The Chocolate Bar Interview 028: Mike Renfree, Raglan Chocolate
For my latest interview I caught up with Mike Renfree from Raglan Chocolate in Raglan, New Zealand. Mike and his partner Simone launched their company back in July 2017, and it's been great getting to know them over the past few years. Mike and Simone really epitomise the craft chocolate ethos - bringing together a perfect blend of art and science, a D.I.Y attitude and a strong passion for ethical and sustainable business practices. I'm so pleased to be stocking Raglan's beautiful bars in our online store, and to be featuring their exceptional Solomon Islands 70% bar in our September subscription boxes. If you'd like to know more about what's been happening behind the scenes, be sure to have a read of this little interview...
What were you doing before you became a chocolate maker and what sparked your interest in chocolate?
I started my working career as a chef but have worked as a food technologist for most of it, so I’ve always been in food. I first got into chocolate making about ten years ago when I did some chocolate product development work for a smallish traditional (not bean-to-bar) chocolate company. They had a stone grinder sitting unused in the corner and when I asked about it, I was told in incredulous tones that ‘some hippies in California were using them to make ‘bean-to-bar chocolate’. I brought ‘Big Mal’ from them a couple of years later.
Where are you sourcing your beans from and how do you decide which beans to work with?
One of the cornerstones of bean-to-bar chocolate - and very important for me - is the ethics of the supply chain and quality of the raw materials. I’m very proud to be a disruptor; part of a relatively new and small international movement that is raising the quality of chocolate and the quality of farmers’ lives by paying them a fair price for their beans. In an ideal world the big international buyers of cacao like Mondelez (Cadbury), Hercheys and Mars will one day have to pay farmers more as well. We are fortunate in New Zealand that Trade Aid import pallets of cacao beans when they bring in much bigger volumes of coffee beans. They have relationships with the growers at the source and can vouch for the quality of the wonderful Peruvian and Dominican Republic beans we use. The Solomon Islands beans we source from the Cathliro Cooperative are currently my favourite, with beautiful light fruit notes and a heart warming story of enterprise for social good.
Is chocolate making more art or science?
Definitely both! It’s kind of like making coffee where you have to continuously make adjustments for variation in humidity etc to get the best from it.
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt since starting Raglan Chocolate?
That making chocolate is so much harder than you could ever imagine, also more interesting and varied. But the biggest challenge seems to be educating the public about the difference between bean-to-bar and confectionery chocolate.
How does your location affect the chocolate you make?
Living in Raglan is actually one of the reasons I make chocolate. We moved to Raglan six years ago and were inspired to ‘take the plunge’ by the supportive community that just seemed to make anything possible.
What are some of the benefits and challenges of making chocolate in micro batches?
Variability in the raw materials and the process can lead to some surprising results, sometimes stunning and other times disappointing. It goes back to that art and science thing and I’m continually working on getting that balance right.
What inspires you to do what you do?
A number of things, but a big part is the desire to do what I couldn’t do when working for ‘Corporate Food’, like selecting ingredients and packaging based on quality, the producers’ ethics and environmental impact.
We’ve recently started stocking some of your new-look bars. Could you tell us a little about the design process for the new range?
It seemed that the stars aligned for us. I bumped into an artist friend in an art gallery six weeks prior to Chocstock. I’d wanted Denise to do something for our little 50g bars years ago, but she had disappeared overseas and this fluke meeting was the first I knew that she was back. I said we only had six weeks and to my surprise she thought we could do it. There were some late nights (not for me - I was asleep), but for Denise and Simone my partner who is the detail person in the team. It was back and forth getting the detail right until 4am one night. Nothing like a deadline to make things happen! I just love the artwork, there are little things (literally) like a cacao bean in a yoga pose and another chilling in the sun, it’s fun and tells a story just as we wanted.
What are some of your favourite chocolate bars that you’ve tasted recently?
Most recently I’ve been eating some beautiful bars acquired at the fabulous Chocstock Festival. Such wonderful variety it’s hard to name a favourite….but the Foundry Tanzania, OMG! And prior to that it was one of the Dick Taylor bars -Madagascar. Mind blowing fruitiness!! Wow, Inspiring!
What’s your favourite thing about being a chocolate maker?
It (chocolate) makes everybody smile.
Thanks so much to Mike for taking time out of his busy chocolate making schedule for this interview. Make sure you checkout Raglan Chocolate in our online store.