Chocolate manufacturers in Europe look to tempt Asian markets

Enjoying a piece of really good European chocolate is one of life’s simple pleasures, a small luxury everyone can afford – or at least that’s what manufacturers want customers to believe.

Looking to other parts of the world

Countries such as Germany, where people eat an average of 11.5 kilograms of chocolate a year, obviously need no convincing.

But with consumption in the high end of the market stagnating, the industry is now looking to other parts of the world it can sell chocolate’s extravagance, notably Asia – the average Chinese eats only 100 grams of chocolate a year, according to industry estimates.

“We have an export share of 50 per cent,” says Torben Erbrath, head of the Association of the German Confectionery Industry. “There’s still room for development.”

Investors see potential as well, says Reto Huenerwadel, investment boss of Swiss bank Hypothekarbank Lenzburg, adding that chocolate is regarded as the “luxury product for the small man.”

“Schoggi,” as the Swiss call it, is something that even the poor can afford, unlike designer handbags or a nice watch.

“That’s the exciting thing with regard to new markets: Chocolate is a luxury item for not much money,” says Huenerwadel, who has examined said market and sees a lot of potential in it.

“We know that the Chinese demand for schoggi has grown constantly,” he says. At the same time, cocoa prices have dropped drastically.

In 2014, a tonne of cocoa beans cost, on average, more than 3,200 dollars. Just three years later, it’s less than 2,000 dollars.

Heavy investment in Asia

It’s not easy to quickly cultivate more cocoa plantations, adds Huenerwadel. “It takes time until it can be harvested. If demand increases again, we assume that prices will rise,” he says.

The world’s largest manufacturer of cocoa and chocolate products, Zurich-based Barry Callebaut, is investing heavily in Asia.

Its business in top-notch chocolate for boxed chocolates and other confectionery in China has doubled in four years.

The name Callebaut is probably less familiar to consumers, as the company supplies chocolate to firms which then turn it into candy bars or boxed chocolates that are sold to consumers.

So far, however, the expected chocolate boom in Asia has yet to happen.

“Chocolate consumption per head in China is not much,” says Urs Furrer, president of the Swiss chocolate association. “While the potential is enormous, it needs time, as chocolate culture there has yet to take shape.”

Part of the problem is that Chinese cuisine does not celebrate the sweet.

While Europeans love full-cream milk, hazelnuts and and nougat, some manufacturers are reportedly experimenting in China with caramelized fish and adding bacon to chocolate.

The market is difficult

While Swiss chocolate exports to China boomed between 2006 and 2014, from 266 tonnes to 2,100 tonnes, it’s still small-scale stuff. And exports dropped in 2017 to 1,200 tonnes.

Switzerland exports twice as much chocolate as it sells at home: 120,000 tonnes are sold in 150 countries.

China has also been a disappointment so far for German manufacturers, who produced 1.1 million tonnes last year.

“The market is difficult,” says Erbrath. “It hasn’t developed as well for us as we had hoped years ago.”

One problem is logistics. Chocolate needs to be kept cool throughout the supply chain. “Chocolate is only easy to deliver to consumers in certain countries,” says Erbrath.

In humid countries such as Thailand, the chocolate often arrives covered in a white film.

“Fat bloom” is caused when cocoa butter sweats and the fat comes to the surface. It’s not harmful, but it doesn’t look particularly appetizing. It’s also why the chocolate industry in Germany and Switzerland still concentrates its export efforts on Europe.

German chocolate is primarily exported to Britain, France and Austria. Germany is also the biggest export destination for Swiss chocolate, taking 17,000 tonnes, or 15 per cent, ahead of Britain and France.