Bean-to-bar chocolate

A wind-powered schooner glides into New York harbour transporting Dominican Republic cacao beans to a small chocolate company in NYC’s too-hip Williamsburg.

It’s an alluring image that along with the company’s singular ethical vision, the exquisite chocolate wrappers, and the owners’ Civil War-era beards, shapes the Mast Brothers story – one of contemporary urban artisanship in food.

Bean-to-bar chocolate made by New Zealand's White Rabbit Cacao
Bean-to-bar chocolate made by New Zealand’s White Rabbit Cacao

In New Zealand, as in other western nations, there is growing interest in where food comes from, in smaller-scale production and in handcrafted methods. This has spurred new makers in every sphere of food and drink.

Artisan chocolate-makers believe the next step in our chocolate evolution is appreciating varietals of cacao beans and where they’ve come from – applying the same principles of ‘terroir’ used with wine, and increasingly, olive oil, beer and coffee.

This involves rigorous bean sourcing and selection (world cacao supply is dominated by the inferior-tasting but easily-grown forestero, or rough hybrids). In an industry where exploitation of poor nations’ labour has been rife, very often it’s also about having a more direct and fair relationship with the growers.

For the Mast Brothers this means travelling to collect cacao from particular plantations where the purity of the bean is verified and they can deal with farmers and workers.

During the early industrial history of chocolate there was a tradition of identifying varieties and particular regions of cacao origins, according to The New Taste of Chocolate by Maricel E. Presilla. But as the price of chocolate came down at the end of the 19th Century, so did the overall quality of the cacao supply, and origins faded into anonymity.

The start of artisan bean-to-bar chocolate in New Zealand

In New Zealand there are only a handful of small producers who import beans themselves to produce chocolate. (And there’s one big one – Whittaker’s. Which is pretty good for a major supermarket brand, but they have a totally different approach to sourcing, as demanded by their scale and price point).

The artisan chocolate sector in New Zealand mainly consists of chocolatiers crafting imported couverture – and making some amazingly inventive products. But it’s very different to what the artisan chocolate-makers are trying to do.

Alison Holland, co-founder of White Rabbit Cacao in central Otago, says when they began their company three and a half years ago, there was no one else doing bean-to-bar apart from Whittaker’s.

“We wanted to highlight the flavour of individual origins. This starts with bean selection and goes right through the chocolate-making process.”

A lot of the drive behind the bean-to-bar movement comes from the extreme variety in cacao bean quality, and the passion to highlight complex flavours – just as with grapes in the wine industry. The White Rabbit founders have a background in wine.

For consumers, Holland says the benefits are, “flavour, individuality and the ability to see all that the cacao bean can actually be.”

From their experience of selling White Rabbit products at farmers’ markets, the willingness to learn is there: “There is a great deal of interest in artisan food production generally and this flows into bean-to-bar chocolate. People are genuinely interested and willing to purchase once they are aware of what we are trying to achieve.”

Our tastebuds have been gearing for change with the trend towards darker, more complex, less sweet chocolate. Health messages support this, particularly with regard to antioxidants.

Think about when Cadbury Energy bar was the default ‘dark’ chocolate option in New Zealand. Taste it now, as I did after a 15-year gap – and shudder. The sweetness!

Artisan chocolate is more expensive, but the argument is, you need less of it. Instead of sharing a 200g block of high-sugar chocolate, you share 50-80g of a relatively low-sugar dark chocolate and appreciate where it’s come from.

Another new bean-to-bar manufacturer is Rochelle Harrison, of RQute in Wellington. She had worked as a pastry chef for 17 years when she began experimenting with chocolate-making herself.

A 1950s-style chocolate lollipop by RQute with printed design made from cocoa butter

“Every pastry chef wants to have access to the best chocolate they can. By making it myself I have the satisfaction of having full control over the sourcing and production process, and the final flavour.”

Chocolate is a technically challenging food to produce with many mechanical steps.  It cost her about $4000 and considerable research to source and set up the machinery. She even built the willow machine, which separates the beans from the husks, with her father.

Harrison is currently experimenting with a range of beans as well as with different sugars (such as coconut sugar which has a lower GI than cane sugar) – a freedom she says only bean-to-bar can give her.

Thank you to Jo Coffey from L’Affaire au Chocolat who ran a chocolate tasting at the New Zealand Food Bloggers Association conference which gave me the idea for a story on bean-to-bar chocolate making in New Zealand.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Jill says:

    What countries or where do New Zealand artisan chocolatiers source their beans from ?

  2. Claire says:

    Good question 😉
    White Rabbit have a variety of origins: Madagascar, Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Costa Rica http://www.whiterabbitcacao.co.nz/our-chocolate.html and Rochelle at RQute is experimenting with different beans and said she is likely to go with a Dominican Republic bean…

  3. RQute says:

    Yes I’m using Dominican Republic and have just tried some very nice Samoan beans.

    1. I’m so glad to hear your experience with Samoan beans. Twelve months ago, I was sitting in my FALE in my village hiding my little kids trying to sell me their Koko Samoa. Koko Samoa is a beverage made from cocoa beans roasted then graded into a paste which is then added to boiling hot water and stir for a few minutes. It’s haven. From that experience, I knew I had to share it with the world and so my Koko Samoa powder blend was born and now not just Samoan enjoying the experience. The real point of my reply is to let everyone know, that you don’t have to go to Madagascar or the Ivory Cost to buy beans when I can help you with some of the beast organically grown Trinitario/Criollo beans in the world. Samoa over 20 years ago were world known for growing one of the best cocoa bean on the market. With many factors contributing to our cocoa industry’s downfall, farmers in both Islands of Upolu and Savaii are now starting to get back into farming cocoa and producing great beans. With the Samoan government and the some private business sectors, Samoan cocoa beans is starting to produce the quality we were known for back in the days. The earlier harvest this year, we produced around 30 tonnes of cocoa beans. Most of that went into making Koko Samoa for the local and international market. I managed to ship a few tonnes to Australia and the USA. The second harvest which has already started is forecast to produce 40 tonnes. 90% of the raw beans are Trinitario and a small portion being Criollo. We have been working together with all our farmers to produce the finished product as per world standard. Our beans are fermented in wooden and baskets for up to 7 days with turning after a few days. They are sun dried for up to 7 days and sorted into grade 1 and grade 2. Grade 1 is for our export market which will be available for shipping on my return next week. Grade 2 is kept for local production. Over the past 12 months I’ve been shipping my Australian shipment airfreight. USA shipping is by sea freight. NZ will be by air freight, but the better alternative is by sea. Minimum sea freight to NZ is 10 tonnes so if we all combine our effort, we can get our beans landed at a very competitive rate. I hope to back in Auckland by 18th November with 300kgs of Trinitario raw beans. If you are interested in trying out some of our Samoan cocoa beans, please let me know via email and I will deliver and send you up to 5 kilos of free samples for you to try. If you want to purchase some after your trial, you can contact and will go from there. It’s so refreshing to see so many Kiwis looking at the bean to bar process. I’m sure I can help in some ways towards your dream. Regards,

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