Fu Wan Chocolate’s high quality chocolates are attracting interest at international contests. (Photo courtesy of Fu Wan Chocolate)
First-class chocolates like those crafted by Fu Wan are putting the country on the confectionery map.
Fu Wan Resort in Pingtung County’s Donggang Township, southern Taiwan, attracts visitors on the strength of its reputation for a silky-smooth night’s sleep. It also packs in customers looking for a chance to experience some of the country’s finest award-winning chocolates.
Chien An-chi (簡安琪), a self-described gourmand traveler from central Taiwan vacationing in Pingtung, said a visit to the resort is good for the mind, soul and most importantly, stomach. “When I heard Fu Wan was renowned for its chocolate, I had to put this claim to the test.”
Cacao pods are freshly harvested for beans used by Fu Wan. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao)
Fu Wan is the latest tearaway from Taiwan to turn the heads of the critics. At the 2019 International Chocolate Awards (ICA), the most prestigious contest for producers of dark, flavored, milk and white creations, 11 Taiwan-based participants bagged at least one award. A glutton for glory, Fu Wan scooped up 28—a record for a homegrown brand. The five gold-winning products include Taiwan No.1 Ping Tung Chocolate, for 62 percent cacao in plain/origin dark bar, and Taiwan Tie-Guan-Yin Tea, for 62 percent cacao in dark chocolate bar with an infusion or flavoring.
Triumphing at ICA is no mean feat. Since its launch in 2012, the event has become the first and last word in chocolate excellence. Preliminary competitions are held around the world to sort out the wheat from the chaff on the road to the finals, which were held last November in Taiwan’s Central American ally Guatemala.
Fu Wan made its bow at the ICA final in 2016, just two years after opening for business. It went on to win honors at the competition for the next three years. As Taiwan’s chocolate-making reputation gained luster via ICA, it earned the right to host Asia-Pacific preliminaries in 2018 and 2019.
A cacao farmer checks his crops. (Photo courtesy of Fu Wan Chocolate)
The recipe for Fu Wan’s success comprises many ingredients, most notably ambition. Warren Hsu (許華仁), operator of the resort and founder of the brand, had long been searching for a passion project to develop into a world-class product. In 2015 when the resort celebrated its fifth anniversary, Hsu had a revelation: Pingtung was Taiwan’s cacao-growing mecca.
Wasting no time, Hsu built connections with local cultivators of the key chocolate ingredient, as well as completed level one and two courses in chocolate tasting offered by London-headquartered International Institute of Chocolate and Cacao Tasting. In 2017, he became the first from Taiwan to complete the best-of-the-best level three course in Peru, the spiritual home of cacao in South America.
Jade Li (黎玉璽), a former Fu Wan chocolatier, views Hsu’s approach to professional development as correct if one is to possess a command of the process of chocolate-making. “This is also the only way to create a high-quality and distinct product,” she said.
A new batch of Fu Wan chocolates is ready to be packaged. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao)
The fabled bean-to-bar approach embraced by Hsu and his peers the world over sees them roast, winnow and grind cacao beans rather than choosing mass-produced offerings. Hsu has taken this one step further since 2017 by opting for the tree-to-bar approach. It features a longer processing period, starting with the purchase of cacao pods from farmers, after which beans are fermented—a crucial stage significantly affecting the quality of the end products.
“Fu Wan outshines many of its foreign competitors as the farm-to-factory distance is short,” Li said. All of the cacao growers are located within 30 kilometers of the company, making it easy for Hsu to visit with farmers to share ideas and cast a close eye over the crops.
The use of locally grown cacao adds to Fu Wan’s prestige as it echoes the global trend for greener production processes. “It takes less than an hour to transport freshly picked pods to Fu Wan, whereas shipping raw materials from the farm to the factory elsewhere in the world could take hours and even longer,” Hsu said.
Blessed with a tropical climate, Pingtung is home to more than 80 percent of land under cacao cultivation in Taiwan, around 300 hectares in total. Most of these farms had been planted with betel nut trees until the 2000s when the local government started encouraging growers to part ways with an agricultural crop linked to serious health issues such as oral cancer.
Fu Wan Resort draws the curtain back on different aspects of chocolate-making. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao)
The production shift to cacao, a gradual one requiring many years for the trees to take root and prove economically viable, has brought hope to Lin Li-ping (林莉苹). Faced with diminishing betel nut returns, she took the plunge five years ago and climbed aboard the cacao bandwagon at her 1-hectare farm in Pingtung’s Wanluan Township. With advice and plenty of moral support from Hsu, Lin keeps improving her beans and is today the proud owner of around 600 trees, making her one of Fu Wan’s major suppliers.
“Fu Wan’s success is an inspiration for cacao-cultivators in Taiwan,” Lin said. “Existing farmers will continue to produce the crop, and those yet to get a piece of the action will soon follow suit.”
Fu Wan’s story is also spurring other chocolate outfits to greater heights. Last September, the brand shifted up a gear and received a big boost with the opening of a flagship store in iconic Taipei 101, formerly the world’s tallest building. Li, with one eye on Hsu and his steady climb, is burning the midnight oil to lift up her fledgling brand Jade Li Chocolatier (JLC). Based in Pingtung, JLC garnered seven medals at ICA’s Asia-Pacific preliminaries over the past three years under her stewardship. She is also the author of “Bonbon Chocolate” published in 2019 and considered one of the most comprehensive books in Chinese on chocolate-making.
Fu Wan’s Taipei 101 flagship outlet (Photo by Chin Hung-hao)
According to Li, the support of Pingtung County Government (PCG) is instrumental in ensuring Taiwan’s nascent chocolate industry remains on a sound footing. In 2015, PCG began cultivating human resources by organizing courses on growing cacao and producing chocolate. As a beneficiary of this tutelage, Li applauds the expanded focus to collaborating with more than 30 local brands on marketing strategies over the past two years.
Another example is PCG staging the initial contest for honoring farmers growing the best cacao beans in Pingtung. In 2018, a 22-member panel of judges from Taiwan and around the world were invited to assess 31 teams of local farmers. The winners are expected to be lauded in trade publications at home and abroad, much to the undoubted delight of residents.
Hsu and Li are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the country’s confectionery par excellence. ICA Chairman Martin Christy summed it up best when presenting Hsu with the plain/origin dark bar chocolate award in 2019 at the finals. “Watch out. Taiwan chocolate is on a roll.”