There’s never been a more exciting time to be a chocolate lover. With the emergence of New Zealand’s craft chocolate sector over the past decade, we’ve seen a significant change in the possibilities and perceptions of what chocolate can be. At the heart of this delicious transformation is small-batch, single-origin, bean-to-bar chocolate. That might sound complicated, but it’s actually a movement based on demystifying a very complex and at times troubling industry.
Until the early 2000s, almost all the world’s chocolate was made by huge industrial companies like Mars Wrigley, Nestlé, Hershey and Mondelez (Cadbury). It was considered too difficult and expensive to make chocolate from scratch on a small scale, so boutique chocolatiers had to use pre-made chocolate, known as couverture. Despite the existence of thousands of different chocolate brands, the vast majority of chocolate was made by only a handful of producers.
Inspired by a collective of renegade artisans in North America, the craft chocolate movement has spread throughout the world over the past 20 years, redefining and rethinking how to turn cacao into chocolate. This long and difficult process involves roasting cacao beans, removing the husks, grinding the inner “nibs”, and then refining the resulting cacao “liquor” into silky smooth chocolate. It requires many bits of machinery and can take anywhere from two days to two months, even though industrial chocolate is made in just a few hours. Craft chocolate makers put in a lot more time and dedication, all in the name of flavour and quality.
Alongside ingenious and meticulous techniques, craft chocolate is usually made with specialist, fine flavour cacao beans. Just like the many varieties of grapes that go into different wines, there are dozens of different species of cacao fruit, all of which offer an immense spectrum of flavours, if handled correctly. Industrial chocolate makers tend to roast and refine the beans very heavily, resulting in a loss of flavour, subtlety and nuance, whereas craft makers carefully coax out every intricate flavour note.
An integral part of this respectful celebration of cacao is “single-origin” chocolate - the idea of using beans from a specific location, rather than the mainstream chocolate method of creating a homogenised blend. Many people know the term single-origin, particularly in relation to coffee, but not many people can define it as succinctly as David Herrick, co-founder and chocolate maker at Foundry Chocolate in Mahurangi. “For me it’s about being able to identify the growing region … I believe it’s going down to the area, the valley, the island, the village if you can - the actual farmer who grew the cacao beans. In my mind, saying you’ve got cacao beans from Peru that are ‘single-origin’ but you can’t identify any further than that; that’s not single-origin.”
Together with his wife and business partner Janelle, Herrick has become one of New Zealand’s most prominent and highly-awarded single-origin chocolate makers, and the brand is built entirely around the concept of using just two ingredients - cacao beans and organic cane sugar. When you taste two Foundry 70 per cent bars (containing 70 per cent cacao and 30 per cent sugar) side-by-side, the difference in flavour is astonishing. The Anamalai Estate, India 70 per cent bar (Supreme Winner at the NZ Chocolate Awards in 2020) is remarkably bright and fruity, with a distinctly citrus tang. In contrast, the Malekula Island, Vanuatu 70 per cent bar is more deep and mellow, with comforting caramel and malt notes.
“When we’re at an event, we guide people through tasting flights of our chocolate and take them on a world trip. People are blown away with the flavour notes they’re tasting; the clarity in the differences, and the ease with which they’re tasting them… They can’t believe there are only two ingredients, yet all these different flavours are coming through.”
The key to creating such spectacular chocolate is starting with exceptional beans that have been expertly grown, fermented and dried, before being shipped to the factory. Then it’s time for Herrick to work his magic… “We’ve invested heavily in our roasting technology, and for us it’s about applying a lot of coffee roasting theory to it… We’re down to the point where one degree of variation in the end-of-roast temperature changes flavour notes and nuances in the chocolate. We do a lot of experimentation before we release a new origin or harvest.”
After roasting, the cacao nibs are ground up to release the cocoa butter, and over time the fats and solids integrate into a smooth cacao liquor (a bit like making peanut butter). This liquor is then refined until the perfect texture is attained, and at some stage sugar is added, depending on the preference of the maker and the style of chocolate being made. A variety of different machines and methods can be used in the refining process, all of which influence the chocolate’s flavour and texture.
“Doing things on a small scale, we’re able to apply a lot more attention to detail than large industrial makers,” says Johnty Tatham, owner and chocolate maker at Lucid Chocolatier in the Wairarapa. “It gives you more opportunity to allow the cacao to sing in its natural voice.”
All Lucid Chocolatier bars are made with Peruvian beans and the single-origin “Purist Collection” highlights specific regions and genetic varieties. The Santiago de Sisa 72 per cent, which is made with heirloom cacao grown in the rugged hills of northeastern Peru, was named “Best Bean-to-bar Chocolate” at the NZ Chocolate Awards in 2022. Due to Peru’s myriad microclimates and dramatic terrain, an almost unparalleled range of flavours can be found within the one country. Just like wine, cacao flavour is heavily influenced by “terroir” - a set of environmental factors that include climate, soil, terrain and surrounding flora and fauna.
“A lot of the time, when people try good single origin chocolate they’re pretty blown away,” explains Tatham. “One of the most commonly asked questions is ‘What else is in the chocolate to make it taste like that?’ And the answer is ‘nothing’. It’s just the beans.”
Gabe Davidson, co-founder of Wellington Chocolate Factory, believes people are becoming more and more aware of cacao and its potential flavours. “With wine, the terroir and the origin is very important, and coffee is following that path. A lot of coffee enthusiasts know that coffee can vary greatly in flavour, and chocolate is coming up close behind that.”
Davidson comes from a background in coffee roasting but switched to cacao in 2010, when he joined forces with former chef Rochelle Alagar and launched New Zealand’s first craft chocolate factory. Originally the focus was predominantly on single-origin dark chocolate, but like many chocolate makers, they quickly discovered the need to make milk chocolate and flavoured bars, in order to introduce a wider audience to high-quality chocolate. While pure single-origin chocolate is often the true passion of bean-to-bar makers, milk and flavoured bars are usually what pay the bills.
“It’s like coffee,” says Davidson. “You get a serious single origin, and on a Sunday you might meticulously weigh and grind the beans, then use a pour-over technique and really think about it. But during the week you might just want a flat white, and that’s okay.”
If you look at chocolate-consuming trends in Europe and North America, where specialist single-origin chocolate has been available for at least a decade longer than in New Zealand, it’s inevitable that we’ll eventually see a rise in popularity here. Most people still think of chocolate as one specific flavour or aroma, and the concept of flavour “notes” is still very new. As such, seeing a chocolate bar with a familiar added ingredient (like raspberry or hazelnut) is more tempting for most people than the unfamiliar name of a cacao origin. There’s a lot to be learned, and a lot of untapped chocolate inspiration waiting to be unleashed.
For those interested in trying single-origin craft chocolate for the first time, the recommendation is to buy two 70 per cent bars from the same craft chocolate maker, meaning that the only difference between the bars is the bean origin. Take your time tasting them - letting the chocolate melt slowly in your mouth - and notice how the flavours develop over time. When you realise how different two origins can taste, it’s likely to induce a palate epiphany. Chocolate will never be the same again.