"Tastes like white chocolate" was the unanimous verdict at the in-office trials Campaign Asia-Pacific conducted on Callebaut's much-vaunted 'ruby chocolate', RB1, which launched this week in Hong Kong and will be made available to chefs, pâtissiers and chocolatiers here from September.
You could be forgiven for seeing this lurid confectionery as a marketing ploy. It's around the same shade as 'millennial pink', hailed as the trend colour for the social media generation and, indeed, research suggests the product resonates strongly with the 18-35 age group. But the Belgian brand behind ruby chocolate says it is in fact a 'fourth category of chocolate, after milk, dark and white' and 'the biggest innovation in the sector since the launch of white chocolate 80 years ago'.
Callebaut first debuted RB1 to the world in September last year with a launch event in Shanghai, the culmination of a 13-year development process. Callebaut itself sells only to artisan chefs and chocolatiers rather than direct to consumers, but RB1 has already been used by Nestlé to make a pink 'Sublime Ruby' KitKat, sold initially in Japan and South Korea followed by the UK and other markets, and the brand says it has seen a "fantastic" response from chefs keen to try something new.
Ruby chocolate is made from a cocoa bean found largely in Africa and South America that has a particular "precursor", as the brand puts it, of colour and taste. "That's what we call the ruby cocoa bean," said Denis Convert, vice president gourmet for the Asia Pacific region at Callebaut. "We have been able to identify that and then select them and process them in a way where this unique colour and flavour is kept."
The brand insists that no artificial colourings or flavourings are added and the slightly fruity (predominantly raspberry) taste is all natural. At the launch event three famous Hong Kong chefs — Marijn Coertjens, Roger Fok and Andy Yeung — demonstrated the creative potential of RB1 in confections including 'ruby burgers' with ruby ganache, airy ruby chocolate and balsamic caviar mouthfuls and ruby dipped smoked bacon cocoa nib cookies. They may be as cloyingly sweet as white chocolate, but there's no denying they look good.
"Today people are eating with their eyes as much as with their mouths," Convert told Campaign Asia-Pacific. "RB1 is a real pleasurable product...it's about me and my friends having a new, pleasurable experience, something new, something which is visually attractive." Hence the appeal to millennials, particuarly those in Asia.
Chef Coertjens, who first tried RB1 a year ago, said he thinks the Asian market is hungry for such a product compared to consumers in other continents. "I think people are more open-minded. In Europe they will say 'I want dark chocolate', and nothing will convince them to change. In Asia the chocolate culture is younger." He adds that pink chocolate fits well with the "Asian cult" of liking "cute" things.
Asia is of the "utmost importance" to the chocolate world, agreed Convert. "We still believe Asia but especially China and Hong Kong are going to be major markets in the future for chocolate."
Hong Kong was chosen for the launch because it has the second highest chocolate consumption in Asia Pacific, with each person dispatching on average 1.5kgs of chocolate per year. This is second only to Australia, where consumption averages 5.7kg per capita, around the amount eaten in other Western markets. Japan, by comparison, eats 1.2kgs of chocolate per person and Singapore eats 1kg.
In China, consumption still remains a very low 100g per capita per year, said Convert. Along with the continued economic development and growth of the country's middle class, this makes it another prime target for Callebaut, which already has an e-commerce platform on Alibaba's Tmall.
Signs already exist that the continent is ready for more chocolate: the market is witnessing year-on-year growth of around 3%, said Convert. In Hong Kong, sales amounted to HKD2.1 billion (US$268m) in 2017 and RB1 is due to see further rollouts this year in Japan, China and Australia, with other Southeast Asian markets in the long-term plan.
There remains one slight fly in the cake mix, however. As Convert noted, production of pink chocolate is currently somewhat limited by the amount of ruby cocoa beans available.
"We are working hard to make it change," said Nor Badron, director of corporate communications in Barry Callebaut Asia Pacific. "It is currently identified in certain countries but as we become better at identifying these cocoa beans, potentially we can even find ruby beans in parts of Asia. We're working hard to make sure the R&D continues."
For the sake of countless Insta-Stories, if nothing else, Callebaut had better hope they find a whole lot more of those magic pink beans.