The other 'black gold': Australia's Bean to Bar Chocolatiers

It's pretty rare for someone to be into coffee and not into chocolate. I'm pretty sure all readers of this blog are going to be sympathetic to this cause, even if you try to limit your intake.

I'm amazed and very impressed by all the 'bean to bar' chocolatiers that have sprung up over the last few years in Australia and in the US. Particularly Australia... it's a small market, and chocolate is very capex heavy - you need lots of big equipment, and you can't buy cacao beans in small batches. On a recent trip to Australia I decided to take some souvenirs home, and in the process figured out what the state of play of Australian bean to bar chocolatiers is. I.e. these are chocolate makers who buy beans and process them rather than making their chocolate from couverture. Chocolate made from couverture is far more common (it's easier to procure in small batches, and far less equipment is needed) and can be of just as high quality. This is a much more restrictive list of those who process all the way from beans. Here's the list, alphabetically.

Bahen & Co (Margaret River, WA)

Josh Bahen founded Bahen & Co (together with his wife Jacq) after already having established himself as a winemaker, and having become familiar with the intricacies of high quality food preparation - as well as branding and marketing. Bahen is a direct trade chocolate maker, building long term relationships with cacao farmers and paying above fair trade prices for high quality beans. They invested a lot of time in finding suppliers who sun-dry their beans properly, to not have to resort to masking mouldy beans with vanilla as is the norm, and buy beans from Madagascar, Brazil, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. They uses a 1930’s Barth Sirocco Ball Roaster and circa 1910 Guitard Melangeur for their process manufacturing process - equipment that's over 100 years old! Josh always says he is always struggling to simplify chocolate making and intervene less in the process, allowing the cacao to speak for itself. So like many other producers, Bahen uses only two ingredients - cacao beans and cane sugar - and will always continue to do so. They've even put a lot of thought into the packaging. The artwork and package design is supposed to evoke aspects of each origin, taking consumers on a journey from the minute they lay sight on the package. In case you need some right now like I do, their online store is excellent and they have a sample pack of single origin bars in case you can't decide what to get.

Bright Chocolate (Bright, Victoria)

Bright Chocolate (based in... Bright, Victoria) was founded quite recently in 2013 by Simeon Crawley, wife Shannon and kids, who have have called Bright home for 10 years. Simeon was inspired by the craft chocolate movement then emergent in North America, which is preoccupied with investigating the inherent 'terroir' of each bean. He studied chocolate making at the Ecole Chocolat Academy in Canada, and added elements of sustainable sourcing and manufacturing to develop a unique Australian brand. Bright sources beans and makes single origin bars from Madagascar, Ecuador, Trinidad and the Dominican Republic, each of them with their own characteristics. Like many specialty chocolatiers, the only ingredients they use are cacao and cane sugar. There's also a range of fancier chocolates in wooden boxes (with more ingredients) to be given as gifts. Their online store is quite good, too, and there's a five bar sampler in case you can't decide. OK there's also a 20 bar pantry collection. Do it.

Charley's (Mission Beach, Queensland)

A unique concept in chocolate tourism, Charley's is one of the only places where you can see the entire 'bean to bar' experience start even before the bean... when they're being picked from the trees. It's 'tree to bar'! The factory is situated in Mission Beach in Queensland (between Cairns and Townsville), set in 400 acres of lush tropical farmland. They offer tours where you can learn of chocolate history, how they cyclone-proof the trees, and about all the stages of chocolate processing including before most manufacturers would even see the chocolate pods. Note that due to supply constraints, most of the coffee they manufacture is actually from Pacific Island chocolate producers, but as their trees mature they will move more and more of the manufacturing to domestically-sourced beans. All Charley's chocolates is 70% cocoa (which they believe about right, noting that more cocoa doesn't mean better chocolate... 90% cocoa can be 90% something awful), and use only cocoa beans, a small amount of cacao butter and sugar (no other additives). Charley's uses a slow process to make chocolate, spending 70 hours conching, something not commercially viable for mass chocolate producers. You can buy a bar of their locally grown and produced chocolate right on their webstore.

Cicada (Sydney, Australia)

Cicada, founded by husband and wife team Julian and Katy Robb in 2011, is a small batch bean-to-bar chocolatier that sources its cacao beans from small plantations around the world, including Madagascar, Nicaragua and Indonesia. They travel to the farms themselves and regularly pay twice fair trade prices, believing in establishing personal relationships with the growers and co-ops. They fully process the beans themselves, serving them as single-origin bars as well as specialty chocolates. Cicada's products are prized around Sydney and served up in a number of restaurants. They also have a boutique store in The Rocks where you can buy their chocolate directly in a scenic setting. Or they have a great looking webstore you can check out.

Daintree Estates (Mossman, Queensland)

Daintree Estates is another producer founded on the concept of 'plantation to plate' chocolates as they call it (it has to have a bit of alliteration, doesn't it?). Founder Barry Kitchen, a former senior executive at Cadbury, got the idea when overseeing a study into the feasibility of growing cacao in North Queensland. He realised it was possible, retired from the corporate world and set to it himself. That was back in 2005, and they've been growing ever since. They even use Queensland raw sugar, for a truly local product. Even though it's all one origin, they use different varieties and bean vintages for distinct flavours, embracing the subtle differences between each crop. Australian production (despite their focus on increasing yield through technology) is a costly exercise, which places Daintree in a premium market. They also have a decent webstore through which you can check out the goods.

Gabriel Chocolate (Margaret River, Yallingup, Western Australia)

Gabriel Chocolate (website is a placeholder, not much on it) is a lesser-known chocolate maker from the gourmet produce region of Margaret River, and is is a new venture on the already successful House of Cards winery. So it has the huge advantage of being situated in a beautiful region. Gabriel Myburgh (a former lawyer... a well-trodden path, lawyer --> winemaker --> ???) and wife Ruth started their chocolate factory in late 2011 and already have developed a name for themselves. Unlike the much better known regional chocolatier the Margaret River Chocolate Factory who work from couverture, Gabriel Chocolate is a bean-to-bar manufacturer - you can see the bags of beans around the place in their shop. They're entirely self-taught in the dark art of making chocolate, but seem to have figured it out. The on-site cafe also has Five Senses coffee, just in case you forgot why you're here. Unfortunately they don't have a web store, so you'll have to buy their chocolate either on-site or through a reseller.

Haigh's (Adelaide, South Australia)

Some might be surprised to see Haigh's on this list. After all, they make chocolate frogs. How is that similar to anything else on this list? Well, you don't have to have super well designed packaging and expensive Swedish-sounding names to produce bean-to-bar chocolate. Haigh's is an old Australian institution - they've been making chocolate since founded by Alfred Haigh in Adelaide in 1915, and have been buying beans from all over the world for most of that time. In that regard, perhaps Haigh's has the most right of any to be on this list! This is no flash-in-the-pan amateur operation, I think they've proven that. The majority of Haigh's commercial products isn't single origin - they started out in chocolate coated candies and still produce the same line, which is very cool (or stubborn). Nonetheless, they do produce single origin chocolates and have a few in their web store (and I'm sure also in store at their many locations around Australia).

Mörk (Melbourne, Victoria)

Mörk, which is actually quite hard to say if you try to remain faithful to the 'ö', specialises in hot chocolate products. This doesn't compromise the integrity they have in their process of sourcing from farms and producing a high-quality hot chocolate product - so high quality, in fact, that many of Australia's top specialty cafes regularly actively cite their hot chocolate as being from Mörk.

Matale (Melbourne, Victoria)

Matale Chocolate is another bean-to-bar chocolatier, founded in Melbourne in 2013 by Thibault Fregoni, founder and former owner of Monsieur Truffe (below). They source and and 'transform' their beans into bars of single origin chocolate. They use as an analogy Melbourne's coffee roasting movement, but of course I acknowledge creating bean-to-bar chocolate is much harder. They're continually striving to improve the reach of their direct-sourcing programme, for now working directly with a co-operative in Sri Lanka, trying to give input to improve their production techniques. They focus on quality, not accreditations, acknowledging that not all farmers can afford organic or fair trade certifications. Their web store seems broken as of July 2015, hopefully this will be resolved. For now, they focus on wholesale, and you can buy the chocolate from a number of stockists listed here.

Monsieur Truffe (Melbourne, Victoria)

What began as a one-man operation in 2008 by chocolatier Thibault Fregoni at Prahran market (he has now sold it - focusing on Matale) now has stores in Collingwood and East Brunswick. Monsieur Truffe recently produced its first bean-to-bar chocolate at its factory, which opened in 2011. Previously they were focusing on single origin chocolates, so they were on their way. They have a cafe in East Brunswick called East Elevation, which apart from selling killer coffee from Melbourne roaster Padre, also showcases Monsieur Truffe's ever-evolving range. Their chocolates and hot chocolates are found at many gourmet food stores and cafes around town (though the hot chocolates aren't as ubiquitous as Mörk's).

Nick's Chocolate (Brisbane, Australia)

Nick's Chocolate is the creation of Nicholas Whebell, founded in 2012, and based in Brisbane, Australia. His chocolates are 'entirely hand made', from the sorting of the beans to the wrapping of the labels. They source all their cacao beans directly and ethically, to the point where they do not label chocolates 'Fair trade' even if they can, just because they've gone above and beyond. They have a decent online shop where you can sample the goods, and you can find them at a number of quality cafes and grocers around town.

Spencer Cocoa (Mudgee, NSW)

Grown in Vanuatu, made in Mudgee. They only get their cocoa from ONE ORIGIN in Malekula, Vanuatu. How single-origin can you get? In fact, they call it 'single plantation chocolate'. Luke and Thea Spencer founded Spencer Cocoa in 2013 after a project in 2010 in which Luke helped Vanuatan chocolate farmers set up a co-op in an effort to help rejuvenate a plantation. He then thought, well why not make chocolate ourselves? Spencer Cocoa now buys their cocoa directly from that co-op. They thus have more visibility into their supply chain than arguably any other artisinal chocolate maker. They sell their chocolates through a bevy of NSW and southern QLD retailers, as well as through their own online shop.

Zokoko (Sydney, Australia)

Founded in 2009 by experienced coffee roaster Dean Morgan, NSW-based Zokoko works directly with cocoa growers from Australia to Bolivia, sourcing high-quality beans, including a rare Tranquilidad wild variety. The Blue Mountains-based company uses vintage artisan equipment and traditional methods to turn out small batches of dark chocolate. They have a cafe in Emu Heights where you can go nuts on chocolate, as well as drink some good coffee - roasted by Dean himself (what a talented guy, I can't wait to meet him one day). Dean went to extreme lengths to secure the equipment necessary to produce bean-to-bar chocolate, and then paid a pretty penny for the minimum orders of beans necessary to get started. The result is incredible, and you can judge for yourself at their cafe or stockists. No direct online store available yet, unfortunately.

That's all of the ones in Australia. There are many more around the world, of course. If I've missed one, don't hesitate to let me know in comments below and I'll add it in.