Minimal ingredients, repurposed equipment and a high regard for ethics: this is how an Emirati duo created a chocolate factory in Dubai that sets a benchmark for independent businesses
It’s nothing like what you’d expect a chocolate factory to look like – no Willy Wonka-style gushing chocolate rivers or oompa loompas; instead a sleek, minimalist operation tucked away in a warehouse on Al Serkal Avenue, the arts complex within an industrial district. But, this, the Mirzam chocolate laboratory, is where some quite magical cocoa creations are conjured up.
While the craft chocolate movement has been gaining traction around the world for the past decade or so (in a pattern not dissimilar to the third wave of coffee) Mirzam is the first such artisanal chocolate maker in the UAE.
Borne out of a “lifelong passion for chocolate”, in co-founder and Chief Chocolate Officer Kathy Johnston’s words, and “the drive to create a much better quality chocolate with very few ingredients”, Mirzam is owned by a reclusive Emirati duo who prefer to stay behind-the-scenes.
But front and centre is their transparent production facility, open to anyone, with clear glass panels helping demystify the entire process of artisanal chocolate-making – from hand-sorting to roasting and cooling, winnowing, grinding, conching (a process of oxidation), ageing, and tempering, before it gets packaged in bespoke designs created by commissioned artists.
A vital part of their mission is to create awareness about the provenance of chocolate, which, like many other fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industries, has an exploitative legacy
Since commercial machinery wasn’t suitable for such small-batch production, they’ve used ingenuity instead, repurposing equipment not traditionally used for chocolate making – using a Turkish coffee roaster and an Indian granite grain grinder, for instance, for the respective processes. Each step painstakingly ensures that the unique characteristics of the cacao beans are preserved, whether it’s with slow-roasting the beans at a lower temperature (commercial production methods prefer to burn the beans to ensure a uniform taste), or allowing them to age, to improve the flavour profile.
The development of their range, too, is the result of prolonged research. Drawing inspiration from ancient Arabian spice trade routes, their chocolates feature exotic flavour combinations such as orange and cinnamon; coffee and cardamom; and figs, star anise and cinnamon. All of their chocolates are single origin, usually 70 per cent cocoa or higher, and are only ever made with three basic ingredients (cacao beans, unrefined cane sugar, and cocoa butter).
Storytelling is another part of the company’s ethos. Ingredients are said to have been harvested when certain stars were sighted (Mirzam itself is the name of a star), and the company speaks of the myths of monsters, woven by seafarers to protect their prized spices.
The extensive research carried out by the team not only involved “lots of history books”, but mining the knowledge that is kept within small communities. One of of the company’s signature flavours, a date and fennel bar, is based on a summer jam recipe that has been passed down through generations in one of the founder’s families. The nod to their heritage has paid off; with the flavour recently winning a prestigious International Chocolate Award.
“There were a lot of historical records in this region that were destroyed due to both the harsh climate and a nomadic lifestyle,” explains Johnston. In a way, these chocolates are helping to tell stories that may otherwise be forgotten.
The sourcing of their cocoa beans is also led by the spice route connection – they steer away from traditional cocoa-producing regions to source from plantations in India, Madagascar, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea (as well as a selection from Cuba and Ghana), with particular emphasis on ‘terroir’, the complete natural environment in which the bean is grown.
A vital part of their mission is to create awareness about the provenance of chocolate, which, like many other fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industries, has an exploitative legacy. Trapped in a vicious cycle of poorly paid farmers, poor quality of cacao bean production, and unhealthy amounts of chemicals being added to ensure taste standardisation, it is small-batch productions such as Mirzam’s who have the potential to address these dangers.
“There are a lot of people here who love chocolate, but really have no idea about the conditions of the people who are responsible for making it,” says Johnston. “That’s very critical for us – being able to try and educate the local community. We run regular factory tours and tasting workshops, and host school groups.”
From paying their farmers well above the fair-trade market requirements, to training and empowering staff at the factory, and collaborating with Emirates Wildlife Society for a limited-edition collection, Mirzam’s ethos is firmly underpinned by a commitment to sustainability. “I wanted to give people a better life, a chance to fulfill what they are capable of,” says the former strategy consultant.
This near-obsessive level of care and attention paid to quality – a hallmark of all craft productions – and the thoughtfully curated choices through the product’s life cycle ensures a luxury product that can compete on a global level. But the creative flavours and strong grounding in Arabian heritage establish a distinct ‘born in Dubai’ identity.