In the lead up to Easter, artisan chocolatier The Ministry of Chocolate is burning the midnight oil. Irini Cavalliotis catches up with owner Drew Maddison to see what’s hitting the shelves and to hear about his passion; producing high-end chocolates with local ingredients.
Green frogs, high heels and lego pieces greet customers as they enter this boutique Malvern business, all skilfully crafted out of the finest couverture chocolate from Belgium, France and more recently, Queensland. With a humble beginning, The Ministry of Chocolate is a warm and welcoming space for people to buy artisan chocolate or to enjoy a cup of coffee with a cake, croissant or a light lunch.
At its helm is Drew Maddison, a small town boy who grew up savouring the smell of Chocolatier Australia wafting through his primary school. Today, Drew rubs shoulders with industry’s best, humble in attitude but resolute in his ethics and his commitment to quality.
How would you describe The Ministry of Chocolate in a few words?
Drew: Chocolate that’s not only high quality, but also innovative and ethically sourced.
As soon as you walk in the door the words ‘chocolate lab’ invite customers to watch the manufacturing process first-hand through large glass windows. Was it important to you to create an inclusive space where customers are connected with their product?
Drew: Absolutely! A lot of chocolate stores tend to go for that dark, burgundy look, but we’ve gone for the white, clean, crisp look. When you walk into the store it’s very bright and full of chocolate. We’ve got our cabinet with 36 chocolates in it, a confectionery wall and pantry items such as scorched almonds, white chocolate and strawberry crispy pearls. There is something for everybody – everything from adult-orientated chocolates with high-end, quality packaging, right down to confectionery and items marketed at kids.
In 2012 you took a big leap from a market stall to the permanent kitchen and retail store you have today. What prompted you to grow the business?
Drew: My wife Karin started at local farmer’s markets but we had to give it away because we simply couldn’t keep up with demand. More to the point, we had our second son at a time when our eldest was big enough to pinch chocolates off the bench, so stock control was a nightmare! In 2011 I was working for F.Mayer Imports as a sales and technical advisor and we began to look at other avenues where I could utilise my pastry chef training. Karin was also looking for work outside the family home, so the timing was perfect. We put the markets on hold for a year and, after a few hurdles and a lot of hard work, here we are today.
Was it difficult to make the transition from the home kitchen to a larger manufacturing facility?
Drew: Opening any kind of commercial premises is always going to be difficult.Luckily, I had a lot of contacts from my time with F.Mayer who were willing to lend support and advice. Karin also came from a hospitality and retail background, being the retail manager for Browns Bakery in Melbourne, so that really gave us the confidence to go out on a limb and do things for ourselves.
Are other family members involved?
Drew: There sure are! At Christmas and Easter time there can be any number of family members in the kitchen packing products for us. My mum Lynda also becomes a member of the team at Christmas time when our traditional English fruit mince tarts are on the go.
We’re also lucky to have Samanta Bakker who might as well be family. Sam was the head chocolatier for Koko Black for many years, so she certainly knows what she’s doing.
What are your best sellers?
Drew: At the moment, anything salty just flies off the shelf. Salted caramel seems to be a trend that’s really sticking around – a bit like chilli chocolate when it was first introduced to the market. Generally you see trends come and go within 12 months, for instance, even though macarons are fairly large now, something like the cronut or the éclair may take over. Whether or not cronuts will still be around in 12 months is still to be seen.
We also tend to find people are now purchasing more dark chocolate than milk chocolate. We’ve got a small range of single origins out of Australia, which we’ve been a part of producing in collaboration with Daintree Estates. We tend to find customers are looking for that higher percentage chocolate with a genuine story to it.
Are consumers’ tastes, as a whole, becoming more sophisticated?
Drew: As a country, we’re moving away from Cadbury Dairy Milk to darker, more bitter and more ethical products. The six years I was with F.Mayer we went from selling more milk chocolate to more dark chocolate. It’s certainly the trend for consumers to say to themselves, “well, if I’m going to eat chocolate I want the healthier stuff”. People still indulge in milk chocolate and the sweeter items, but on a day-to-day basis, dark chocolate is more in demand.
Is dark chocolate really a healthier alternative to milk chocolate? Or are chocolate lovers just justifying their addiction?
Drew: Yes, dark chocolate is healthier and there is science to prove it. There has been quite a lot of reporting of late on how chocolate above 70 per cent is good for you, largely because the sugar content is reduced. Our industry is always up against people who say chocolate is unhealthy, however, there’s proven science that indicates chocolate helps reduce your risk of stroke, is full of antioxidants and serotonin (which makes you feel good) and is also one of the highest food sources of polyphenols.
Eating a small piece of chocolate in the afternoon will not only give you a bit of energy, but will also help deter you wanting to eat more food and tie you over until dinner.
So, should I give into my daily afternoon craving for a dark chocolate and ginger bar?
Drew: Of course! I have a real craving for chocolate every day and always have a small stash close by.
Tell me about the coverture chocolate itself. Who do you work with to ensure you always make high-quality products?
Drew: My passion has always been with Callebaut because it was the first coverture chocolate I used as an apprentice. Very early on I fell in love with the whole Belgian chocolate aspect and the story behind it. So before I even worked for Callebaut, I knew who they were and wanted to be involved.
We still use Callebaut chocolate in our production, however, when we started the business I also wanted to support Australian farmers by using and promoting locally-grown products.
You can’t get more local than Daintree Estates in North Queensland which, up until about six months ago, was the only Australian-grown cacao plantation. Tell me about your relationship with its owner, Barry Kitchen.
Drew: I’ve known Barry for many years and when we opened the business he asked us if there was a possibility The Ministry of Chocolate could use his product. We’re using about five tonnes a year of chocolate with approximately 15 per cent supplied by Daintree Estates. It would be great to be using more of the Australian-grown chocolate, however, at this stage we just can’t get enough.
It’s a real challenge to grow cacao in Australia; it’s laboursome. But what Barry and his team are doing now with the product is incredible. They really hold the flavour and the quality of the chocolate. We hope to partner with them by growing our own cacao in the near future.
Single origin chocolate seems to be a trend that’s gaining real momentum. Why do consumers want a story behind their product?
Drew: All my peers in the chocolate industry are noticing this trend pick up. Consumers might not refer to the trend as single origin, but across all categories, they want to be able to relate to the country a product is grown in, or the region it’s grown in.
We’re also finding Australians are starting to come back to supporting local farmers, which is fantastic. It’s great to be able to share the story of the chocolate with consumers as well, which you can only do if you know where it has come from. The majority of Daintree Estates’ farmers are in the Mossman Gorge, located in the southern part of the spectacular Daintree National Park, but they also have a larger grower south of Cairns. One of their products is a single estate organic chocolate, which is one of the first organic chocolates ever grown in Australia. You get all the characteristics of chocolate – it’s got a very good front, middle and back palate.
You work very closely with Daintree Estates to help get the product from farm to plate. What’s involved with helping a cacao producer design a chocolate recipe?
Drew: It’s about helping them understand how the chocolate reacts when we create a ganache or when we match it and pair it with other ingredients and flavours. The Daintree Estates guys are very good at farming and conching the product, but to get it into a praline takes a very different skill set. The fat in the cocoa may be different, the roasting may need to be changed to get a better flavour – there are so many variables, which is where we come in. It’s a fantastic partnership because we can ask them to design a chocolate specifically for The Ministry of Chocolate, and that’s very unique.
Is all the production carriedout in Australia?
Drew: Last year Daintree Estates shipped the beans down to Victoria and chonched them down here, but as of 2015 it’ll all be done up in Far North Queensland to minimise transport. They do draw beans from across the South Pacific as well –some out of Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. They’re also looking to expand through to Sri Lanka and follow the spice trail up the South Pacific, which is fascinating.
It sounds like it’s an exciting time to be involved in the Australian chocolate industry, even if there are a few hurdles to overcome. What other local producers do you work with?
Drew: We use a local dairy from Gippsland when possible and we also use freeze-dried fruit from the Mornington Peninsula. Our honey comes from Beechworth. We try and go local wherever possible; you’ve got to support the farmers.
The big manufacturers such as Nestlé and Mondeléz International have now formed long-term partnerships with cacao farmers throughout the world. Is the global chocolate industry one-step closer to securing a reliable supply of cacao? Or, is it just a bit of positive PR?
Drew: It’s a good step forward for the industry in general, but a real threat of a chocolate shortage within the next 10 years remains. Cacao is hard to grow and many farmers are looking at what else they can grow that’s easier to farm and more profitable for their families, such as corn or rubber in places like Ghana or along the Ivory Coast in Africa.
Gone are the days of cacao farmers just sitting back and taking what they are offered from big manufacturers. They are now able to go to market and say, “this is what I’m prepared to take for my beans” and they have union representation to back them, to a certain extent. This is great, because big investors in these regions will have to be ethical about how they do business in order to secure their supply.
It’s been a really good turnaround in the last five years and there’s a lot of attention placed on those larger companies to sort out their ethical standards, which were really lacking. One of the reasons The Ministry of Chocolate uses Callebaut is because it has a real ethical standard.
How’s the wholesale side of your business developing?
Drew: Wholesale is predominantly where we’re growing at the moment. There’s room in the market for a company such as ours that can work with a wholesale customer and customise chocolate for them. At the moment we’re getting a lot of traction from wineries in the Yarra Valley, as well as Mitchelton Winery up at Nagambie. They’ve come to us with wines they want to pair with chocolate, and we’re coming up with a unique product specifically for their business.
Needless to say, Easter is a massive time for a chocolate shop. What can customers expect find in store this year?
Drew: We’ll be concentrating on our Australian range this year. We had great success with our ‘under a southern sky’ egg last year, which is made from Daintree Estates chocolate. We’re also launching a range of organic Easter eggs, which will be new to the market. Then there will be quirky, exciting things for the kids as well; things like different flavoured marshmallows dipped in chocolate and hidden in the eggs, and our sparkle egg full of freckles, and the block egg… things like that.
Despite The Ministry of Chocolate being two-years-old, no doubt more plans are on the horizon. What are you hoping to launch this year?
Drew: We are expanding with wholesale this year. We’ve got a couple of exciting things we’re working on that should see us expand our operation and increase our footprint. When you start a business you start off on a small budget, but hopefully we’ve proven ourselves in the past two years to be able to do what we want in the next retail phase.