Oodaalolly: A Journey into Filipino Chocolate
Hernan Lauber is an engineer. He’s worked in Switzerland, lived in Australia, and often traveled to Calinog, Iloilo as a child. He speaks Swiss-German, and a little bit of French.
But what he really knows is chocolate.
“Chocolate is really one of those products that you give away and everyone is psyched about it. No one ever regrets getting a piece of chocolate — even if you don’t care for it or can’t eat it, you know someone who would love it. It really brings joy to people.”
At a sunny café window table in the SOMA Pilipinas Cultural Heritage District, Hernan Lauber, Owner of Oodaalolly Chocolate, sits down with a US Postal Service mailer box bursting with product samples. Tempting 70 percent dark chocolate, some bars spiked with almond and sea salt, all crafted from cacao grown exclusively in The Philippines — a rare tasting experience whose roots literally connect with the Philippine land.
“Chocolate, like wine, is an agricultural product. So the soil where the cacao is grown — the terroir — impacts the flavor of the end product, which is in this case our chocolate. And in The Philippines, they can grow all three principle strains of cacao — forestero, trinitario, and criollo. And now there are different hybrids that are being cultivated as well, and they can all thrive in the PI. Really, all of The Philippines’ diverse plant life impacts the flavor the cacao, plus the temperature, the humidity — it all imparts characteristics onto the beans as you grow them, and dry and ferment them,” Hernan says.
As a Filipino-American who, like many Filipino-Americans, is learning and discovering his heritage each day, it carries a special significance for Hernan that his product originates in The Philippines. With that in mind, it’s doubly important that Oodaalolly pass the biggest test of quality there is: the taste test.
“Certainly, we want a product that represents the quality of our process as well as the quality of our beans. But i think tasting things is really binary. You either like something, or you don’t. We want to make a product that everyone can enjoy, from someone who’s super hardcore, who wants to know the source of the beans, to someone who just wants to have a good time and share some chocolate with a friend. My real litmus test is my kids. we try to extract flavors that are unique, and interesting, but we always want to be something that has appeal to everyone. Because that’s what chocolate is,” he says.
While adhering to the lessons of deliciousness that he’s learned from his family (his father is a chocolatier, and his sister is a trained pastry chef), Hernan is also taking on no less than the challenge of helping to cultivate an industry. With Filipino beans comprising less than two percent of the world’s entire cacao output, Hernan is a kind of ambassador for Filipino cacao production, and his bars serve as an addictive proof-of-concept.
“It takes three to five years for a cacao tree to bear fruit. It’s a long term process, but that length of time gives us space to learn how to do it properly. And we’ve connected with some organizations through the Cacao Road Map — a government-sponsored program that helps local farmers orient their operations to cacao production, so they can learn to grow premium quality raw product that, because of its rarity and scarcity, could be sold at a higher rate.”
Clearly, there are a number of lenses which impact the scope of Oodaalolly’s relatively straightforward mission of making yummy chocolate. But despite those layers of complexity, Hernan’s taking a studied and steady approach that as much a reflection of his confidence in his product as his family’s deep ties to the land — and one that he hopes will allow him to create a truly unique, “tree-to-bar” product in the future.
“My grandfather owns land in Calinog, Iloilo, thats been passed down through our family. He was a rice farmer, and we decided a few years ago to plant some cacao on the land to see what would happen. And our trees bore fruit ahead of schedule, so we grew a few more plants — a few hundred more. And they’re thriving, growing naturally as if they belong there. So we’re cultivating more of them — about 4,000 seedlings. i don't anticipate a huge orchard, but the possibility of doing tree-to-bar — controlling the whole process, from growing, to harvesting, to fermenting and processing is really, really exciting.”
It’s an excitement that Hernan — a Philadelphia native — is eager to share with the SOMA Pilipinas community at Undiscovered SF, and something he says is another source of inspiration and driving energy for Oodaalolly.
“Being in the Bay Area, it’s like a whole different world from Philadelphia. There’s so much Filipino life to explore and be a part of, and with my mom and my kids, going around the area and seeing all the entrepreneurship and people being proud of their cultural identity. Especially right now, with the food, there’s just so much amazing culinary work coming out of our community, and it’s so exciting to be a part of it. It’s pushing us beyond what we ourselves might know about our own culture. It’s not just adobo, or what we had at home.”
By pushing past what’s known, Hernan has created a genuinely special product that could be at the heart of a brand-new source of chocolate for the entire world. And with the promise of an especially rare strain of cacao yet to be isolated, Oodaalolly’s story is just beginning. Be sure to get a taste of their journey at Undiscovered SF this July.
“We’re trying to find a naturally-occurring criollo strain, because it’s very rare. We have heard rumors of people who have found it — it was like rediscovering things that we thought was extinct. So we’ve heard some stories that it’s growing in certain areas of the Philippines, and so we’re doing our due diligence to make sure that it is what they say it is. I don’t know where this journey will take us, but just interacting with something that not a lot of people know exist is already exciting on its own.”
Photos by Abby Asuncion