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Entrepreneurs / Startups

Echoing The Past, Heralding The Future: Mirzam Chocolate Makers

Echoing The Past, Heralding The Future: Mirzam Chocolate Makers
Image credit: Mirzam
- Entrepreneur Staff
Editor in Chief, Entrepreneur Middle East
10 min read

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

For a business that only opened in September 2016, Mirzam Chocolate Makers has scored quite a few wins in a rather short period of time. For one, the homegrown Dubai-based brand has managed to garner a sizeable offering for its artisanal chocolate offerings not just here in the UAE, but overseas as well- in fact, Mirzam’s factory-cum-retail-space at Al Serkal Avenue has become a must-visit spot for many tourists coming to the UAE, where they get to see chocolate actually being made –from bean to bar- right here in Dubai.

Another of Mirzam’s noteworthy accomplishments has been the slew of awards it received from the London-based Academy of Chocolate in 2017- the boutique brand is the first (and the only) chocolate company in the UAE to have been recognized by this fine establishment. And recently, Mirzam added one more feather to its cap when Expo 2020 selected the Emirati-owned business to produce two different collections of chocolate bars specifically for the landmark event, which is to be hosted in Dubai in just a few years’ time.

A scene at Mirzam Chocolate Makers factory in Dubai. Image credit: Mirzam.

So, what makes Mirzam’s chocolate so special? Chief Chocolate Officer Kathy Johnston takes a moment or two to think up an answer for my query, before declaring, “I believe what makes our chocolate so special is how much effort goes into making it.” Now, the normal me –read as, the incredibly cynical me- would have perhaps dismissed that answer in an instant, and not have taken it seriously at all. But, after having spent a few hours at the Mirzam factory, watching the team there make chocolate behind a glass wall, listening to the staff tell me the stories and flavors that mark each bar of chocolate, and, well, observing the sheer impish passion that fuels Johnston every time she starts talking about Mirzam- you can perhaps understand why I’m taking her statement as the gospel truth now. There’s no question that there’s a lot of work happening in the background for Mirzam to produce these exquisite chocolate bars, whose remarkable cocoa percentages need to be tasted to be believed. “What we specialize in is making chocolate from bean to bar,” Johnston explains. “So, we source cocoa beans ideally from plantations that are located along the historical Spice Route, where the Arab traders from this region were, at one point in history, sailing around the world to try and buy all sorts of different spices and ingredients, and bring them back here and on to Europe to sell. We get those cocoa beans, and then we go through a very intensive production process to make chocolate.”

Calling Mirzam’s chocolate production process “intensive” may be putting it lightly though. Johnston explains that after she and her team source single origin cocoa beans from countries like India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Madagascar, they arrive at the factory in Dubai where they are sorted through -by hand- to ensure that they are of exceptionally high-quality, so as to produce chocolate that is in line with the exacting standards Mirzam has set for itself. The cocoa beans are then roasted, which, when compared to coffee beans, are done at much lower temperatures for longer periods of time. This is followed by a winnowing process, where the cocoa beans are cracked to separate the light outer husk from the dark nibs inside. While the husk is used to make cocoa tea, the nibs –each of which is essentially 100% dark chocolate- are then grinded in small batches using granite wheels, with the process taking as long as a week to be completed. This will lead to the creation of smooth, liquid chocolate, which is then aerated by a process called conching that can take up to 72 hours. After this, the chocolate is poured into blocks, where they are allowed to rest and age for a while, and that’s when their particular flavors begin to develop. Once this is completed, the chocolate is further tempered, and following that, Mirzam’s chocolate bars begin to take shape- the molding is done by hand, and so is the wrapping.

A Mirzam store in Dubai. Image credit: Mirzam.
As Johnston explains the chocolate-making process at Mirzam, it’s quite apparent that not only are she and her team quite enthusiastic about the chocolate that they make, they are also quite keen on sharing their insights and expertise with anyone who wants to learn about the bean-to-bar process. “The [Mirzam] factory exists behind a glass wall,” Johnston says. “So, you can see, with complete transparency, everything that we are making, and how we are making it. It’s quite important to us to be able to educate the customers who come through, but also to be clear that we are not buying readymade chocolate- we are buying cocoa beans, and we are making the chocolate ourselves. So, we differentiate ourselves from all of the other chocolate factories here by being chocolate makers, as opposed to chocolatiers… or re-melters!” And Johnston makes sure to highlight the fact that Mirzam, in an age of automation and machinery, still makes an effort to make things by hand. “When people do come to our factory space, they can see that every single person on the team is doing something by hand themselves to make that chocolate,” she notes. “So, we wrap the bars by hand, we sort the cocoa beans by hand, we prepare the gift boxes by hand, and the artwork on each of the wrappers is created by a different artist by hand. And I think that’s quite different from other food products that are available. I think a lot of people these days can see past the marketing wash of, you know, pictures of happy people making food, and actually see a process that’s really being done from a sense of passion and reward that comes from a great quality product. And everybody on the team is so proud of the result that we’ve had when our chocolate bars are sold overseas, when we win these awards. It’s really the result of a big team of people.”

“Big” is a relative term though- Johnston makes it clear that Mirzam is still very much a small business, with a team of about 20 people working across the company. And given that it is a young enterprise, Johnston has had her fair share of startup hurdles to navigate and get past at Mirzam. “There’s always huge challenges in getting a business going, and I think that the biggest one that we have had is working out all of the logistics that is required in inputting cocoa beans,” Johnston reveals. “It’s something that is quite new in this region, and it’s been really challenging, and I think with a lot of persistence and getting to know what is required, we have gotten nearly there, and I think we nearly have a smooth process for the beans coming in. Once the cocoa beans get here, they can also get affected by heat, they can be affected by humidity. So, the storage is then something else that we have had to figure out and learn “how to handle.”

Another big challenge for Johnston? This one should be familiar to all you startup folk out there: finding the right people. “We don’t make chocolate to a specific recipe- every batch of chocolate, every bowl of 30 kilos that gets processed through our mélanges, the ultimate result, or when we know the chocolate is ready, is how it tastes, not that the ingredients have been there for the amount of time that we need it to be there for. So, finding people who were really excited by chocolate and the bean-to-bar production process was really challenging. And I think while there are a lot of chocolate factories in Dubai, across the UAE, in the Middle East (there’s a lot of chocolate being produced here, a lot of chocolate), it’s quite hard to find people who have the same approach as we do in trying to achieve the quality of bean-to-bar chocolate.” But the results are worth the work- and Mirzam’s contract with Expo 2020 does offer the small business a massive sense of validation. Over the next three years, Mirzam will work with Expo 2020 to create and distribute two different collections of chocolate bars, one of which is inspired by the modern Middle East, while the other pays homage to the history and culture of this region.

A Mirzam store in Dubai. Image credit: Mirzam.

“I think that there’s two reasons why we are really excited to be a part of the Expo 2020 process,” Johnston says. “There’s one element of us working on Expo 2020, which is that, as an Emirati business, as a team of people who have all lived here for a really long time, you can’t not get excited about Expo 2020, and want to be a part of what’s happening. So, however we could be involved, we would be making the effort to be involved. So, the fact that we are participating in such an active way is really a reflection of the quality of Mirzam’s chocolate, and how much work we have put in to establishing our brand and establishing our business in the Middle East. The other part of working with Expo 2020 is that I feel that as such a high-quality chocolate, we want to be seen on par with other really high-quality businesses and high-quality brands, and projects that reflect the quality of manufacturing and the quality of production that can happen in this region, and really highlight to people around the world that good quality products are being made here. And so, in being present at Expo 2020, I really hope that it helps solidifies that element of our reputation, that people will see us alongside Expo 2020 and go, ‘Oh, that’s right, that’s some of the best chocolate in the world.’”

THE STORY BEHIND MIRZAM

Mirzam, in Arabic, means “the herald,” and it refers to a star in the night sky that was, at one point in history, used as a celestial navigation point for sailors. Kathy Johnston, Chief Chocolate Officer, Mirzam Chocolate Makers, explains: “Historically, the traders along the Spice Route would have needed to use the stars to find their way around the world, and Mirzam is the name of one of those stars. When this star comes into view at a [particular] time of the year, it heralds that the warm winds have been coming in, and that the dates are now ripe to be picked. For some people in some communities, historically, they would have seen that star, left the coastal areas, gone into the oasis and collected up the dates.” 

Related: Mirzam's Kathy Johnston On The Chocolate Making Process, Being Part Of Expo 2020 Dubai, And More

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