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.
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.
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!
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.