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  • Interview 005: Luke Spencer

    Interview number 5 is with Luke Spencer, owner and chocolate maker at Spencer Cocoa in Mudgee, Australia.

    Luke is the absolute embodiment of craft chocolate. From his homemade chocolate making machinery to his close relationships with the farmers and involvement in every step of the cacao growing and chocolate making process, he's the classic D.I.Y man whose commitment to quality and flavour is evident in every bite of his bars. We caught up with Luke to find out a little more about his work and passion.

    luke spencer cocoa interview

     

    1. I gather you spent some time living and working on cacao plantations in Vanuatu? How did that come about, and how did it lead into chocolate making?

    I managed a large cocoa plantation for a couple of years and through this was able to meet some great local growers. The job came about as the company I worked for were looking for someone with experience in the Pacific, as well as agriculture. I had worked in the Solomon Islands so my pigeon (local language) was OK, and I guess a realistic expectation of the working conditions and remoteness that comes with being on a remote island in the Pacific. After returning home I kept in touch with the growers and thought that if a large grinder - Barry Callebaut in Malaysia - were taking the cocoa beans from Vanuatu, surely the quality was there to make good chocolate.  

     

    2. Has your background in viticulture helped you with what you’re doing now? Do you see many parallels between the wine industry and the craft chocolate industry?

    For sure, the best way to describe it is with a saying that a senior winemaker in the company I worked for said: “you can't make good wine with shit grapes.” The same principal applies for chocolate; you just can't make good chocolate with poor quality beans. We have worked hard with the growers in Vanuatu to improve quality. It’s been an awesome experience!

    Then I see the transition from mass produced chocolate to better quality, smaller batch chocolate. The wine game was dominated by the big guys and then people started realising that small wineries had some fantastic wines out there, and that it wasn't just Chardonnay and Shiraz that existed. There was so much more to wine... and so the same applies for chocolate!  

     

    3. It says on your website that you self engineered a lot of your chocolate making equipment? How is that working out, and are there challenges with growth and expansion?

    Definitely, being a small producer it’s challenging to find small scale equipment. Most equipment is geared towards mass production, measured in the tonnes per hour... we do kgs per day! Engineering our own machinery has been great and we are always improving. It’s probably the one area of the business that keeps my mind ticking over, always looking at new ways to improve a process... basically make my day easier! 


    4. You visit the cacao farms in Vanuatu at least twice a year. How would you describe your relationship with the farmers?

    I would hope its a strong one. I think we have all built a level of respect for each other’s importance in the process of making a bar of chocolate. I respect the hard work that goes into growing cocoa, and I think the growers now appreciate the work that goes into making chocolate. The growers really enjoy their chocolate (and think its the absolute best!) I am pretty strict on quality and find it difficult to reject beans, basically you have to be very tactful yet firm, otherwise the importance of quality is lost.

     

    5. Are you involved with helping to develop fermentation and drying techniques with the farmers? If so, how does this affect your finished product?

    We work closely with growers to improve both fermentation and drying. I think the fermentation techniques in Vanuatu are pretty good - we use a wooden box with removable slats, turning daily for five to seven days. This ensures good air contact (oxygen for fermentation) and even fermentation (no hot centres and cold outer edges of the fermentation box.)

    Drying is where we have invested mostly. We prefer sun dried beans where possible, but appreciate that climate doesn't always allow for sun drying. Forced air drying is common in Vanuatu and the Pacific, particularly in the wet season (Jan - April) The big issue of smoke taint is generally due to poor maintenance of the hot air pipe; in most cases old 44 gallon drums are used. So far we have invested through a direct micro enterprise loan to growers for 2 hot air dyers.

    Luke Spencer Cocoa The Chocolate Bar craft chocolate

    6. How do you find the craft chocolate industry in Australia right now? 

    It seems to be growing steadily. Initially I thought there would be a huge influx of producers but there seems to be only a few more in the last 2 years. Access to good quality cocoa beans is a limiting factor, and going directly to growers is a long, challenging road, in our experience.  

     

    7. What are your plans for Spencer Cocoa in the future? Any new products you’re developing?

    We hope to grow a little more, certainly scale helps bring a few of the fixed costs down. We'd like to start working with some growers in Bougainville (just talking at the moment) as showcasing the great work of the grower is my passion. We also have a white chocolate recipe almost ready - feedback so far has been really positive so I just need to spend time on a good wrapper design - you think that would be the easy part! Easter Eggs...maybe next year.

     

    8. What’s your favourite thing to drink alongside a piece of your chocolate?

    Good porter or stout, and when its really cold (yes it does get cold in Australia) a whisky!

     

    9. Are there any other chocolate makers who particularly inspire you?

    Heaps, too many to name. Basically anyone giving it a go. Have signed up with Bean Bar You in Sydney and really enjoyed my first subscription pack, which had a Madre 70% that was all fruit and berry, just awesome!

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    Thanks so much to Luke for taking the time for this interview. If you'd like to have a taste of his chocolate, you can find it here.

  • Welcoming Soul Chocolate

    soul chocolate buy craft chocolate online
    This week we welcomed Soul Chocolate from Ontario, Canada to our craft chocolate family. This chocolate is produced by Katie Bartlett and Kyle Wilson, who discovered their love for fine chocolate whilst visiting New Zealand a few years ago, so it's nice to welcome their chocolate back to the place that inspired it. Katie and Kyle visit many of the farms where their cacao comes from and are working towards having 100% direct trade relationships with the farmers.

    We have two single origin bars available - a Madagascar 70% and a Tanzania 80%. These little bars pack a mightily flavourful punch!
  • Cold Brew Cacao

    Last year we discovered the wonders of cold brew cacao - a delicious, healthy and refreshing way to enjoy our favourite bean.

    cold brew cacao

    Ingredients: 1 litre of water (in a jug), 40g Hogarth Craft Chocolate Cacao Nibs

    Making a batch of cold brew could not be easier. Firstly, you need to roughly crush the cacao nibs with a pestle a mortar - you don’t need to spend too long on this, it’s just to break them up a little and increase the surface area. Then you simply add the nibs to your jug of water, stir, cover with glad wrap, and leave at room temperature for 24 hours (stirring a few times in this period.) After this, sieve your concoction into another container and store in the fridge. That’s it!

    You could use any type of cacao nibs for this but we strongly recommend using Hogarth’s - they’re organic Peruvian Criollo nibs and about ten times the quality of any other nibs on the market in New Zealand.

    cold brew cacao

    Cold brew cacao can be served as it is, or if you like you could add a little coconut sugar to make it sweeter. We like to add about half a teaspoon of sugar per glass as this takes the edge off the bitterness and allows the other flavour notes in the cacao to shine.

    Oh, and for a delicious and easy cocktail, try serving it with a squeeze of fresh lime and a dash of dark rum. The perfect summer drink!

    cold brew cacao

  • Introducing... MAP CHOCOLATE

    map chocolate

    We’re incredibly excited to introduce Map Chocolate as our new guest range.

    Map Chocolate is the creation of Mackenzie Rivers, a small batch bean-to-bar chocolate maker based in the Willamette Valley, Oregon. The thing is, to describe Mackenzie as a chocolate maker doesn’t seem quite sufficient - she’s really an artist that happens to use cacao beans as her medium. Every bar is an adventure, filled with poetry and personality and a sense of place. A complete experience that will change your perception of what can be achieved with a chocolate bar.

    Needless to say, the chocolate tastes as good as it looks, and we’re honoured to welcome Mackenzie to our chocolate family. We only have a small amount of each of the four bars we’re stocking, so be sure to get involved before it’s too late.

     

    ‘Cacao carries an amazing story of cultivation, travel, wild places, the people who’ve shared its journey, birds landing amongst its leaves, rain falling, farmers tending it and mouths tasting it; it has a story to tell, and the language it speaks is chocolate.’

    ~ Mackenzie Rivers, owner and chocolate maker at Map Chocolate Co.

     

  • The Chocolate Buying Guide

    There are so many new things happening in the world of chocolate right now that it can get a little confusing. New brands, new styles, new ingredients, new movements - it can be hard to know what's good and what's worth the price. We thought we'd put together this little guide to help you find the best quality chocolate, whether you're buying from us or from anywhere else...

    1. Ingredients

    Be sure to read the ingredients list on your chocolate as this is one of the easiest ways to spot poor quality. Generally speaking, the shorter the list, the better. The only necessary ingredients in chocolate are cacao and sugar, with perhaps a little added cocoa butter and milk if it’s a milk chocolate. The inclusions of ingredients like fruit and nuts or spices is obviously fine but avoid any alternative fats like vegetable fat or palm oil, and steer clear of unnecessary preservatives and E numbers. Also, pay attention to the order the ingredients are listed in - if milk or sugar is the first ingredient, it tends to suggest a lower quality chocolate.

     

    2. Information

    How much information is offered on the packaging? The more the better! Is the origin of the cacao provided? If it just gives you the country it will often be a blend - ideally you want the specific region or plantation/cooperative. The strain of cacao is also good information to have, and something that - in general - only quality producers would indicate.

    The more transparent the company, the more trustworthy it tends to be. Look for information about how the cacao is traded - is it fair or direct trade? Is it organic or non-GMO certified? All of these things are desirable, though fair trade and organic does not always mean high quality. It’s a complex thing and all the factors of this guide should be taken into consideration.

     

    3. Research

    Take a bit of time to research who makes your chocolate. It’s good to know more about what’s going on behind the scenes so that you can build a level of trust with each company. Find out how big the company is - are they mass producing chocolate on an industrial scale or are they a small scale craft producer? Do they offer information on their website about how their cacao beans are traded, and perhaps have photos of them visiting the farms?

    Another key thing to find out is whether or not they are producing from bean to bar. If they make chocolate from the bean they have complete control over the flavour of the chocolate and will have mastered every step of the process, including the roasting, winnowing and conching. If they are using couverture from another company and melting it down, which company is it and how high quality is the chocolate they produce?

     

    4. Flavour vs. Percentage

    Don’t get too hung up on percentage. With the growth of craft chocolate you will find all kinds of different cacao varieties with varying tastes and levels of sweetness, so how ‘dark’ a chocolate is doesn’t tell you that much about how it will taste.

    Check out our previous blog piece to learn more about this.

     

    6. Beware of chocolate marketed as a health product

    Although there are some health benefits to darker chocolates with less sugar and some excellent nutritional values in cacao, chocolate is not really a health product and should be considered a treat. Even your average 70% dark chocolate contains around 30% sugar, which is fine if it’s part of a balanced diet but it’s not something that should be considered medicinal. Often companies that market themselves this way are charging over the odds for lesser quality chocolate.

    Be cautious of chocolate that describes itself as ‘raw’, as this is often misleading. The temperatures reached during fermentation of cacao usually exceed what can still be considered raw, plus the amount of machinery and processing involved in turning the cacao into chocolate is not really in line with the ethos of the raw food movement. Also, be especially careful to check the ingredient list on ‘raw’ chocolate - some of them are made by mixing together cocoa powder and cocoa butter - rather than grinding cacao nibs - which is not what we would consider to be real chocolate.

     

    7. Be willing to pay more for quality

    We’ve grown up with the idea that a bar of chocolate should cost three or four dollars and it can be hard to break that mould. As you develop the knowledge and learn to spot high quality chocolate when you see/taste it, hopefully you will begin to understand why it costs more. The kind of chocolate we sell at The Chocolate Bar is made with rare varieties of high quality cacao that is ethically traded. Dedicated artisans then craft these beans and bring out incredible flavours, using a huge range of skills and a whole heap of time and love. Obviously this has relative costs, but once you’ve tasted the good stuff it’s easy to understand why it comes with the increase in price.

     

    the chocolate bar 

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