The sun was about to set on the Indonesian island of Bali when Ben Ripple and Frederick Schilling, owners of the artisanal food company Big Tree Farms, led me through their new chocolate factory near Ubud. It was still under construction as we stepped into a titanic inner chamber with a high pitched roof, the last light of the day streaming dramatically through a long, narrow skylight at the peak, allowing the 30 or so builders to keep working. Several of them cheerfully called down to us from their tinkertoy-like scaffolding as we picked our way through the piles of construction materials. “We’re building the Big Tree cathedral,” Ripple said.
And they’re doing it almost entirely out of bamboo. Not only will the three-story, 23,500-square-foot structure be the world’s largest commercial building made out of bamboo, but it also might just be the most Wonkaesque. From the outside, the factory resembles a giant Balinese handicraft — like an apartment-building-size basket or a giant crocheted toy barn. The facade and some interior walls are woven from bamboo strips, and the roof is made of dried alang-alang grass. Ripple said the walls had to be coated with food-grade sealant in order to meet building codes for a commercial food-processing plant. “And we have about 10,000 fire extinguishers stashed away,” he said with a laugh.
Bali has, in fact, become an influential showcase for the architectural possibilities of bamboo, which is often cheaper than steel-frame construction and always more sustainable. The Bali-based designer Linda Garland and her Environmental Bamboo Foundation have promoted it for decades, and her son Arief Rabik continues to research growing methods and building techniques. The jeweler and longtime Bali resident John Hardy spearheaded the building of the Green School, a campus made largely from bamboo, as well as the nearby Green Village, a community of cutting-edge bamboo houses. It was there that Big Tree’s architect, Pete Celovsky, began developing the woven-bamboo-wall technique.
Schilling led me to what will be the chocolate processing area to show me two rare, enormous machines: a winnower made in Italy and an 80-year-old Swiss-made melanger. “I have a very deep affection for this kind of artisanal equipment,” he said, caressing the massive stone base of the melanger, soon to be in operation grinding cocoa nibs. “I used to travel the world hunting down these machines, but after a while I felt bad about hoarding them in a storage space. They need to live.”
Ripple grinned and pointed to a corner of the kitchen area. “That’s where our fireman’s pole will come down. Freddy and I will be able to ride it down from our office on the second floor. I’d love if we could pop out the front of a fake grandfather’s clock, like Webster, but maybe we’ll settle for a fake refrigerator facade instead.” The men burst into laughter and gave each other a high-five. Ripple took regular swigs from a bottle of Bintang, Indonesia’s beer, occasionally passing it to Schilling. He was joking about the fake grandfather’s clock but not about the fireman’s pole.
Ripple plays the part of Willy Wonka well (down to the shock of mad-scientist hair), but his mission in Bali has always been an earnest one. He and his wife, Blair, started Big Tree Farms in 2000, after they harvested their first crop of vegetables in a self-tilled field in the hills near Sibang. Supporting local growers while trying to implement fair trade and organic farming practices in Indonesia, they went on to build a small business selling specialty food items internationally, including spices, sea salt and honey.
At roughly the same time, Schilling founded Dagoba, one of America’s first organic chocolate companies, and five years later sold it to Hershey’s for about $17 million. In 2005, the two met at a business convention and, as Schilling put it, “it was obvious that we were kindred spirits that needed to join forces.”
Since Schilling came on board, Big Tree Farms has evolved from a niche purveyor into a rising star in the natural food market. In 2008, after about two years of focusing on organic cacao, Ripple and Schilling decided to sideline some of Big Tree’s original products and concentrate on coconut-palm sugar, a sustainable sweetener that the company had previously made in small artisanal batches. Now organic coconut-palm sugar, sold both under its own Sweet Tree label (Whole Foods Market was the label’s first buyer) and in bulk, is Big Tree’s biggest seller. “The world wants coconut sugar,” Schilling said, “and for all the right reasons.”
Ripple and Schilling want to do for chocolate what they did for coconut sugar — and then some. In their new bean-to-bar facility, they will mix cacao bought directly from local farmers to create the world’s first organic chocolate bar made with coconut-palm sugar on an industrial scale. “The cacao supply chain hasn’t changed for four centuries,” Schilling said. “Small holders grew cacao. The middlemen picked it up and then it was shipped off to countries far away.”
“That’s where coffee was 20 years ago,” Ripple added. “With coffee there is now a greater awareness of the mainstream public of both quality and what a fair-trade supply chain means. Chocolate is starting to get there.”
They have also signed on Will Goldfarb, the Ferran Adrià-trained chef behind Manhattan’s cultish but now closed Room 4 Dessert, to host classes and lectures. Now the executive pastry chef at Bali’s celebrated restaurant and beach club Ku De Ta, Goldfarb moved his family to the island in 2008, in what at the time seemed like a mysterious disappearance from the New York scene.
A few days after my tour of the factory, we headed out to Bali’s Tabanan region to see some of the island’s cocoa trees. Big Tree works with 2,000 cacao farmers on Bali and about 1,000 cacao farmers in Aceh, Sumatra. In total, the company buys from close to 9,000 farmers throughout Indonesia.
Our first stop was at the cacao processing facilities, a bare-bones operation consisting of about 20 large wood drying platforms and a tiered area of wood fermentation tanks. The tanks had just been emptied onto the platforms a few hours earlier, and the beans were starting the approximately 10-day drying process.
Schilling and Ripple immediately started kneading and turning the sticky wet beans with their fingers. Schilling asked one of the workers to pull away the plastic sheeting that covered the platforms to protect the beans from rain.
Comparing Big Tree’s operation to the winemaking industry, Schilling said that “because of our proximity to the growers we will be able to have an immediate connection to the terroir and be able to experiment with yeasts and the wet fermentation process.” Schilling would eventually like to make a variety of chocolate bars using cacao beans from a single valley in each one so that you can “taste the differentiation of terroir.”
We hopped back into the jeep and drove up narrow, winding roads into the hills, stopping at several family farms that supply Big Tree’s cacao. Driving by, I could have easily mistaken the farms for jungle land, but a closer inspection revealed well-kept traditional plots that grow a variety of mixed crops, from cacao and coffee to cloves and fruits. Whereas many cacao farms in Peru or Ecuador plant the hardy (but not so flavorful) CCN-51 clone, Balinese cacao still has a high percentage of criollo, a strain of cacao that represents only about 1 percent of world production. Dating back to the Maya, it tends to lack bitterness and astringency and is considered the rarest type of cacao.
On the way back to central Bali, where Ripple and Schilling live — Ripple with his wife and their two children in a house near the Green School and Schilling in a modest inn near Ubud — we made a pit stop in the small city of Tabanan for Bintangs and snacks: peanuts, sweet crackers made from the seeds of melinjo berries and sesame biscuits that tasted a bit like Rice Krispie Treats.
The beer was cold and the crackers, called Blinjo Manis, were addictive. “Yeah, these are on our white board,” said Schilling, referring to the endless list of products that he and Ripple hope eventually to develop. “I have no end to energy or ideas. We’d love to become a sustainable Nestlé. It’s just a lack of human resources and capital that is holding us back.” He took another sip of Bintang and cracked a smile. “For now.” .