For brothers-in-law Karthikeyan Palanisamy and Harish Manoj Kumar, the idea to launch a homegrown craft chocolate brand was born one evening in 2015 over a couple of drinks.
The Coimbatore-based duo, though from vastly different backgrounds, were united by a common ideology — they weren’t afraid to dream big and take the risks that came with it.
While Karthikeyan managed the family textile business, Harish tended to his ancestral farm in Anamalai in central Kerala, a region known for its pleasant weather and favourable topology. So that fateful evening in 2015, when Harish — who was seeing good results with the cacao plantation at the farm — suggested he wanted to start an export arm, Karthikeyan was intrigued.
Recounting why this idea caught his interest, he says, “Two reasons. I’ve always dreamt of starting something of my own. And I’m a foodie. The idea seemed exciting.”
In the months that followed, Soklet was born in Karthikeyan and Harish’s garage. From here, the artisanal chocolate brand exports close to 24 tonnes every year to countries across the globe, including the US, Europe, New Zealand, and Japan among others.
Bean, bar & beyond
In a world dominated by premium chocolate brands, explaining the magic of artisanal chocolate to people hasn’t been easy. But it has been worthwhile, the duo say.
Following the idea of starting a brand, they began experimenting with recipes off the internet in their garage.
“But we made mistakes each time,” says Karthikeyan, adding that the first was when he tried washing the cacao beans, as he thought they seemed “dirty”.
“Never do this. I ended up with a gooey mess. But even when I got that step right, there were other factors to watch out for, such as the roasting temperature, the ratio while grinding etc,” he adds.
One month and many experiments later, Soklet’s first slab of chocolate was ready, as were its first batch of tasters — the kids from the building.
“They’d hear that a batch of chocolate was in the works and would come running to sample it,” recounts Karthikeyan, adding that in 2016, they approached Nitin Chordia, one of the few chocolate tasters in South India, for his feedback.
“I expected him to spit it out. But he looked us in the eye and said, ‘There’s something there’.”
However, he cautioned the duo that they still had a long way to go before Soklet’s beans could be on par with standard ones.
This was a wake-up call for them to think about working with bean-to-bar makers around the world, and one such opportunity knocked on their door in 2015 in the form of a chocolate festival in Amsterdam, where they could meet premium brands.
Though the beans did not receive much acclaim at the event, the duo’s initiative was met with much surprise. “They thought it amazing that India was now on its way to producing cacao beans, something never experimented with before,” adds Karthikeyan.
A significant moment during the festival shaped the rest of Soklet’s journey. A premium chocolate brand present at the event saw potential in the beans and sent one of their chocolate-sourcing professionals to the farm in Kerala.
“On assessing the plantations, he felt we needed to get our post-fermentation steps correct. He offered to put us in touch with a farmer from Hawaii,” recounts Harish, adding that they more than loved the idea and flew the farmer down, inviting him to spend a month with them.
In the next year, following the advice of the farmer, the techniques taught to them, and their own learnings, Soklet was ready to start shipping its chocolate.
A slab of artisanal delight
“Do you know why premium chocolate brands manage to get every slab of theirs to taste the same?” Karthikeyan asks. “It’s because their beans go through rounds of processing. The same is not possible with artisanal chocolate, as the quality of beans from every farm varies.”
“The process begins with harvesting the cacao beans from the farms at the foothills of Pollachi. The cacao pods are broken and the outer fleshy covering ‘baba’ is removed. The white cacao seeds are then extracted manually and filled into drums that go to the manufacturing unit,” he explains.
He says that while the ‘baba’ is eaten in some communities engaged in cacao plantations, it is of no use to the chocolate maker.
From the drums, the beans go into fermentation boxes where, depending on the climate, they are left for around a week. During this time, the beans puff up and change colour, turning the inside from purple to dark brown through a “secret recipe”.
The beans are then dried, graded, roasted and broken to remove the shells. “The resulting nibs are ground. We add spices, sugars, etc to the mix and it is refined to a particle size of below 50 microns. Then conching happens,” says Karthikeyan.
During the conching process, which precedes the last step, the cocoa is ground into a fine paste, eliminating acidic notes. Then the chocolate is tempered and manually packaged, ready to serve as dessert.
The sweet taste of success
For Harish, who quit his corporate job in Bengaluru in 2000 to return to Annamalai and join his father in farming, being able to finally see Soklet’s produce reach international chocolate makers holds immense sentiment.
Recounting his initial days of uncertainty as a farmer, he says, “My father farmed using conventional methods and I would see the number of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. I decided to change course and start organic farming on a small area of land. While I did not see results initially, I did in time and became hopeful.”
In 2006, Harish started cacao plantations on 160 acres of the 40-year-old ancestral land. The rest, as he says, is history.
Today, 60 people work at the farm, while a team of eight manages the manufacturing unit, and a team of six the fermentation unit.
“It took us a long time to learn the tricks of the trade, and get our products on the right retail shelves,” he says, adding that with 10,000 bars of chocolate produced every month, Soklet prides itself on selling each one of these. The venture, he says, saw a turnover of Rs 4 crore in the last year.
You can buy your share of the artisanal chocolate here.