Cacao association champions locally-produced and world-renowned cacao, Filipino Aromatico

Plantacion de Sikwate CEO Mel Santos with Bohol Chapter Members toured the Sagbayan, Bohol Farm. (Plantacion de Sikwate Cacao Producers Association, Inc)

It’s no secret that cacao is a crop full of potential. It can be made into cocoa powder, butter, liquor, and, of course, chocolate. 

There are hundreds of varieties of cacao  in the world, all producing amazing tastes and products, but did you know that the Philippines has the cacao variety that makes everyone else run for their money? The unique taste and aroma made from our local cacao is even awarded and sought after by other countries. The best part? It’s got ‘ Filipino’ in its name.

Filipino Aromatico beans cut test showed white color as proof of Criollo variety. (Plantacion de Sikwate Cacao Producers Association, Inc)

The Filipino Aromatico is one of the Philippines’ native cacao varieties that made it to 2021’s Cocoa of Excellence roster of the International Cocoa Awards (ICA) in Paris. The ICA evaluated 235 cacao bean samples from more than 50 countries, and the Filipino Aromatico emerged as one of the top cacao varieties in the world.

This international victory has made Filipinos proud, but none can be prouder than the Plantacion de Sikwate Cacao Producers Association, Inc, the association that discovered, developed and propagated the Filipino Aromatico throughout the country.

The search for Filipino Aromatico

The Filipino Aromatico is an heirloom criollo found exclusively in the Philippines. Chocolates made from the Filipino Aromatico are said to have a flavor full of depth and nuttiness, and its aroma deliciously distinct. It doesn’t even need sugar for it to be sweet, so it’s the perfect cacao base for individuals who are health-conscious or can’t take much sugar.

However, the Filipino Aromatico hasn’t even “existed” for very long. The Filipino Aromatico was purposefully sought by the Plantacion de Sikwate, or PDS, as they roamed the Philippines for heirloom cacao in 2016.

Green Filipino Aromatico tree with grown pods and flowers blooming. (Plantacion de Sikwate Cacao Producers Association, Inc)

During that time, PDS founder and current CEO, Mel Santos, was set on furthering the Philippines’ potential to be an exporter of cacao products. “I was thinking, our produced beans were going, particularly, to Malaysia. There were those who bought beans from us,” Santos said in Tagalog. “I thought that as we sold beans we were becoming slaves to other countries.”

Co-founders Chris Fadriga (left) and Mel Santos (right), who is the current CEO. (Plantacion de Sikwate Cacao Producers Association, Inc)

He couldn’t move past the thought that Filipinos were the ones planting the cacao beans and exporting it to other countries, only to have it imported back to the Philippines as a finished product. “It felt wrong,” he said.

Santos decided he wanted to explore. In 2016, PDS launched a project to search for heirloom cacao. The goal was to find a criollo cacao variety native to the country. The project was launched in Negros Occidental, but PDS searched all of the Philippines for old trees possibly bearing heirloom cacao. They evaluated different cacao and interviewed farmers and tree owners about their cacao trees.

That same year, PDS settled on a special cacao of the criollo variety. The selected cacao was said to have originated from Mexico during the Galleon Trade. However, the variety has already been lost in Mexico, and is now only existent in the Philippines. In 2016, they named it the Filipino Aromatico. In 2022, it was officially trademarked by the Intellectual Property Office.

Farming Filipino Aromatico

Driven by advocacy, PDS is open to all. The association now has over 50,000 listed members and 2,000 presently active members. 

There are currently PDS sites and chapters at Laguna, Bohol, Negros Occidental, Batangas and Leyte.

They do not keep secrets, as the association provides learning materials and training to their members for optimal cacao farming. The training given by PDS doesn’t just focus on the Filipino Aromatico, but they have farming protocols for all cacao plants in general.

Grafter in PDS Dumaguete Farm showing how to graft seedlings in a seminar. (Plantacion de Sikwate Cacao Producers Association, Inc)

Basically, the Filipino Aromatico cannot grow in areas that are too hot or dry. Santos mentioned Ilocos as an example of an area that may be too hot, however since there is a mountainous area there then the Filipino Aromatico can perhaps grow there.

“Our usual barometer is if you can see caimito or langka growing there, then that’s okay,” he said. “The cacao can live in areas like those.”

In 18 months, cacao trees start bearing pods. It takes 4 years for the tree to be grown halfway to maturity and 5-6 years for it to be considered fully grown.

The cacao tree can only typically bear fruit for as long as 25 years. After 25 years, to extend the tree’s fruit-bearing life, the tree needs to be ‘rehabilitated’ through side grafting. Once it is rehabilitated, the cacao tree can be profitable again for a number of years. 

But of course, the cacao tree can still live longer than that, as many cacao trees have lived longer than a hundred. “If you’re planning to plant a cacao tree now, then I’m inviting you to the reunion I’m planning in a hundred years,” Santos said humorously. “Let’s meet then, and let’s talk about what happened to our cacao.”

For a long time Negros Occidental has had the biggest Filipino Aromatico farm of 50 hectares. But a farm in Iligan may perhaps surpass it with 80 hectares in the works for development.

PDS holds frequent seminars such as this 2-day cacao seminar in Quezon Province. (Plantacion de Sikwate Cacao Producers Association, Inc)

The fight of a rising choco star

Santos admitted that when they first announced the Filipino Aromatico, they received a lot of backlash from social media.

“There were so many bashers from Facebook,” he said. “ why would you plant that when the beans are small, small production, it dies and gets sick easily. Why would you do that?”

“Well, we fought for our association,” he added. 

Even the government did not initially support Filipino Aromatico. According to the government, criollo is low yield and susceptible to diseases, which is why it took some time before it could be recognized as a viable and profitable crop.

“When they say that cacao dies easily, I just couldn’t believe them,” Santos said. “I went all over the Philippines and found trees that were hundreds of years old.” 

Rows of cacao seedlings are being inspected while being on tour at the Plantacion de Sikwate Bohol Chapter. (Plantacion de Sikwate Cacao Producers Association, Inc)

He said that the stereotype of cacao trees being hard to grow is because of the lack of technology before. Since cacao trees are not cared for properly, they don’t produce the best crops so farmers simply ax the cacao tree down. 

PDS advocated for the Filipino Aromatica and now they observed that people and the government were coming to accept and recognize its potential.

The potential to be the best cacao in the world

PDS was established in 2014 as an initiative to help advocate cacao farming. They saw that there were big opportunities in cacao since there was a cacao shortage during that time.

Cacao with possible cross pollinations of the Criollo and Trinitario variety. (Plantacion de Sikwate Cacao Producers Association, Inc)

However, after discovering and trademarking the Filipino Aromatico, their goal is to now promote it globally.

“The Philippines is so special. The best pineapple is here, the best banana, the best mango,” said Santos. “That’s why I believe that we can have the best cacao. I believe that we can be the best when it comes to chocolate.”

The Filipino who submitted and represented the Filipino Aromatico at the competition is Chris Fadriga, a co-founder and former CEO of PDS. Which is why the victory at the ICA had helped Filipino Aromatico to establish a global presence and helped PDS’ advocacy to be spread. 

Different countries approach PDS to try the chocolates from Filipino Aromatico. Santos said there is interest from Japan, Brunei, Germany, the United States of America and more. 

Tachibana International of Japan, the second largest confectionery supplier in the world, had a unique way to compliment the Filipino Aromatico. “If we had to compare, the chocolates from America are Toyota, from Europe it’s an Isuzu. But the Philippines’ is a lamborghini,” they said.

Mr. Wataru Ikuta and Ms. Kinu of Tachibana International (Japan) did a PDS Filipino Aromatico cacao tree tagging in Pitos Cebu City together with Mel Santos and Chris Fadriga. (Plantacion de Sikwate Cacao Producers Association, Inc)

It’s undeniable that there is global interest in the Filipino Aromatico, which is why Santos is fully confident in its potential. “Within ten years, I’m sure that will excel fully,” he said.

Locally, on the other hand, Santos said that they have a plan to create a Chocolate Disneyland in Cebu, which will highlight the different native cacao varieties and products, not just Filipino Aromatico, in a 72-hectare land.

Santos has words to tell all stakeholders of cacao. “It is perhaps unknown to the world that our country is home to the best quality in cacao. This is the heirs of the meso-american criollo. 

“Then I am appealing to all cacao stakeholders to highlight this unique variety. Remember that there is no original left in Mexico. This is the greatest time for all of us in the industry because criollos represent .001% of the cacao beans in the world,” he said. 

“The eagerness to recover this precious variety is now in our hands already, then let us grab this opportunity that the Filipino Aromatico is now being offered to all; The brand that can promise prestige to our country when it speaks about the quality of chocolates.

"Thank you also to Anna Melissa 'Mia' Concepcion, Media, Marketing and Memberships Director for helping me remember the good history of our cacaos. 

"And, always trust God.”

(Photos courtesy of Plantacion de Sikwate Cacao Producers Association, Inc)

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