Debbie Louise, Founder of Ratio Cocoa Roasters is passionate about sourcing high-quality cocoa beans direct from origin. The former zoologist turned chocolate maker explains why education is key to specialty cocoa bean appreciation.
The aroma of freshly roasted coffee is enough to bring most shoppers off the street and into a coffee shop, and it’s the same at Ratio Cocoa Roasters. Only at Debbie Louise’s Melbourne-based experiential store and factory, it’s for specialty roasted cocoa.
“Most people confuse us for a coffee roaster, but we are indeed a cocoa roasting company. The smell of freshly roasted cocoa is like the aroma of baking brownies. It’s what attracts most people into our factory and café – that’s why we always leave the door open,” she says.
Ratio opened its doors six years ago with only eight chocolate bars. Today, Ratio has grown to one of the largest bean-to-bar chocolate offerings in Australia, featuring 20 different chocolate bars, 18 chocolate- coated items, a variety of chocolate gelato, and a novelty range. It also showcases seven hot chocolates and helps Australian cafés complement their specialty coffee range.
“Chocolate has always been my passion,” Debbie says. “When I started Ratio, the goal was to introduce Australia to specialty chocolate and the different tastes you can experience. Cocoa is actually very similar to coffee and wine in that terroir, climate, processing techniques, origin and skill of the farmer drastically alters the end taste.”
Ratio prides itself on using high quality raw materials that are traceable, and ensures that its hand-crafted chocolates are ethical, vegan-friendly, and don’t use stabilisers or fillers.
“Unfortunately, commercial chocolates use poor-quality cocoa with additives and preservatives to mask the bitter taste, so you’re not actually getting to taste the cacao at all. With Ratio, I really want people to taste and experience cocoa the same way they do single-origin coffees versus commercially graded coffee,” Debbie says.
She notes there is a crucial distinction between chocolate makers and chocolatiers. While chocolate makers produce chocolate from scratch using cacao beans, chocolatiers usually purchase pre-made chocolate from overseas and use it to create chocolate-based confections.
In Australia, there are only 38 bean-to-bar chocolate makers, and Ratio is one of them. “Cocoa is delicate and more fragile than coffee. When it arrives from its origin, it still has the shell on. At Ratio, we roast cocoa in a vintage 12-kilogram ball roaster from the 1960s. This process takes place at a much lower temperature and slower drum speed than coffee,” Debbie says.
After roasting, the cocoa is winnowed to remove the husk. It is then mixed with sugar and crushed in stone grinders for 24 hours until it’s nice and smooth. For flavour development, the chocolate is then aged for three weeks before being tempered into a chocolate bar.
Like the trading of green coffee beans, Ratio faces the same challenges of increased shipping costs, a weaker exchange rate and delayed shipments, meaning it has to order stock one year in advance. However, consolidating shipments with other bean- to-bar makers or coffee companies helps to keep costs down.
“I choose to offer a variety of different origins to my customers, although it’s much more challenging because of the expensive freight. That’s why most chocolate businesses only work in one origin, as they have greater buying power,” she says.
The upside to cocoa beans, however, is that they last much longer than coffee beans – seven years or longer if frozen. Unlike coffee which needs to be used within a month of roasting, chocolate can also remain dormant for years until tempered. Ratio supports cocoa growers around the world, namely from the South Pacific region of the Solomon Islands, East Timor, Vanuatu, and areas of the Caribbean and South America.
Debbie says coffee shops are now looking at specialty cocoa origins like they do specialty coffee, although further education is still needed.
“The next time you go into a café, pick up the menu and read it. It will most likely list where the eggs are from, the dairy milk, the bread, and the chai. Still, when it comes to hot chocolate, there’s generally no hint of where the cocoa is from, just the words ‘hot chocolate’, which will likely be only 30 per cent with fillers and emulsifiers, and that’s what we need to change,” she says.
“Unfortunately, many cafés are unaware they are serving up hot chocolate that actually goes against their moral standings. A big hint is that there’s no such thing as Belgium or Swiss chocolate. No cocoa trees grow in Europe. It just means where the ingredients were thrown together or blended with no traceability back to origin.”
At Ratio, Debbie knows exactly where her cocoa beans come from. She also buys Australian sugar and milk powder, fruit, and nuts. Debbie says because of Australia’s quality food produce and safe and trusted food security, it has increased interest in foreign companies wanting to do business with Ratio, including Japan, China, and Vietnam.
Since COVID, Debbie has also noticed a fundamental shift in the attitudes of Australian consumers and wholesalers to support local producers.
“Customers are more aware of problems in the food and beverage supply chain. They also see the benefits in ethically sourced and sustainable products and willing to pay for it,” she says.
“Both the coffee and cocoa industries strive to bring to market only quality products with everyone along the way being paid a fair price for their work. Cafés offering both specialty coffee and cacao show their customers they also care about these issues, and it helps build a strong customer base.”
Debbie credits the coffee industry’s educational inroads with the public about ethical sourcing and fine flavour varieties for helping pave the way for specialty chocolate.
“We use the same terminology of direct trade, single origin and fine flavour beans as those meanings are now understood thanks to the coffee movement,” she says. “There are a lot of similarities between coffee and cacao. I love when a coffee enthusiast comes into our store and loses their mind when tasting our cacao nib pour over or cold brew. Specialty cacao is a great accompaniment to specialty coffee. We are telling the same story.”
Over the years, Debbie has been lucky to form great relationships with prominent coffee roasters including Veneziano, Axil Coffee Roasters, Padre Coffee, and Craftwork Roasting Co as distributors of its drinking chocolate. She is always looking for the next progressive coffee company to reach out and get involved.
“For Veneziano Coffee Roasters’ 20th anniversary, we made a chocolate bar paired to their coffee blend. Padre Coffee has their Budd range of Panela, Cocoa, Chai and Cascara, and we matched a bar to each of these. HA Bennetts & Sons import our East Timor beans, so for Christmas they gave out chocolate bars made from those beans,” Debbie says.
She has also mixed her chocolate with Tea Drop’s matcha, Oh My Gelato’s gelato, with Australian herbs for Kakadu Plum Co and seaweed for Alg, plus several local breweries to make stouts.
“All the companies we work with already focus on quality raw ingredients and understand the importance of sustainable farming practices, conservation, and ethical sourcing, so they understand and align with our business philosophy,” she says.
Debbie would like to establish more relationships with like-minded coffee businesses so that more people can experience ethical drinking chocolate at their local café.
In addition, Ratio Cocoa Roasters hosts factory tours and invites coffee roasters and café owners to explore their understanding of cocoa by watching the sorting, roasting, winnowing, grinding, and moulding of cocoa behind transparent glass screens.
“We want you to be mesmerised by our work and the preparation of making chocolate,” Debbie says. “Education is the best form of awareness. Once people experience our shop and try our cocoa, they’ll never think of chocolate the same way.
“We need more people to taste single origin chocolate and experience the variety of flavours that are possible from quality chocolate. Once people try the fruitiness of cocoa from the Solomon Islands, all of a sudden, they can relate the same language to coffee and it’s fun to watch that realisation unfold. We need more people to have this moment of discovery.”
Use the promo code “beanscene” to book a free factory tour. For more information, visit www.ratiococoa.com.au.
This article appears in the April 2023 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.