Local cocoa is set for growth
DAINTREE Estates’ development agenda for 2014 includes a plan to open a visitor centre at Pringle St, Mossman, a facility to showcase its premium cocoa pod-to-chocolate operation, in a unique centrepiece that will also mean more jobs in the town.
The company’s executive chairman Dr Barry Kitchen said the push is on now to attract funding for the factory/showroom to ensure this ‘‘ambitious plans’’ for a premium visitor centre that shows the whole process from cocoa tree to pods, cocoa beans and then to chocolate.
‘‘We want to show people exactly what is involved in each step of the intricate process to produce premium origin chocolate...from plantation to plate as we say. We will educate visitors by showing them the science behind chocolate making and explain the care and passion that is involved.’’
He added ‘‘the centre will also arrange tours to its plantations and provide opportunities to taste the wide range of Daintree Estates’ exquisite products’’.
This attraction will be an important milestone for the company which has been trading now for two only years. Dr Kitchen says ‘‘the company has made very solid progress and expects to be profitable in the relatively speedy timeframe for a green-field start-up, in the next three to five years. Substantially increasing the pod supply will materially accelerate that process.
‘‘In my view we’ve done pretty well. Our sales growth year on year has been significant. Our products are widely distributed throughout Australia now and we even sell product in Belgium and the UK. Our on-line store is also a key part of our reach to consumers in Australia and overseas.’’
In a business where lead times depend on such things as the five-year growth to maturity of the cocoa plants, Dr Kitchen’s most pressing need now is to recruit more growers so that the company has capacity to meet the demand for chocolate in the future, which is already running at around twice the available pod output now. ‘‘ We need more young trees,’’ he says, ‘‘because it takes five years to reach maturity. So we need more growers. Demand already outstrips supply.’’
Initial trials began early this century and while Dr Kitchen’s team has overcome a huge amount of technical issues in producing the cocoa pods to a world-beating standard, that’s only part of the process. The company is remarkable in that it is a vertically integrated supply chain that takes the product from plantation seedling, to nursery, to harvest, to chocolate bar, to market.
‘‘What we’re doing is pretty unique in the world,’’ Dr Kitchen, a biochemist and food scientist, says. ‘‘But we’ve still got a lot of work to do in the key conversion process from pods to dry fermented cocoa beans.’’
Controlling everything about the product from seed to shop is a strategy he holds dear. The company has spent a lot of time and money perfecting the cocoa bean flavour and quality along with the tricky conversion of the beans to a premium chocolate.
‘‘We have developed our own know-how and IP in each step and it’s how well you convert the pod to the fermented dry bean then gently roast it that either makes or breaks your ability to produce exquisite chocolate.’’
Feedback from the marketplace has confirmed that this chocolate is a top-end product by world standards. That’s why the world comes knocking for this single origin bean whose provenance is a known fact.
‘‘People these days want to know where their food is coming from, to know it’s special and that it has been made with the utmost care. This bean is grown right next to sugar cane and we only use raw sugar sourced from the local Mill in our chocolate – again, something quite unique. The same farmers that grow the cocoa also grow the sugar cane. This all happens in a region that boasts the World Heritage-listed Daintree rainforests.’’
All of these things matter to global chocolate connoisseurs. That’s why the company uses the title ‘‘estate’’. These are not large plantations but quite small pockets of land, boutique parcels of agriculture from which the beans are identified, separated and labelled. Beans from each area taste different to others.
It’s such a rarefied market that the exact place of origin and date of the harvest is included on the label, as if it was a vintage grape. ‘‘It’s about connecting the consumer with the farmer, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,’’ he says. ‘‘Our estates are like vineyards. Growers look after their trees like a dairy farmer cares for his cows,’’ Dr Kitchen says.
‘‘So it takes a certain type of farmer to grow cocoa and we are lucky to have such a dedicated team of growers behind us.’’
Plots of 3-5 ha can be handled by a couple of people with the know-how and ‘‘who are prepared to put the time in’’. In contrast, big plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia are often as large as 50 ha. Breaking up production into small lots – often idle pockets that cane farmers can’t get a harvester into – is also a cyclone damage mitigation strategy.
The growers are valued partners in Daintree Estates. ‘‘Our strategy has been to make the growers part of the company as shareholders and embed them in the business, so they share the upside of the business, rather than just have them suppliers of cocoa pods,’’ Dr Kitchen says.
Meanwhile, a report released last week called ‘‘Commercialising cocoa growing in North Queensland’’ by the federal Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation said a north Queensland cocoa industry could be worth potentially $10-$12 million a year based on the production of premium fermented dried beans. It would be at a scale of 1000 hectares producing up to 3000 tonnes of dried bean.
‘‘This volume of production can be easily absorbed into the coca market and only partially meet the increasing demand for high quality fermented cocoa bean,’’ the report said.