For our latest interview we caught up with Liz Rowe from OCHO Chocolate in Dunedin. Liz was one of the first craft chocolate makers in New Zealand and we've been honoured to sell OCHO since day one of The Chocolate Bar. It's always a pleasure to chat with Liz and it's been inspiring to watch OCHO grow over the past few years.
In November 2017 OCHO crowdfunded $2,000,000 in less than 48 hours, with the aim of building a new factory and vastly increasing production. We thought this might be a good time to catch up with Liz and find out about some of the changes we can expect to see over the next few years...
When did you first realise you wanted to become a chocolate maker?
To some extent I never really decided, at least not in terms of making a conscious decision. I started experimenting with chocolate making because it looked like fun, I like food, and I like making things, and from there the idea grew of a developing a business out of it. When I started I had to figure a lot of things out for myself, and the chocolate maker side is still a work in progress.
Why did you decide to only source cacao from the Pacific Islands?
When I was starting to think about setting up a craft chocolate business I investigated options for sourcing cacao. There was no NZ supplier at that stage and getting beans from the States (where there were good, established brokers) is very expensive. So I started looking closer to home and the Pacific Islands were the obvious place to start. Finding suppliers wasn’t that easy - I chased up all sorts of leads through some of the NZ and Australian trade agencies, but while everyone knew someone growing beans and getting samples wasn’t impossible, no-one could help me work out what the process was to buy the beans, get them export certified and on to a ship to NZ. Figuring all that out involved a big investment in time and also in money as I ended up going to PNG and to meet with an export company and the farmers. There’s been a big learning curve along the way and a few painful lessons learned.
Are you seeing a lot of development with Pacific Islands cacao?
Yes, there’s been huge strides made in the last couple of years. Some countries (eg. PNG, the Solomon Islands) are now running chocolate weeks, which are a way to connect the makers with the growers and help both groups find out what the other side of the equation is all about. For a long time the only beans that US craft makers could access were from PNG and had a reputation for smokiness, but that negative perception is slowly changing. Government agencies and some of the NGOs who work in the Pacific are putting a lot of effort in to working with the farmers to improve practices, and to bringing in chocolate makers to introduce them to Pacific cacao.
OCHO recently crowdfunded $2,000,000. What kind of changes will we be seeing over the next few years?
We’re using that money to fit out a new, bigger factory space and buy a purpose built craft production line. We’ll be able to make a lot more chocolate, though still on a smaller craft scale relative to the industrial producers. The new space is designed so that people can see right inside where we’re making the chocolate as transparency is one of our key principles - we want to demystify the chocolate making process and show people that good chocolate doesn’t have to be complicated.
With the growth of the businesses, will you be looking for new sources of cacao? If so, how do you find the right people to work with?
Yes and no. I always love trying new beans and I’m hoping we’ll re-establish a source from Samoa soon as people really liked the Samoa bar we used to make, but apart from that there’s no other big plans on the horizon. An important consideration is that we like to establish good relationships with our growers, so maintaining a consistent buying policy is important so they can have some confidence that we will continue supporting them. As far as possible we need to keep shipping costs down by bringing in bigger loads from a single port so that’s another important consideration too.
Have you seen much change in New Zealand’s craft chocolate scene since you first started the business?
When I started there was White Rabbit Cacao in Bannockburn and The Cocoa Press in Wellington. WRC closed a year or so ago and TCP turned into Wellington Chocolate Factory about the time I started. Since then Ola Pacifica and Hogarth's have started, and much more recently Raglan and Flint Chocolate. Another new one Foundry is on the brink of starting and various people seem to be at the stage of playing around with the idea. These changes are representative of what’s happening around the world with craft chocolate with more and more people starting up. It feels a bit like where coffee roasting and craft beer were a few years ago. It’s great to see new people starting because the more craft bean-to-bar makers there are the more the word spreads about the merits of craft chocolate versus industrial chocolate.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a craft chocolate maker?
Scale is probably the biggest issue. Sometimes I’ve thought it would have been nice to stay small and boutique, but the cost of bringing in beans to NZ has driven me towards needing to be a bit bigger. Staying small is actually quite hard because your costs are high and there’s a limit to what people will pay for a chocolate bar. On the other hand growing requires investment and involves employing staff which has its own set of issues. And then last year’s crowd-funding was a completely unanticipated development and has created a whole new set of opportunities and challenges. I’m now the general manager of OCHO rather than the owner. I have more support, but equally there’s more riding on our success.
Other than your own, have you tried any particularly delicious chocolate bars recently?
I’ve been tempted by some milk chocolates lately, because this is probably the next bar we’ll develop when we’re in the new factory. Of course it’ll still be a dark milk bar but we’ll be able to make our own cocoa butter so milk chocolate is going to be a possibility whereas it hasn’t been so far. I recently tried the Akesson’s 55% dark milk bar, which is deliciously creamy and caramelly, and I’ve long been a fan of Spencer Cocoa’s 42% milk chocolate made with beans from Vanuatu. It’s also caramelly but I get more of the fruity notes that I associate with Pacific Island beans and I suspect he doesn’t use as much cocoa butter as the Akesson’s.
What is your favourite thing about being a chocolate maker?
Chocolate making has opened up a whole new world for me. It’s hard to pinpoint one specific thing about it that’s the best. I’ve loved finding out how the craft chocolate world works and especially meeting the people involved and travelling to the places where the cacao is grown. Of course having good chocolate available on demand is a reasonable bonus too.
Thanks so much to Liz for taking the time for this interview, and also for providing us with the photos in this article.
If you haven't tried OCHO Chocolate yet, we highly recommend their Beekeeper bar as a good place to start.