Footsteps echo inside the open space of OCHO’s factory building near the Dunedin harbourfront. The renovated wood mill now facilitates the offices and production rooms for the small, tight-knit team behind Dunedin’s beloved craft chocolates. The new exposure on the expanding craft chocolate culture is seeing a change to Dunedin’s infamous chocolate identity.
The humble cacao bean is a universal treasure with the infinite variety of sensuous delights it can offer. Within the last century, the consumption of chocolate has skyrocketed into the realm of commercialisation, industrialism and mass production; far from the simpler times of its youth—a steamy cup of chocolat chaud poised in the hands of Marie Antoinette as she begins her day perched by the window overlooking Versailles’ fine-trimmed hedges. In earlier centuries, the cacao tree was worshipped by Mayans as a gift from God and their spicy xocolatl drinks were consumed at sacred ceremonies only by nobles and priests.
Chocolate has since made a new life for itself; however, in the corners of the contemporary chocolate industry, the aristocratic traditions of the simple combination of cacao and sugar have been revived. Small, craft chocolate businesses retain the homemade qualities of organic-ingredient-based chocolate.
New Zealand is one to take chocolate seriously. In 2016, our population munched through $365 million worth of chocolate. In 2017, Whittaker’s claimed Kiwis were consuming 5-6kg per head of chocolate a year, a respectable 14th place in global chocolate consumption, led by Switzerland at 8.8 kg per capita. The closure of Cadbury’s Dunedin factory in 2018 sparked local protest. As well as providing jobs, Cadbury had a valued role in the community.
Dunedin has been known as New Zealand’s chocolate capital since Richard Hudson began New Zealand’s first chocolate business there in the 19th century, which became Cadbury in 1930. Dunedin today has a unique non-tangible chocolate culture jumpstarted by (but now independent from) the long-lasting annual community Jaffa Race—an event which had its last jaffa roll in 2017.
Devonport Chocolates began the New Zealand craft chocolate scene in 1991, followed by Bennetts in Mangawhai, and Makana Confections in Keri Keri. By the early 2000s there was a surge in craft chocolateries main centres and provincial towns across the country. In recent years, the wave of small businesses, factories and cafés making premium chocolates has brought fresh competition to the market. The high expense of craft chocolate is softening into the mindsets of consumers, and craft chocolate is becoming a popular treat. In 2016, Countdown spoke of its 91 percent increase in premium chocolate block sales within the past year. Premium includes all artisanal and New Zealand made craft chocolate.
Otago is home to a range of The Seriously Good Chocolate Company (Invercargill), Patagonia Chocolate (Queenstown) and OCHO (Dunedin), as well as Dunedin’s online brand The Chocolate Fox and the George St favourite, Granny Annie’s. The chocolate industry is engraved in Dunedin’s identity, and the recent gap in chocolate tourism is an opportunity for boutique businesses who are now basked in the limelight.
The modern-day worshippers of cacao
The Otago Chocolate Company (OCHO) began in 2013 when Liz Rowe began to experiment with chocolate crafting in her home kitchen. She travelled to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands and saw the processes of farming cacao crops. She learnt how the workers dry the beans on a tarpaulin to get the brown colouring, hand-checked crates of beans for faults, and loaded an impressive 50-60kg bag full of cacao on their shoulders and onto vehicles for transportation to offshore factories. Inspired by her desire to help these resource-poor communities, Liz transformed her hobby into a small business, purchasing beans from the Pacific for a decent price, and starting a stall at the Dunedin Railway Station Farmers Market. To her surprise, the business became a huge success.
This is the story that is shared with me at the beginning of the OCHO chocolate tour. The tour guide emphasises that OCHO aspire to be as open and transparent as possible about their production process. The entire bean to bar process occurs within their small factory on Robert St. After they successfully raised two million dollars in a crowdfunding campaign, OCHO’s ambitions to grow their brand was able to come to life. In April 2019, they relocated their small factory and café from Vogel St to Robert St, envisioning the potential of an old wood mill. A café in this new location is yet to be installed.
I am taken through the entire bean to bar process—roasting, winnowing (removing the husks), conching, tempering, moulding and wrapping. The kitchen team of two smile as they work, conscious of their activities being observed. It’s a physically demanding role—one stage of the process involves hammering at a dense slab of mixed cacao nib. OCHO pride themselves in their hands-on way of crafting their chocolates. In the packaging room, a pair wrap and prepare around 500 bars for sales daily.
A tasting session ends the tour, in which visitors are invited to taste the difference between commercial chocolate and OCHO. On my tongue the Papua New Guinea and Solomon Island cacao dark chocolates each have a unique, strong flavour like nothing I can compare it to. Being one who can’t handle a flat white, it isn’t as intensely bitter as I expected. It’s citrusy and fruity. It holds the genuine flavour of cacao fruit like no commercial chocolate does. The flavour builds in my mouth over a minute and lingers for an hour longer. OCHO’s chocolate is made to be consumed in small amounts, not hoovered down like a Cadbury block. It’s a sophisticated delicacy; one that OCHO believe gives more pleasure than a sofa-and-telly Cadbury Favourites binge.
OCHO admit their disappointment of Cadbury’s departure in 2018—a factory they never viewed as a competitor, but an important landmark that installed Dunedin’s universally recognised chocolate identity. They now feel a responsibility to sustain this unique character. OCHO Marketing and Sales Manager, Anna, explains, “That was one of the reasons we set out to expand OCHO; it was to keep chocolate-making skills here in Dunedin. And also, to give back to the community and still be able to provide that chocolate tour that they know and love.”
OCHO wants to be transparent as they have no secrets. They are a brand that is loyal to being ethical, environmentally sustainable and true to the taste of the cacao bean. Their ideas around chocolate—its health benefits, taste and way of consumption—is contradictory to the cultural norms created by brands like Cadbury. This is why OCHO are so intent on inviting tourists and community members inside their humble factory and educating people about the craft chocolate ideology.
Crafty, little beans
‘Craft’, ‘artisan’, ‘organic’, ‘fair-trade’ and ‘bean-to-bar’ are words that sing a tune of trustworthiness and quality, but do consumers understand what they actually mean? In some cases, brands exploit these words upon their beautiful, illustrated packaging to lure their buyers.
Craft is a term that defines the process of turning beans into the finished result all under one roof. Artisan is a vague and manipulative term that can include the bean-to-bar approach or melting pre-made chocolate to create more interesting chocolate products. It wouldn’t be naive to believe most low-profit boutique chocolate brands in New Zealand are genuine, and that love is poured into the products they make. However, artisan is described by cocoa and chocolate scholar, Kristy Leissle, as a meaningless word that sounds meaningful. Artisan has detached from its historical definition of the working class. Storytelling is as Leissle describes the key behind classifying brands as artisan: “Indeed, with 78 percent of “artisan” makers prominently sharing the story of how and why they engage in the craft, it seems almost requisite that a maker’s personal motivations and experiences accompany the word.” ‘Artisan’s discursive multiplicity entwines with assumptions of ethical and environmental concern due to artisan being non-industrial.
Marketing is a clever business and these terms are difficult to draw meanings from.
There is something to be said about media connotations that are unique to chocolate specifically in the world of food. There’s this symbolic imagery of a luxurious Paris escapade or romantic moonlight journey through the canals of Bruges, that is attached to premium, artisan chocolate. Of course, advertisements have communicated more vibrant discourses for popular, cheaper chocolate brands like Cadbury to relate to their younger target audience.
As well as the sentiment and ‘declaration of love’ idea bound to craft chocolate, there’s a sense of fashion that comes with artisan chocolate products. Food blogging, Instagram and cookery TV programs are giving rise to a generation of food obsession. Cooking, bakery and patisserie not only seem to be on-trend, but hobbies that are accessible to the masses. In this whirl of culinary craze, chocolate crafting, too, is becoming noticed as a desirable career. Liz Rowe, for example, took up chocolate crafting as a home hobby merely six years ago. Chocolate is entering the contemporary age as a new fashion. It’s relevance to Dunedin’s consumption identity and the high-end market may be likened to Dunedin’s textile fashion culture.
A hopeful outlook for chocolate enthusiasts?
The growth of craft chocolate businesses and consumption of craft chocolate alike will be something to watch in the coming years.
The Wellington Chocolate Factory is another flourishing bean to bar factory that invites the public through its factory doors to observe their 18th-century processes, and like OCHO, receives international recognition. The recently established NZ Chocolate Awards acknowledges and supports small brand chocolatiers throughout the country, with specific bean-to-bar award categories. Last year, 135 New Zealand crafted chocolates were tasted. This competition receives national media attention and will further the publicity of New Zealand’s chocolate businesses.
There is enough craft chocolate presence in New Zealand to inspire those brave enough to transition their careers into a business that satisfies their inner child—one where the wealth of money is exchanged for the wealth of ethical sustainability and quality produce. Such aspirations that boutique brands carry are the truest reflection of a passion to do good for local and wider communities, and following through in these principles in the way that OCHO does is applaudable.
New Zealand chocolate consumers have proven to follow the same values in the way in which our premium chocolate market has become so competitive. Craft chocolate is a niche market edging towards middle-class popular culture. I believe the growing demand will see more craft brands appearing in supermarkets. Certainly, in the fashion world, there is clear interest from consumers to move towards ethical purchases, and this mindset is trickling away at all commodities. Locally crafted, environmentally aware and high-quality food products are increasingly seen as worthy of spending the extra cash, as you’d do for a quality glass of wine.
Brands that are involved in their community earn the devotion and loyalty of local customers. This is especially important as small brands hugely benefit from word of mouth for widespread popularity. Pic’s Peanut Butter is another example. The company began at Nelson markets and their success has earned them sales in Japanese and American supermarkets. Their newly opened Peanut Butter World is a pride of the city. The factory’s provision of jobs and tourism services is a way of giving back to the community where their roots were planted.
While we may not be paddling down a chocolate-flowing Leith anytime soon, craft chocolate is an artistry that is here to stay in Dunedin regardless of its growth.
OCHO has plans to continue expanding. Their prime position neighbouring Dunedin’s harbourfront will likely see them become a popular tourist attraction, once the area undergoes major development into a more people-friendly space. A chocolate café in OCHO’s harbourside location is what the city needs to truly sustain a unique chocolate culture.
While I believe that the demands for craft chocolate will continue to rise, today we are still more likely to find a Dunedinite leaving a food store with a Cadbury block in hand rather than an OCHO bar. The accessibility, franchise, familiarity and low price of popular, mass-produced chocolate will always give these brands a lead position in the race. And it is undebatable that affordability is a winning factor in a city where a large proportion of the population are students.
But times are changing. There is a shift occurring in the national chocolate market. Nervous sweats will break out as craft competitors begin to accelerate behind commercial chocolate corporations.