Going the distance: How cult chocolate brand Naive went from Lithuania to the world

Making the move from IT to luxury chocolate, Chocolate Naive founder Domantas Užpalis followed his passion for cacao across the globe.

Naive Chocolate Equator
The Equator collection

Nestled outside the Lithuanian capital Vilnius is a dynamic and highly unusual chocolate company focused on sourcing wild and organic ingredients from bean to bar.

Chocolate Naive is the brainchild of founder and chocolatier Domantas Užpalis who in 2010, with no experience in food production, decided to launch a boutique chocolate brand in his native Lithuania, a country with no chocolate making tradition.

Having spent years working in IT Užpalis returned to Lithuania in 2008, fresh from completing a Masters in Urban City Planning in London, in the middle of the credit crunch. As he saw it, he had two options.

“I could go visit Tibet and meditate on a rock or another option was to create a job for myself. I was sure that I wanted something tangible where I could use my hands and I also knew that I wanted it to be food related, so the first idea was maybe making goat’s cheese,” he recalls.

“I started a farm, but then we started investigating more chocolate, and cacao in particular, which fitted better with my personality and my circumstances.”

With his last savings Užpalis bought one tonne of cocoa beans from the Ivory Coast and moved to a remote place in the Lithuanian countryside. From humble beginnings ,and armed only with a love of the product, Chocolate Naive began.

Now stocked by the likes of Selfridges and German premium department store KaDeWe, the beating heart of the Naive brand remains its relationship with the growers. The company works directly with the cacao growers and cooperatives globally, paying them a 40% premium on the market price.

Užpalis is clear that his philosophy of clean, organic and traceable fairly traded ingredients should be a standard in food production. Not only is it “natural and obvious”, but actually this direct, traceable approach enables Naive to control the quality of the raw material and collaborate closely with the farmers.

“Not only do you deliver clean, sustainable products by using clean, sustainable ingredients, but also you can tweak the quality which is another benefit of this system,” he explains. “And since we are in the fine food industry, we definitely need to know our ingredients in full.”

_Domantas Užpalis CHOCOLATE NAIVE
Domantas Užpalis, founder of Chocolate Naive

Naive sources a large proportion of its cacao from Latin America as this is the continent with the highest biodiversity of cacao anywhere in the world, although it also ships from East Africa, Madagascar and Indonesia, adopting a quality first approach.

The philosophy at Naive is also about being totally hands on. There is a 14 stage production cycle carried out on site, starting with the dried beans and moving through to cocoa butter pressing, tempering and packaging.

Having a high quality product to work with helps Užpalis and his team build up complex flavour profiles that take inspiration from Lithuanian heritage, pure botanicals and the tastes of the equator.

From hedgerow to rainforest

The Forager collection taps into the local ingredients and culinary heritage typical to Naive’s specific region of Lithuania. This collection features chocolate blended with porcini mushrooms, amber coloured bee pollen and kefir.

The inclusion of living microorganisms in the kefir, for example, is a nod to Lithuania’s ancient tradition of cultivating the substance and also allows new flavours to develop in the chocolate over time.

Užpalis explains that inspiration for a new variety can come from anywhere, such as seasonal ingredients or what is on his breakfast table that morning. 

“It’s not necessarily very romantic, inspiring and high reaching the sources of creating a recipe. Sometimes it’s a very domestic way of coming up with a recipe. I think some recipes we develop are unique because we are from this specific place and our culinary heritage,” he states.

The first goal with any new product is to ensure that flavours blend well, which requires a lengthy research and development phase. The wild porcini mushroom chocolate, for instance, was in development for a year and tweaks are ongoing to constantly improve the recipe.

Ambrosia
Ambrosia from the Forager collection

Thinking about building out the range, Užpalis was keen to develop a collection celebrating the flavours of Latin America, where Naive sources a large proportion of its cacao. This is the basis of the Equator collection, which marries cacao with tropical fruits, vegetables and tubers grown in the same soil.

“This collection is based on the idea of a single root system. The soil helps the plants grow together and it balances the flavours, so in this case this collection was easier to build than the Forager collection because we don’t have to combine two different continents and their flavour profiles,” Užpalis explains.

This range includes Incan berries, orange, liquorice, tahini and peanut butter, married with organic dark and milk chocolate. Fantasy and magic are the hallmarks of the collection, as evidenced by a mythical origin story suggesting that the peanut butter chocolate bar was in fact whipped by Lucifer and mixed with “the divine tears of virgin girls”.

Purists at heart, Naive is also more than happy to scale the fantasy back and focus on the simplicity of the cacao. The Nano_Lot collection is focused on the beauty of single origin chocolate and the pure cacao that often gets lost in the mix when it is blended with other varieties.

“All of these amazing cacaos are usually blended into bigger batches and they are being lost, but we wanted to highlight them instead of losing them, so that is how Nano_Lot works,” Užpalis explains.

Naive works with small scale growers who produce as little as 30kg a year of exceptional quality cacao that can be traced back to the tree or even the specific pod. The company then moves on to the next grower after two or three months to keep the Nano_Lot collection fresh.

Porcini
Porcini, from the Equator collection

What excites Užpalis is that he is free to explore tiny lots and learn more about the pure cacao crop, while educating customers at the same time.

“This collection is very personal to us,” he adds. “This is a new and unique concept, you can find it in coffee, but not in chocolate so I think we are one of the first – if not the first – to approach it from this angle. We have other producers doing limited release chocolates here and there, but we did it as a concept in full.”

The latest development, currently still in “baby stage’, is a new collection exploring cacao’s botanical family of mallows grown in Central and South America, officially known as Theobroma. The collection, called Theobromaz, explores the raw bean and its relatives from the pulp to white Mexican cacao nibs. For Užpalis, Theobromaz offers a special chocolate tasting experience.

Coming to life

Aside from the unusual origin story and unique flavour combinations, another striking element of the Naive brand is its strong visual identity.

From the hazy yellow and aqua sunset of the Ambrosia dark chocolate and bee pollen bar, to the drooping red orchid on the packaging of the tahini and organic milk chocolate bar, the brand’s interest in design comes from Užpalis’ background in graphic design and contemporary arts.

He describes the humble chocolate bar as a good format for design because of its large surface area that shines out on shelf and adds to the eating experience.

Naive Chocolate Peanut butter
Peanut Butter, from the Equator collection

Testament to the transparency at the heart of the brand, the packaging contains lots of important information about the origins of the cacao, as well as technical details and tasting suggestions. Užpalis explains that he wants to use the packaging to teach the language of fine chocolate tasting to consumers who want to know more, but don’t know where to start.

“You not only eat it and experience the flavour, but you also read it so you can have the background of this product, which is equally important as it brings more value,” he adds.

The brand name, design and whimsical logo of a man riding a penny farthing all ties back to Naive’s “crazy” origin story as the product of a first time chocolatier. Užpalis firmly believes that to start your own business you need to be a bit naive and up for challenging the status quo. In fact, this startup mentality is something he continues to foster some nine years later.

“You have to be a bit silly, a bit stupid to start the startup journey,” Užpalis adds. “I still try to keep this spirit living. We don’t want to grow, we don’t want to overproduce, we don’t want to overachieve. We just want to keep it tiny, subtle and easy.”

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