Journeys into the food-rich wilderness
Destination: Ratio Cocoa Roasters, Brunswick VIC
In a nutshell: A cocoa roastery using traditional chocolate-making techniques to craft individually flavoured, small batch chocolate bars
Custodians: Debb Makin (owner)
Field Trip Leader: Jessie Alice for Leftover Lovers
Deb Makin (left), owner of Ratio Cocoa Roasters, in conversation with Jessie Alice for Leftover Lovers.
[Inset]: Cocoa husks on the Ratio shop counter.
I want to start by mentioning that I read somewhere you were a Zoologist before starting Ratio. Tell me more!
Yes! I’m doing a lecture this Friday called People with Science Degrees That Do Weird Things. The head lecturer came on a tour in here and asked me to come along and present. I’ve lived in small south african villages and have undergone a heap of life changes. I actually did ten years of wedding planning after Zoology — “from gorillas to bridezillas”, so they say. You spend more time at work than anywhere else so you may as well be doing something you like. That’s what I figure.
Where along this incredible journey was your point into chocolate making, then?
My brother is a coffee roaster. Three years ago we saw this trend emerging: every speciality coffee place you went to overseas, they’d have a specialty chocolate to go with it. It’s a real match made in heaven, the one between speciality coffee and speciality chocolate. We thought it was incredibly intriguing.
I then went to Savour Chocolate & Patisserie School with Kirsten Tibballs of MasterChef. Her school is just across the road from the Brunswick store [Ratio]. She’d just started a “Bean to Bar” class on chocolate too. I went and enrolled in that see how complicated it was, and aside from tempering chocolate, it seemed pretty good. It was the beginning of the three year journey. From there it was research, travelling overseas, and visiting Dandelion in San Francisco: they are, hands down, the gurus of the bean to bar chocolate world.
Tell me more about Dandelion.
They were buying beans in the Solomon Islands when I was there, and I got to meet Greg [D’Alesandre] and it was right when we were setting up our factory and our design. We ran our plan past him and a few other chocolate makers who were there at the time. Everyone was very generous with their knowledge and time.
What’s the chocolate making industry like in Melbourne?
We’re ‘speciality coffee’ ten years ago in terms of where we’re at now. It’s quite new to Australia. There are thirty bean to bar makers in Australia, so it’s not a huge industry and it’s not super competitive like others either. Take for example a recent situation wherein another local chocolate maker and I were in the Solomon Islands together. We both bought the exact same beans from the exact same farm, brought them back, and now we both sell a Solomon Islands chocolate bar. And yet, because we undertake the process in a completely different way, the result is two completely different products. We don’t have or need that fierce competition. We share sugar orders, milk powder orders… the industry is pretty nice. Everyone bands together.
Tell us about the design of the business.
The main interest for me in setting up Ratio, besides making good quality chocolate, was the education factor — that is, letting people know that there is a lot of smoke and mirrors in the chocolate industry. We try and demystify things.
One of the reasons it took so long for us to open up was finding the perfect location.
It’s all glass, so there’s nowhere to hide. Everything’s on show, and this is very deliberate: we’re all about traceability and accountability.
We didn’t look at any other options as far as space and size goes. Roasting is a matter of time and love and it usually takes a whole three days to get the [roasted] product. The process is the process, and you can’t change it. It really does inspire you to be organised!
What goes into the making of your chocolate?
We market ourselves as being handmade in Melbourne. It’s exciting, because you can be sure our products have literally been made by hands! From when a bag of beans comes in to when a chocolate bar is completed, it’s a month-long process all up. Even wrapping the bars at the end of the process can be very time consuming. It’s all worth it though. I let the staff choose to work on whatever aspect of the process they enjoy the most.
While we’re uncovering some hidden industry truths, what can you tell us about sugar?
Many people don’t realise that sugar isn’t [always] vegan, let alone vegetarian. True vegans who know the deal and will question what sugar we have. We’ve just applied for our vegan certification so we can add the sticker to our bars.*
How do you develop your chocolate bars?
We mould the chocolate bar and add the ingredients on top. Nuts are super popular. For one of the bars, we chose to use macadamia because we really wanted to do two Australian natives together [the other was lemon myrtle]. We weren’t sure if it was going to work but it’s actually our most popular product!
The cinnamon apple bar was another gamble. You’ve got the sour apple sitting on top of the sweet chocolate and to be honest, many people weren’t too sure about that. Those who love it, love it, and that’s good enough for us! For winter, we’re getting a lot of requests for a chilli chocolate bar so we’ll definitely be doing that too. It feels good to respond so actively to customer interests.
When you design the thing, first you have to decide on the percentage of the chocolate, and then if it’s going to be milk or dark. We spend a lot of time in the taste profiling step of the process and we’re especially looking for consistency in the mouth. For the nut bars, we spent hours deliberating between 15 grams of nuts as opposed to something like 30 grams. We tried 3mm chunks against bigger pieces. The thought process aligned with designing the chocolate bar is exceptionally long, but incredibly satisfying to get right. It’s getting that balance right that’s the most important thing.
Tell us some more about the aesthetic qualities of Ratio HQ.
At its core, I feel that chocolate is a feminine product. I’m also a female business owner. I designed the building with these factors in mind. The colour scheme involves a lot of blue rather than black. It’s also full of curved edges, and and skylights over the communal areas encourage a flood of natural light into the space. The design was created by ST Style in Melbourne whose brief involved straight lines, transparency, and the facilitating of conversation.
What kind of conversations do you have with farmers?
We ensure full transparency when it comes to farming. We tell you where our beans are from as well as the origins of our ingredients. Most people don’t realise that there is no such thing as Belgian chocolate. The ‘Belgian’ bit simply means that this was where the ingredients were put together and the block of chocolate made. It doesn’t tell you that over 70% of the world’s cocoa supply is out of West Africa where child labour is rife. We are staunch advocates of traceability so we can say with pride that we know where the beans are coming from and that the farmers are using ethical practices.
Why is chocolate important to you?
I don’t smoke, drink alcohol, or even drink coffee. Chocolate has always been ‘my thing’ and my entire life. It’s my treat. My life philosophy is ‘keep the number of countries visited higher than your age’. I’ve been to 46 countries and the first thing I do when I arrive is source chocolate. I must have a chocolate supply!
Your only waste is the husks! How are you closing the loop?
The husk is an amazing part of the bean. It accounts for approximately 20–25% of its weight.
We had a couple pick up some cacao husk three months ago to make kombucha. They said that they were going to try and bring some back when they had it but they haven’t come back yet. I have no idea what happened. It could have been a complete disaster!
At the moment we’re also donating to a local school garden and I always offer up the husks to anyone who comes on a tour of the premises; many people love adding them to compost. There’s also a lady that makes her own body products using cacao husk, and I’m in conversations with someone who makes cacao husk tea.
Here’s an excellent one: I’m meeting a brewery tomorrow that’s interested in making a cacao husk beer!
The Ratio recipe for success:
*Editor’s note: although we understand it not to be standard practice in Australia, some white sugars are known to use ground up animal bones.