With a philosophy of 'bean to bar', the husband and wife duo behind Bahen & Co Chocolate have an approach to chocolate making that returns to a slower pace of time.
Meaning... they make chocolate the traditional way. Using vintage equipment and only two key ingredients - cacao and cane sugar - to create it in a way that predates the mass production of the chocolate of today.
Believe it or not, paring the process back and achieving simplicity in chocolate making is much more complex than one would think but the result is a chocolate bar unlike no other.
There is much more to this brand than meets the eye. Through their philosophy of bean to bar, the team behind Bahen & Co have gone far beyond the standard Fair Trade conditions by cutting out the middleman and instead building meaningful long-term relationships with the farmers based on solid principles of mutual benefits, transparency and pay that ultimately respects the farmer's efforts.
We spoke with one half of Bahen & Co - Josh - to find out more about the process behind creating our favourite Goods Tube chocolate.
How/why did you get into chocolate making? Was it something you always wanted to do?
I landed in chocolate by chance really. I was working in Burgundy making wine and I crossed paths with a French chocolate maker. The taste of his chocolate was different to anything I had tried before. The chocolate had extraordinary bright fruity flavours. It tasted like it was grown on a tree and had the complexity of a fine wine. I was so intrigued, it set me on a new path.
Where do you source the cocoa beans from that is used in your chocolate?
Currently, we source from Madagascar, Dominican Republic, Peru, Guatemala, Vietnam, Bolivia, and Brazil. We also have some projects we are working on in Vanuatu and Solomon Islands. Madagascar is a great place to start when looking at single origin. Madagascar produces some of the most uniquely fruity cacao beans.
Bahen & Co not only practices Fair Trade but exceeds it as you deal with your suppliers 100% directly - why is it so important to have this sort of relationship with the people who produce the ingredients you use?
By going direct, we can bypass the middle man and brokers. Our goal is buy from the farm gate. This allows us to forge strong relationships with the farmers.
All good chocolate is made on the farm, so the closer we can get the better. It also allows us to pay the farmer much more, no middleman. Its good fun too, the best part of our work is at the origin.
You recently partnered with the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research (ACIAR) and the Alternative Communities Trade In Vanuatu (ACTIV) to hold the first annual chocolate competition for the cocoa growers of Vanuatu, which was formed with the aim to assess the progress the growers had made in improving the production and processing techniques in the region. Can you tell us more about this experience?
In 2013 we started working in Vanuatu with seven co-ops producing cacao. On the islands of Malakula and Epi. The focus was on training the farmers in best practice with tree management, and also with post-harvest techniques.
Much like producing specialty coffee, cacao requires a similar level of focus. Possibly the most crucial step is the 6-day fermentation. This fermentation process creates an array of flavours ideal for making high-quality chocolate. It is very similar to making wine or beer.
Today, approximately 20 farmer co-ops are involved in this program. With the improvement in quality, a price increase of 30-50% has been achieved. Instead of selling to opportunistic beach traders, the farmers have collaborated and have sold their own shipments direct to the chocolate makers. They have moved up the supply chain from price takers to price makers.
We partnered with ACIAR & ACTIV to hold a chocolate competition amongst the co-ops. A sample of beans from each of the co-ops was made into chocolate and judged for quality. We had the tasting in Port Villa with all of the farmers who had traveled to the capital for the event.
Working with the farming families on these remote islands is incredible. It’s not surprising that Vanuatu is rated as the happiest place on the planet, according to the “happy planet index” published by the New Economics Foundation (NEF). I know we learn more from them than they do from us….
(You can check out the short film on their trip and experience in Vanuatu here.)
At Bahen & Co, you make chocolate the traditional way – can you tell us more about the traditional techniques you use to take the humble cocoa bean and turn it into a chocolate bar?
Our approach is “low and slow”. We use low temperature when we roast using a traditional German ball roaster from the 1930’s. It’s very gentle and retains the delicate flavours which have been created at origin.
The slow – this is provided by our 5-tonne melangeur, a large stone grinder we rescued from an old chocolate factory in Spain. To this day, many of the traditional producers use this method to gently grind the cacao nibs down into rich smooth chocolate. The machine is over a century old and takes up to 2 days for every batch. It is very respectful to the flavour of the beans.
Your chocolate is not only beautifully made, but beautifully packaged – where do you get your inspiration from?
Jacqui (my wife & founder) finds inspiration from travels to the cacao farms. There are plenty of long layovers and waiting around during sourcing trips (not a bad thing), this gives us time to get immersed in some pretty unique and colourful cultures!
What is one thing that people may not know about yourself and the Bahen & Co brand?
We are very passionate about reducing the spread of palm oil farming in the Pacific. This industry is highly destructive to the natural environment. Cacao is one crop that should be shade grown and is one farming activity that can be used to compete against the spread of palm oil. The first time you see the clear felling of an entire island to palm oil is pretty disturbing. Farmers need to earn a living, so cacao can be one of the solutions…
What’s next for Bahen & Co?
We are building a new space in Margaret River with a focus on tastings and education. It’s hard to tell the full story behind a chocolate bar, so we hope we can share it in this space.
If you had to pick one type of chocolate to eat for the rest of your life – what would it be?
It would have to be a 90% Madagascar bar. The darker the better!
Our Favourite Bahen & Co Tubes
Lively White Tube
With Bahen & Co 70% Madagascar Chocolate.
Red Hot Chilli Salt Tube
With Bahen & Co Chilli Salt
Bold Red Tube
With Bahen & Co Almond & Sea Salt Chocolate.
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