All posts by rasmieh1

The Switzerland of the Middle East – The Lebanese Chocolate Industry

While Lebanon does not have the conditions or climate to produce its own cacao trees, like the Amazon River Basin or West Africa, and it does not boast the long and storied cultural history with chocolate that many European countries enjoy, it is nonetheless the owner of a unique chocolate story; one of innovation and East-West cultural navigation, as well as its own minor but not insignificant influence on various other parts of the world, including the US itself.  As a person of Lebanese descent, I believe it is a worthy story to tell, and in my own small way, with limited research capacity or industry knowledge, I offer this essay as a small token to that effect.

(Mohammed Azakir/The Daily Star)

Lebanon has been referred to as the “Switzerland of the Middle East” for many reasons since the 1940s, due mainly to its uniqueness among its neighboring countries.  For some, the connection to Switzerland was based on Lebanon’s mountainous regions and accessible ski resorts, reminiscent of the Swiss Alps. For others, it was the banking secrecy laws and the gold reserves of Lebanon that most closely reminded Europeans of Switzerland.  But for many, it was the openness that Lebanon attained and promoted after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War 1. Lebanon gained independence in 1943, and established confessionalism, a unique form of democracy which promoted cooperation among the rival religious groups.  This set Lebanon apart in the Middle Eastern region, and the country enjoyed three decades of prosperity under a free-market economy, taking advantage its connections with Europe and marketing itself as a unique tourist attraction to the European and Middle Eastern elite alike. And within this era of prosperity and growth, Lebanon found a particular niche: the art of chocolate making.

The Lebanese produce chocolate both for their local communities and to export to the surrounding Middle Eastern countries, and the chocolate making industry has grown and adapted to its audiences over the years in many ways.  

Chocolate exports from Lebanon account for over $51 million and are expected to continue rising, according to Blominvest Bank.  As seen in the chart below, chocolate exports from Lebanon have followed an upward trend in recent years. (Mikhael 2016)

Chocolate has become part of the cultural fabric in Lebanon over the last fifty years or so.  Salon du Chocolat, the world’s largest event dedicated to chocolate, takes place in Lebanon’s capital city of Beirut each year.  A tribute to everything chocolate, the event showcases the products of more than 60 exhibitors and holds events such as competitions, workshops, domonstrations, and a fashion show, as part of Gourmet Week.  

Only a few months ago, a museum dedicated to chocolate was opened in Beirut.  The Middle East’s very first chocolate museum, Choco-Story is dedicated to “telling the story of the transformation of cocoa into chocolate and to promote the health and quality aspects of Belgian chocolate. (Chocolate: Experience the Ride, 2018) This museum not only establishes Lebanon as an important player on the global chocolate stage, but also reasserts its connection with European chocolate styles, namely that of Belgium.  This connection and cooperation between Lebanon and Europe is a common thread in the story of chocolate as well as many other aspects of culture, taste and industry in Lebanon.

While the Lebanese chocolate industry faces many challenges, the Phoenicians of Lebanon are an enterprising and adaptable people, and they have found ways to ride the waves of a competitive and changing industry and grow to establish their own reputation as expert luxury chocolate makers.

One major challenge that Lebanese chocolate manufacturers face is the high cost of electricity in the country.  Based on a recent study, Lebanese manufacturers can pay as much as 14% of their total budgets for electricity, one of the highest per capita. (Mikhael 2016)  This is true also of the cost of diesel in the country, which manufacturers need to run their generators. The chocolate making process requires a considerable amount of electricity, as this video of a Lebanese chocolatier making Easter chocolate eggs demonstrates.


The cost of importing high quality chocolate from Europe is also a challenge for manufacturers in Lebanon.  Some companies get around this by importing lower quality chocolate from China, but most insist on working with the highest quality European chocolate and balance this by producing equally high quality (i.e. expensive) chocolate for sale in the luxury market. (Mikhael 2016)

Another challenge for Lebanese chocolate makers is the high cost of labor in the country.  As one can see from the video above, the chocolate making process is very labor intensive, and as a democratic and diverse country with a relatively thriving economy, Lebanese labor costs are double those of some of the surrounding countries, including neighboring Syria and Iraq. Lebanon actually a minimum wage mandated by its government, which prohibits employers such as chocolate manufacturers from employing anyone anything below $30,000 pounds per day or $675,000 pounds per month (Lebanon Minimum Wage 2019).  This means that companies are legally prohibited from using any form of coercion, slave labor, or child labor in their manufacturing practices.

(Mohammed Azakir/The Daily Star)

At the same time however, there is anecdotal evidence that companies often employ Iraqi or Syrian laborers instead, as they can legally pay them less than Lebanese citizens.  There is limited research on the existence of these under-the-table or unethical employment practices in the Lebanese chocolate industry, but it is hoped that researchers and concerned parties will continue to seek it out until it can be confidently eliminated as a threat.  As is the case at all levels of the cacao-to-chocolate chain, it is an industry rife with ethical and moral employment practices such as these; even in a country which cannot produce its own cacao trees and must import the raw materials from other countries, eliminating the local extortion of agricultural laborers, the possibility of unequal and unfair treatment of laborers still remains.

Another challenge for the chocolate industry in Lebanon, as shared by Mohammad Taha, owner of La Roche Chocolate factory in Beirut, Lebanon, is the lack of an established industrial zone. (Halawi 2011) These are generally specialized zones located away from residential areas and dedicated to the purpose of manufacturing or other industrial development. The establishment of such an area often provides companies with lower rental costs than residential areas, as well as reliable electricity service and smoother shipping processes.  Since Lebanese chocolate makers are forced to do all their manufacturing in residential areas, they are faced with the location-based challenges that many other countries do not need to navigate.

In order to navigate and overcome these challenges, Lebanese chocolate makers have employed a number of strategies, including diversifying their products and gearing their products and their images towards the high-end and luxury markets, producing a higher yield.  

Leaning into their strong connection with Europe, in particular with France, Belgium and Switzerland, and the unique East-West blend that this connection has generated, Lebanon has managed to establish a reputation for itself as a high quality chocolate producer.  Owning and capitalizing on the influence of the French on the country as a whole, a remnant of the mandate that lasted from 1920 to 1943, as well as the free passage between these countries and the consequential diversity of its cities, has placed Lebanon in a unique cultural situation.  While the official language of Lebanon is arabic, its second language is French, and the french influence, especially in its cities, has informed its unique sense of culture and style, and the local chocolate manufacturing industry has clearly been influenced by this.

As chocolate is not a traditional Arabic treat but was introduced to the region by Europeans, Lebanon has embraced the European chocolate traditions as the height of chocolate making art, while adding local elements and innovations to make it uniquely their own.  The Lebanese have always had a proud tradition of food as an art form, and they have also endeavored to export this on a global scale by way of chocolate.

A number of chocolate manufacturing companies exist in Lebanon, both small and large, from generic companies that produce more “standardized” chocolate for the masses to smaller, specialized companies that experiment with their offerings or appeal to consumers seeking organic, vegan, or unique small-batch products. A great many of these companies are family owned and operated, and they are frequently very proud to share their origin stories and enjoy speaking about local or international success.  

The largest and most financially successful chocolate company in Lebanon is Patchi, founded in 1974.  Today, Patchi produces over 4,000 tons of chocolate yearly. (Mikhael 2016)  Its founder, Nizar Choucair, credits his company’s success to a focus on “finesse, quality, and innovation,” and credits his products with “raising the bar of chocolate elegance and success in the Middle East and in the rest of the world.” (All for the Love of Chocolate 2011) As he tells it, he discovered his love for chocolate as a young boy in Lebanon, and through war, financial hardships, and industry-specific challenges, his innovative spirit and passion for chocolate persevered and led him to “change the way Lebanon and the region perceived chocolate” by introducing the chocolate gifting concept on a commercial level.  (Nizar Choucair: A Success Story 2016)

By taking the time to conduct thorough research on local and global markets, Patchi succeeded in diversifying their products beyond chocolate to items such as silverware and printing.  They then expanded somewhat aggressively to other countries over the years, from neighboring Syria to the United Arab Emirates, establishing themselves as the go-to producer of fine gifting chocolate.  Patchi imports organic cocoa from England, France, the Netherlands, and the Ivory coast, and makes a point of uses extra cocoa butter in their chocolate products. Their process is very similar to the Swiss chocolate making methods, and they are open about their use of “Swiss technology” in their factories. Through their focus on hand-made products on a large scale, as well as paying close attention to their branding strategies (including innovative and customizable wrapping techniques that set them apart from the competition), they are able to produce recognizable high quality luxury chocolate products in massive quantities.  This ability has helped them to capture the market and become one of the most innovative businesses in the Middle East according to the World Intellectual Property Organization. (All for the Love of Chocolate 2011)  Their products are now available in over 35 countries worldwide.

Another innovative Lebanese chocolate company is Gandour.  The first chocolate factory in Lebanon, Gandour was established in 1857 by the Ghandour family, began its operations as a small factory-store in Beirut.  Though headquartered in Saudi Arabia today, it maintains its facilities in Lebanon and maintains its identity as a Lebanese-founded organization. It is a testament to the quality of its products and the company’s shrewd business strategies that Gandour has survived the immense challenge of the 15-year war with such notoriety, as their general policy is to let their products speak for themselves rather than put as much emphasis on promotion as other similar companies.  As co-owner Ali Ghandour puts it, “the product makes its own noise.” (Khatib 2003) One of the smart moves that established the company to a position of power was relocating their headquarters and main production plants to Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s, where they could tap into a larger market with a higher purchasing power.  They capitalized on both the Saudi Arabian sweet tooth and their disposable income, allowing them to grow their business enough to re-establish their plants in Lebanon. Today, the company has also diversified their offerings; they have expanded to serve a number of Asian markets, and they have employed hundreds of Asian consultants to help them adapt to the specific culture and tastes of that region.  This theme of adaptation and cultural exchange appears to be a common theme among Lebanese chocolate manufacturers.

Lebanon can also boast a degree of influence over the US chocolate industry.  Guy DeBas was the son of a Lebanese presidential nominee who survived captivity, assassination attempts, and no less than 22 bullet wounds during the Lebanese civil war.  DeBas and the surviving members of his family escaped to Sweden to recover and then moved to California. When they discovered that his father had left a chocolate factory back in Lebanon, DeBas and his wife returned to try and salvage it, but it was soon destroyed by terrorists, so they returned to the US to develop their chocolate making craft in their own kitchen.  After achieving mixed success as a small gourmet chocolate making business, DeBas won a contract with Trader Joe’s and became the first to introduce “chocolate truffles” to the US market. He was eventually voted “best chocolate innovator in the industry” in 2001, and “Chocolate Trend Setter” in 2005 by Candy Industry. (Executive Profile: Guy DeBas 2019)

Lebanese chocolate truffles, https://homemade-recipes.blogspot.com/2019/02/chocolate-truffles-recipe.html

In addition to the larger chocolate manufacturers, there are a number of smaller specialty chocolate companies who have pioneered the Lebanese emphasis on innovation and novelty goods in the country.  While following international trends, these Lebanese chocolate companies are simultaneously inspired by European traditions and determined to make their products uniquely “Lebanese” through the use of local flavors and ingredients.  Through their work, they personify the Phoenician spirit of invention and exploration, and their products appeal to the unique preferences of the local Lebanese palates.

These smaller chocolate boutiques, while following the European chocolate making traditions, add local ingredients to their creations to reflect the local culture and appeal to their local consumers.  Some of these ingredients include arak (a translucent white anise-flavored beverage with an extremely high alcohol content traditionally enjoyed in Lebanon), pistachios and almonds (grown locally), thyme, rosewater, sesame, honey, cardamom, dates, fresh mint, and even tahini.  Following in the European chocolate tradition and catering to the styles and tastes of the Lebanese well-to-do, there are even chocolate bars, similar to the original chocolate/coffee houses of Europe. The first of these was Elsa Chocolatier Boutique in Beirut.

The chocolate industry of Lebanon has not had a long history in comparison with other countries and regions of the world, but it is indeed an intricate and interesting one; a story of struggle and triumph, perseverance and adaptability, innovation and collaboration.  The country’s chocolate manufacturers have taken what they have – a strong connection with Europe, a generally healthy economy, and a market with some discretionary income and a sweet tooth – and created a niche for themselves in the world chocolate conversation. I hope to do more research on this subject going forward and perhaps help to shed some more light and a deeper understanding of this unique slice of the world, and I look forward to learning more about this fascinating topic in the near future.  

Works Cited

All for the Love of Chocolate. IP Services, 2011, All for the Love of Chocolate.

Antar, Ahmad. Light at the End of the Tunnel in Lebanon’s Electricity Crisis? 2017, Light at the End of the Tunnel in Lebanon’s Electricity Crisis?

“Chocolate: Experience the Ride.” Choco Story Beirut, 2018, choco-storyme.com/about.

Coe, Sophie D, and Michael D Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Darwich, Dalal, and Nour El-Katranji. Al-Ghrawi’s Position in the Lebanese Chocolate Industry. 2016, Al-Ghrawi’s Position in the Lebanese Chocolate Industry.

“Debbas Gourmet: Our Story.” Debbas Gourmet Website, 2018, debbasgourmet.com/aboutgdebbas-1.

“Executive Profile: Guy DeBas.” Bloomberg, 2019, http://www.bloomberg.com/research//stocks/private/person.asp?personId=10254132&privcapId=1154648&previousCapId=144052205&previousTitle=Go Pure Foods Inc.

“First Chocolate Museum in Beirut.” Women Economic Empowerment Portal, 1 Feb. 2019, http://www.weeportal-lb.org/news/first-chocolate-museum-beirut.

Halawi, Dana. “Lebanon Is Chocolate ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’.” Albawaba, 9 Aug. 2011, http://www.albawaba.com/lebanon-chocolate-switzerland-middle-east-387450.

Khatib, Hadi. “Ghandour Prefers Quiet Road to Riches.” The Daily Star Lebanon, 7 June 2003, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2003/Jun-07/38243-ghandour-prefers-quiet-road-to-riches.ashx.

Lebanon Minimum Wage, Labor Law, and Employment Data Sheet. 2019, Lebanon Minimum Wage, Labor Law, and Employment Data Sheet, http://www.minimum-wage.org/international/lebanon.

Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe. The Social Meaning of Food. Socio.HU, 2015.

Mikhael, Marwan. Lebanese Chocolate Industry: The Tempting Market for Exports. 2016, Lebanese Chocolate Industry: The Tempting Market for Exports.
http://blog.blominvestbank.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Lebanese-Chocolate-Industry-The-Tempting-Market-for-Exports1.pdf

“Nizar Choucair: A Success Story.” PRWebMe, 13 May 2016, http://www.prwebme.com/2016/05/13/nizar-choucair-a-success-story/.

Cacao as Part of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Society

While the essential process of turning pods of the Theobroma cacao, or cacao tree, into edible forms of chocolate has remained largely unchanged over the last several thousand years, its earliest/original cultural significance has largely been lost or ignored in favor of an emphasis on individual enjoyment and commercial expansion.  As Carla Martin and Kathryn Sampeck reflect in “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” cacao has a “Potent history of ritual, cosmological, and high-status associations.”

Through various accounts, as well as the discovery of ancient artifacts and the more recent translations of glyphs found on Classic-period vessels, we can enjoy a more authentic understanding of what cacao meant to the people who brought it into existence.  Chocolate is such an incredibly important part of our world today, it is hard to imagine a society without it. We owe it to these early civilizations to pay respectful attention to the importance chocolate played in their own societies and how it permeated every aspect of their cultures during the pre-Conquest era.

Cacao held value in myriad ways for the people of pre-Conquest Mesoamerica, and therefore it was present in almost every aspect of society.  It was also of great importance at every level of society, from the lowest classes to royalty and even in their views the celestial world and the afterlife.  

One use of cacao that affected all aspects of society was as coinage.  It can be difficult in at this point in time to imagine using a perishable commodity such as chocolate as currency, but it was indeed a valuable staple of the Mesoamerican economical system.  While some have argued that the Spanish introduced the concept of using cacao as a form of currency, we can see from Colonial era documentary information that the indigenous communities were already using it in this way upon their arrival.  One of the first accounts of this “coin of the realm” was written by Peter Martyr, an early observer of the Aztec society. In one of his passages from his De Orbe Novo, he writes “ But it is very needful to heare what happie money they use, for they have money, which I call happy, because for the greedie desire and gaping to attaine the same, the bowelles of the earth are not rent a sunder, nor through the ravening greediness of covetous men, nor terrour of warres assayling, it returneth to the dennes and caves of the mother earth, as golden, or silver money doth. For this groweth upon trees.”

In terms of the purchasing power of cacao beans (or more accurately, the seeds of the cacao pod), there are varying reports. However, according to a Nahuatl document in 1545 documenting prices in Tlaxcala, one cacao bean held the equivalent value of one large tomato or one tamale.  Three beans would buy you an avocado, 30 would buy you a small rabbit, and 100 full beans (or alternatively 120 shrunken beans) would buy you one good turkey hen.

Naturally, cacao was also used as a consumable good in pre-Colonial Mesoamerica, but it was consumed largely as a drink rather than a food.  According to Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, “during nine tenths of its long history, chocolate was drunk, not eaten.” Evidence of this can be found in many artifacts discovered in that region, including the Princeton Vase below.  This example of Maya “codex style” ceramic art depicts a woman pouring a chocolate beverage from one vessel into another for the Merchant God. It is the earliest known depiction of a chocolate beverage being frothed and served. Cacao was often combined with corn in beverages to give it more sustenance, and it was also used in recipes to add flavor to other foods.

Beyond the serving of cacao as a pleasurable beverage or food, it was also believed by the Mesoamericans to have medicinal qualities.  It was used to treat digestive issues, coughs, and other sicknesses, and it was used as an anaesthetic, an anti-inflammatory aid, and as a cure for struggles such as breast milk production and kidney stones.  According to the Florentine Codex, an early collaboration between Aztec and Spanish ethnographers, cacao beans were used in combination with other ingredients to treat a range of physical and psychological issues, from fatigue to anemia. Cacao was also believed to provide strength and energy, so soldiers would often drink it before battle, and depictions of warriors carrying cacao beans into war can be found on many of the artifacts from that era.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who documented the Spanish conquest extensively, relayed the use of cacao beverages by the Aztecsfor “success with women.”  We now know that chocolate contains the compound phenylethylamne, which the brain produces when they experience attraction, confirming the Aztec belief in the connection between chocolate and romance.  

Cacao had a large role in community rituals and traditions as well.  Cacao beans were used as dowry payments, and cacao beverages were served during betrothal and marriage ceremonies.  One such marriage ritual, “tac haa,” involved inviting the father of a girl whom one’s son wants to marry to discuss the marriage and serving him a chocolate drink.

Similarly, cacao was present in the death rituals of the Mesoamerican era as well.  Images and glyphs depicting cacao in its various forms – pods, beans, beverages, etc. – are seen in many depictions of burial ceremonies, and for those who could afford it, the dead were even buried with cacao vessels filled with the chocolate beverage, to give their souls strength and energy in the afterlife.

Other examples of cacao as part of the societal fabric is how it was used to depict class and hierarchy.  For example, we see portrayals in paintings and carvings of members of royal families emerging from the ground as cacao trees.  This was done as a way of legitimating their royal blood and status. The cacao trees, or theobroma cacao, were considered sacred, referred to also as “world trees” or “first trees.”  In their mythologies, dieties were often born of trees or transformed into trees; the roots extended down to the underworld, the trunk represented the contemporary world, and the leaves or shoots reached up into the heavens.  In essence, the cacao tree served as a metastructure of the heavens.

As we have seen here, cacao in its various forms played a very potent role throughout pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.  It served as a social “glue,” binding the peoples of each region together through common rituals and customs, and doing social “work,” in a vastly expanded yet somehow way when compared to our own contemporary concept of “chocolate.”  

Works Cited:

Bernardino de Sahagun, Fray. Florentine Codex, General History of the Things of New Spain, Book X. Santa Fe: School of American Research, 1955.

Coe, Sophie D, and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Edgar, Blake. “The Power of Chocolate.” Archaeology Magazine, 2010, archive.archaeology.org/1011/abstracts/chocolate.html.

Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe. The Social Meaning of Food. Socio.HU, 2015.

Wolfe, David and Holdstock, Sharon. Naked Chocolate: The Astonishing Truth About the World’s Greatest Food. North Atlantic Books, 2005.