For decades, cocoa was a crop many said could not be grown commercially on local soil.
How wrong they were.
There are now 5 cocoa growers in Australia, all based in Mossman, North Queensland, producing high quality crops destined to become chocolate products under the brand Daintree Estates.
Barry Kitchen is the original man behind this incredibly successful venture, with the company now rewriting the manual for producing chocolate in Australia.
Dynamic Business caught up with Barry to find out more about this brand new industry.
The business is run from Melbourne, why not base yourselves closer to the production?
The plantations and the pods processing facilities are up north. Everything else is happening down here in Melbourne because we’re based close to the market, and this is about trying to get a product into the market.
We two sales reps looking after the commercial aspects in North Queensland. But the management and all the people who started the project, and run the company, are based in Melbourne.
Who was the first to try growing cocoa, and when did it all start?
It was me, and I started that 15 years ago. When I was a senior executive with Cadbury Schweppes.
So you’re a massive chocolate lover?
Yes I love chocolate! I’d been brought up with it for twenty years at Cadbury, and it becomes part of your life, and it’s a fascinating part of the food industry because it all depends on the crops. Getting them growing, keeping them healthy, getting the right yields – and following it right through to the chocolate. It’s very complex and I learnt my trade at Cadburys, and when I retired I took up all of the research that the federal government had done with Cadbury’s assistance, and was free to go and do it myself.
Why did it take so long for someone to come along and start growing cocoa trees in Australia? Was it thought that it wouldn’t succeed?
Well when we really started in earnest, which was the late 1990s – it was driven by Cadbury’s need to possibly look at other places in the world where cocoa could be grown. And no one had really looked at it properly in a commercial sense, and in understanding just what sort of yields you could get and what you needed to do differently. It’s basically a third world crop, and we were trying to grow it in a first word country, where labour costs were quite different.
But we were able to bring to the table the latest know-how and technology, not just in the growing, but in the post-harvest processing – so the conversion of the pod (fruit) into chocolate. So you needed to put all of those things together to be able to understand whether this would be viable in Australia.
And that’s what I was involved with for many years initially – the research stage, and building knowledge, and building our skillset.
What are the challenges unique to growing this crop, and opposed to growing something else, like sugar cane for example?
Well sugar cane is a grass and it grows like a weed. It comes up every year and you send it to a mill and it gets processed into sugar. Growing a broad acre crop like sugar cane is very different because [with cocoa] you’re dealing with a plantation situation, where you basically have to know how every tree is performing. It’s a completely different sort of mindset. But we’ve good farmers who’ve joined us, and they are sugar cane farmers who have adapted themselves and have turned into excellent cocoa farmers. It’s knowledge of the soil, of the land, and how you actually treat the trees.
They’re very hungry for water and nutrients, and they like hot and wet conditions. And so you’ve got to be able to adapt for that, and in the climate that you have in different parts of Northern Australia, we had to understand where exactly the best area was. And we tried a lot of places, including Broome, Darwin, as well as North Queensland. After I suppose 5-6 years, we found that the most suitable climatic area across the north of Australia was the area north of Cairns.
The trees love hot and wet conditions – something we have in abundance in Australia – had it been tried and failed before?
Not in the true sense, where someone was really serious about it. People had played around with it, and naturally in those hot conditions the trees grew extremely well. And today you can go up to the Cairns botanical gardens, trees that have been there for twenty years or longer. So they have been around, people have grown them, but no one attacked it in the way we did, in really looking at the science of the whole horticultural system, and measuring things. Looking at pests and diseases, looking at yields, having different hybrids, having different genetic. So we really studied all of the factors behind the growing process.
No one had done what Daintree Estates have done, in taking the whole thing from plantation or estate to plate. It’s the unique business model that we have, that takes it from a cocoa seedling all the way to some of the best chocolate in the world.
How is the business model structured?
Look it’s fairly straightforward. It has its origins in the way cooperatives work. We had the knowledge and the know-how after many years of research, of what we had to do in order to successfully grow cocoa in Australia. Also we had the know-how in our background of how to make the chocolate, and how to market and sell it. So we had the knowledge, and we basically engaged farmers who were interested in diversifying. A lot of the ones who joined us years and years ago when we started the research are still with us today. They were sugar cane farmers who were looking to diversify their crop and their cash flows when sugar can prices go down. So we have what we call a ‘total supply chain model’ and can say very proudly that we’re estate-to-plate.
Do you supply cocoa to any other chocolate companies?
No. Our model and what we’ve done in putting this business together is so unique, and we are very protective of what we call our gold. And our gold is our fermented dry beans. They are very, very valuable, they’re rare, and they do produce a unique flavoured chocolate.
We can manipulate all of that, we know how to get the best out of the plantations. But I’ve got to say that’s really also driven by our great farmers who produce the product. We don’t get intimately involved in running the plantation – the farmers do that. We contract them to supply us the fruit (the pod) and that’s what they do. They look after their own plantation, they own it, we help them with selecting different hybrids and cocoa seeds, and the right sort of genetic material.
So they join the company which we started, and sign on to a supply agreement, and we will buy their pods at a defined price. So they know what they’re going to get for every kilogram of pods they bring into us.
So the pods are processed in North Queensland, what’s the next step after that?
Well the pods need to be processed within a week of being picked so our job is to get the beans (the cocoa seeds) and in each pod there are about 40 seeds which are encased in a very sweet pulp.
So we have to open the pod, take out all those wet beans, and not many people would realise that chocolate is really a fermented product, just like yoghurt or cheese, beer, wine.
The whole flavor you taste in the result of a fermentation process, and that’s what we do – we ferment the wet bean, and once you’ve dried the bean they can last for 2 years, so you’re basically preserving that seed. So you’re buying yourself some time to take it through to the next stages which are the roasting and so you’re adding layer upon layer of flavor development from the fermentation, even the way you dry it has an effect, and that’s when you then roast it and extract out the centre of that particular bean and you then formulate that into your chocolate recipe.
Local cane is used. Raw sugar grown in the Daintree region, processed at the Mossman sugar mill. We promote that on all our products, and we’re very proud to be able to say we’re using not just origin cocoa, but also origin raw sugar. We know exactly where that sugar is coming from, and we use that wholeheartedly in our marketing as well.
Australia is certainly a nation of ‘foodies’ – how has Daintree Estates chocolate been received?
Well I could say that if I had twice as much cocoa planted, and could get and use all of the pods from that as well, we would sell everything we made. We are faced with a demand outstripping our supply.
So with that, we have to make sure that we grow slowly, and the beans we do have a used in the most productive way for the benefit of the company, and the growers. So we are continually planting more cocoa so that we can expand as much as we can with what we call our premium, unique Australian products.
With a brand new industry, there are more challenges than you could probably count. But what have been the key challenges, and how did you overcome them?
Well gee, I could write a book! Everything is a challenge when you start a new business, and you’re driven by managing the cash, and trying to direct your money into the right areas, which ultimately are going to give you, and all of the growers and the shareholders a return.
Everything we’ve done though is in the context of the labour costs we’re faced with here. We’re not trying to compete with the countries that produce a lot of chocolate – because they’re running on a different basis altogether.
But it’s about being innovative, doing things differently, and producing a superior flavoured product that would demand a higher price.
We’re producing a vintage, and that’s the way we market our chocolate now – we say it was 2012 harvest, early harvest vintage. And we’re treating it very much like the wine industry so people know when they eat a block of chocolate it’s from a particular time, and a place – because we can even say it’s from this plantation, or a it’s a blend from these plantations.
It’s very much knowing where your food came from, and we can link people right back to our growers so that they can feel connected to the land. So along the way with that there are challenges coming up all the time.