bali knew how to cultivate the beans properly or process the beans into actual chocolate so for a very long time the beans simply waisted and rotted away on the trees, eaten only by insects and the lucky gecko, monkey, or bird. At that time, mostly due to the neglection of the cacao trees, the tree, and cacao fruit themselves were heavily under-producing and diseased. A specific moth, the Ephestia elutella or cacao moth, was also boring its way into the cacao pods and laying its larvae directly into the seed. This caused even more decay and disease for the already heavily inflicted cacao tree and many farmers had no idea what to do in order to save them. After seeing the state of these incredibly high-quality but mismanaged and abused cacao trees, Emerald became inspired to work to save the species and increase their production to create high quality Balinese chocolate completely organically on the island. Having a little background in the chocolate industry and having seen plantations and cacao farms in other countries around the world, Emerald decided to use chocolate cultivation methods from South America and Africa and teach those tactics to the traditional Balinese farmers in order to save and improve the quality of the Balinese cacao trees.
A method commonly used to ward off the chocolate moth in other continents is to wrap each individual cacao pod in a thin layer of plastic to protect the fruit. The moth is unable to burrow through the plastic and once landing on the polyvinyl coating it will fly off to the next pod until it finds one that has no plastic protection so that it can burrow into it and lay its larvae. However, once the moth finds that there are no such unprotected pods it will eventually be discouraged from flying around the cacao grove and will migrate elsewhere to wreak havoc on another batch of crops. After teaching the Balinese farmers how to properly protect each cacao pod from this invasive pest the next issue to solve was the large amount of fungal growth in and around the trees and pods. This was a slightly simpler dilemma to overcome simply due to the cause of the growth stemming from the fact that the cacao trees were being grown too close together and not separated from other plants or the natural jungle. As is common in Bali, farmers often let the natural jungle life grow in and around their crops instead of fighting the endless battle to keep the large waxy ferns and leaves at bay. However, in order to properly grow and cultivate cacao the cacao trees need ample light and fresh air flow, two factors that can only be achieved if the orchards and fields in which the cacao is grown is properly cleaned and maintained. After implementing these two changes in the traditional Balinese cacao farming, Emerald finally found himself producing some of the finest quality cacao beans he had ever seen with the help of local Balinese farmers.
Emeralds backstory left me enthralled and bursting with more questions about the process and how it changed Balinese farming, but just as I was about to bombard him with questions Anket, Emeralds young colleague, offered to take me on a tour of the chocolate production facilities which, most excitingly of all, ended in a chocolate tasting. How could anyone ever say no to that! The facility in which Sorga Chocolate is produced is very small and located directly next door to Jasri Bay Hideaway. Everything from the drying process to the grinding process happens in this mostly outdoor space situated directly behind Sorga’s chocolate store itself. The process and tour is open to the public and is highly recommended to anyone interested in learning how to make uniquely concocted cacao goodies. While the entirety of Sorga’s chocolate making process is unique, two parts of the process stand out for they have rarely been implemented before in the chocolate making industry. The first of these two processes being three-tiered chocolate fermentation. After being harvested directly from the plantation the hand picked cacao seeds and pulp are brought to the Sorga processing site and placed in large wooden boxes lined with banana leaves. Banana leaves in Bali grow a natural yeast on their underbellies that the Balinese have used in the fermentation of many of their traditional foods for generations, the most well known of which is Tempeh. This yeast combined with the unique three-tier system which Sorga uses to ferment their cacao beans help to create the incredible exotic taste of Sorga chocolate.
After extensive trial and error, and the expertise of a fermentation specialist by the name of Dan O’Doherty from Kauai Hawaii, along with the experience of local balinese farmers a new process was developed. Emerald says that while, “the purpose of fermentation is to extract the natural bitterness from the cacao beans. The possibility of fermentation is to bring sweetness to the beans.” This is a new concept, unheard of throughout the chocolate making industry and one that Emerald has implemented with stunning and mouth watering results.
The second process which makes Sorga’s production different is their unique grinding process. Grinding the cacao beans is crucial not only because it turns the bean into a usable liquescent ingredient but also because the grinding process removes any unwanted or unpure flavors from the final product. The average chocolate producer will grind their beans from anywhere between 48 to 78 hours, Sorga on the other hand only grinds their beans for 18 hours. In 2017 Emerald received a letter from a Swiss artisan chocolate maker who wanted to intern with Emerald to learn his process and hopefully improve it. He specifically had new ideas regarding Emeralds grinding process and was excited to test his newly developed theories. Impressed by his enthusiasm and credentials Emerald agreed to host the chocolate maker and Sorga’s unique grinding process began to unfold. The two chocolate aficionados discovered that grinding the chocolate beans for less time produced more diverse flavors and had a stronger concentration of antioxidants, one of the healthiest components found in chocolate. So when limiting the grinding time you are in fact making the taste of the chocolate more unique and the final product actually healthier.
The final step of the process to perfect once Sorga had its basic methods down was the taste of each individual chocolate bar. To ensure that the flavor of Sorga truly represented the purity of the incredible chocolate bean, Emerald decided to only produce dark chocolate, and of course for every ingredient and flavor used in the bar to be 100% from sustainable and organic sources. Emerald brought in expert chefs from around the world and even molecular scientists to help create the best and most unique flavors possible. Each combination should “take you into orbit and back” says Emerald during our interview. Emerald wanted to attack this problem from a molecular level. He wanted to understand the science of the chocolate oils, and the oils of the other flavors he planned to use, and how they reacted with your body, specifically your tongue. Emerald and his hand picked band of experts measured the temperature and direct point at which each flavor, combined with the chocolate, would melt on the taster’s tongue. In knowing this they were able to design chocolate that would take you on a journey of different flavors in the first taste. The majority of the flavored bars that Sorga created are mixed with 69% dark chocolate, the lowest concentration of dark chocolate that Sorga produces. Why 69%? Well other then that being just below the minimum requirement for the international dark chocolate standard (the minimum being 70%), it is also as Emerald puts it, “a sexy number! It seemed like the perfect amount. It also represents the yin-yang, a symbol I have felt tied to throughout my life, but most importantly chocolate is a sexy food! So what other number could we have produced!” After many years of working with specialists and playing with flavors Sorga finally came out with its 11 distinctive and heavenly flavored chocolate bars:
- Bali Pure (100%)
- Bali Black (85%)
- Espresso (85%)
- Bali Bliss (72%)
- Kopi Bali (72%)
- Rambutan (69%)
- Orange Spark (69%)
- Salty Cashew (69%)
- Wild Luwak (69%)
- Tropical Fruit (69%)
- Ginger Crunch (69%)
Along with their delectable bars Sorga also makes a delicious line of truffles of varying flavors including caramel, orange marmalade and much more. My personal favorite? Orange Spark! A unique flavor that gives you a strong hit of orange at first taste then as you let the chocolate melt away on your tongue you suddenly feel a sharp burning feeling in the back of your tongue and throat as the chili oils from the chocolate begin to melt as well, giving you a rounded chocolate tasting experience and flavorful journey in only one square!!
The beautiful packaging enclosed around each bar truly reflects what can be found inside, while the meaning of the company’s name truly reflects where this special chocolate will take you, Sorga means heaven in both sanskrit and Balinese. Emerald along with his business partners have decided to neither export nor sell Sorga products outside of Bali, hoping to make the company a travel destination as well as a specially sought after brand, and in time I believe it will become just that. Both the unique process, flavors of the chocolate, and the message behind its creation makes it a favorable product for both foodies and environmentally/health conscious individuals alike. Emerald hopes that his method and specially designed flavors will alter the way our society views chocolate and the process in which it is typically made. With sorga chocolate along with the beautiful neighboring retreat, Jasri Bay Hideaway that focuses on health and relaxation, Emerald and the Sorga brand are sure to enlighten the world to seeing a whole new way of enjoying flavors and healing oneself.