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How The Cacao Mill is raising the bar

A deep dive into Subko’s conscious take on chocolate making
Cacao mills

Remember the classic scene from the film English Vinglish where the server rattles off a list of fancy coffee names, leaving Shashi, Sri Devi’s character, overwhelmed? Let’s be honest, most of us have had a moment of panic when faced with an endless list of coffee options.

As I walked into the outlet at Subko’s Cacao Mill, my inner Shashi couldn’t help but scream. However, a few seconds in and the intimidation changed to a little child’s wonder who had chanced upon a chocolate factory in the middle of Colaba’s chaos.

Visiting a chocolate factory in India was a first-time experience for me, and although I didn’t expect to see any chocolate waterfalls, the Subko outlet still managed to amaze me! The interactive experience allows customers to witness the entire chocolate-making process in real time, from mixing and pouring to tempering and moulding.

While the child in me was having a field day, the adult (read: lol) was introduced to something new too – the business of chocolate making.

In 2022, India’s chocolate industry was valued at a staggering US $2.4 billion. As consumers increasingly seek organic, vegan, and healthy options, artisanal chocolate brands like Subko are actively catering to the new demand. Understanding how Subko stands out in this booming industry is truly worthwhile.

Tracing your chocolate – back to its origins

cacao mill

This new venture from Subko Coffee Roasters and Bakehouse is a haven for those that seek high-quality chocolate and coffee. They aim to educate the curious customer, right from the pod to the bar and promise to deliver an unparalleled chocolate experience, thanks to their focus on their brand ethos, ‘transparency’ and ‘traceability.’

Commitment to this ethos is evident in every aspect of the factory build-out. The warm, earthy hues of brown dominate the interiors of the outlet, accented by touches of green, evoking the feeling of an open farm. The rich scent of chocolate and coffee fills the air, and the glass kitchen offers a clear view of the various stages of chocolate production — from cracking the bean, and separating the husk to tempering and moulding the fine chocolate.

That’s not it, informational displays throughout the space offer insight into where the product comes from, right from the farm. We’re tied into the process, not just by word of mouth, but as Neha, Director of Operations at Subko, puts it “when you’re sitting up at the cafe you can just turn towards the projection on the wall and experience the Cacao being picked out at the farm.” Adding to that, Manali, Director of Subko Cacao, clarifies that they’re not here to school customers but they never want a customer with a question to believe it is dumb or “silly.”

From farm-house to bake-house

Sub-ko, ‘to all’ in Hindi, perfectly encapsulates the mission to bring the Indian subcontinent to the forefront of the global cacao industry. As a major producer of single-origin cacao, India has immense potential, and Subko aims to unlock it by adding value to farm-level products and sharing them with a wider audience. According to Neha, “The quality of our farmers’ produce is overlooked not just at a global level, but in India too.”

The team has worked tirelessly with farmers across Southern India, resulting in (my favourite bit!) fresh, delicious dark chocolates on display to test, during their pod-to-bar experience. From the fruity to the floral to the coconutty, each chocolate boasts a unique flavour profile that will have your taste buds dancing with delight. And get this – the beans are simply roasted to extract that incredible, natural flavour.

If you ask me, the real showstopper is the Podi Almond Bar, a heavenly collaboration between a Mexican tradition of adding chilli to chocolate and the South Indian single-origin Forastero cacao from Thekkinthandu, Kerala.

The nostalgia of chocolate

This intention and innovation don’t come without a sense of nostalgia. Each one of us has our own personal tale of love and loss that involves this rich, decadent treat.

Neha explained how they don’t wish to take away from these memories, in fact, the aim is to bring them back but with a sense of consciousness. Their classic milk chocolate, made with milk powder from traceable sources and single-origin cacao, has a taste reminiscent of everyone’s childhood favourite. And their confectionery offerings are derived from simple memories like a peanut butter jelly sandwich or apple pie. Manali believes in keeping it simple, “There’s no need to overcomplicate if you do simple things right and try to bring in that nostalgia. It’s much more accessible to customers,” she said.

One of the things that caught my attention is their desi spin on iconic chocolate brands like Twix, Bounty, and Snickers. Clever anagram names that playfully hint at the original chocolates, neatly sidestepping potential copyright issues.

Judging this book by its covers – the packaging

Cacao mill

The originality in their chocolates is reflected in the way each bar is packaged. Subko Cacao’s packaging is understated yet impactful, in line with the aesthetic of their Subko Coffee Bakehouse in Mumbai. The brand’s visual identity was crafted by Aniruddh Mehta, widely known by his Instagram handle big fat minimalist, and the illustrations are by Anuranjini Singh.

Screen-printed labels are a testament to their commitment to artisanal processes. “It’s a hand-done process that ties into the ethos of the brand – it is artisanal in its own way,” explains Neha. As a brand, the artisanal nature is intrinsic to Subko — while they may have scaled up, they still hand-roast each batch of coffee, hand-roll each croissant, and mould each bar of cacao individually.

The packaging for Subko Cacao comes in various moods, reflecting both the brand’s serious and intentional side, as well as its playful and colourful side. As Manali describes it, “We have the candy bars that have a very fun, colourful packaging, which stemmed from Rahul and Aniruddh’s ideas. On the other hand, we wanted to convey a more intentional and respectful tone with our Terroir packaging, which honours the fruit and the pod.”

The future of the mill

Talking about what’s next in store, Neha and Manali share that — what has been seen so far is only the beginning! The terroir and processing techniques used thus far have been a solid foundation, but there is still much to be discovered. They’re also planning interactive sessions, workshops, and even home deliveries of their delicious Subko Cacao products all over the country! Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until next year for these new projects to come to fruition. But, whenever they do, we’ll be first in line to have our chocolate and eat it too.