7 min read

Bean to bar

Bean to bar
Cocoa, the "Goldilocks of trees", in the orchard of the Australian Chocolate Farm, inland from Port Douglas in far north Queensland.
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On the fringe of the Daintree Rainforest, chocolate really does grow on trees.

Words Sara Mulcahy | Photography Alison George

Cocoa is the Goldilocks of trees. It needs warm, humid temperatures – not too hot, not too cold. It likes a uniform weather pattern – not too wet, not too dry. And it loves well-drained soil that’s not too acid, not too alkaline. For these reasons, cocoa can be successfully cultivated only between the latitudes of zero and 15 either side of the equator. Precisely.

About 70 per cent of the world’s cocoa beans come from four West African countries: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon. The other main growing areas include Central America, northern South America, the Caribbean, pockets of Southeast Asia – and here in far north Queensland.

Shannonvale, about 15 minutes’ drive inland from Port Douglas, is one of only a handful of locations in the world suited to growing Theobroma cacao. There have been trials in the Northern Territory and in Western Australia, but the fickle cocoa tree is happiest right here.

“Cocoa is a rainforest tree,” says Darryl Kirk, a chocolatier, pastry chef and farmer who owns the Australian Chocolate Farm with his wife Jenny. “It loves the humidity, and it grows best under a canopy. At first, we planted canopy trees to shade them, but when they grow, they produce their own canopy. They get their energy from the sun on the top leaves and the cocoa grows underneath in the shaded area.” 

We’re sitting on a sun-dappled verandah of their four-acre farm, surrounded by rows of cocoa trees on which I can see the cacao pods at various stages of ripening, from small and green to large, fist-sized and yellow. (Cacao is the botanical name for the raw beans before they’re roasted; cocoa is the product made from roasted beans.) As we talk, I nibble a tasting plate of chocolate grown and created on site: dark, milk, wattle seed and lemon myrtle. What started as a farm has expanded into chocolate production and, recently, to tours, tastings and sales. It doesn’t get more bean-to-bar than this.

“It started as hobby farm,” says Jenny. “It was going to be a little side hustle, you know, grow the cocoa and get a bit of extra money to help pay for things while the kids were growing up. In the beginning, we just looked after the trees and sold the pods to Daintree Estates, the first commercial cocoa enterprise in Australia. We did that for the first three years.”

Our conversation is interrupted by a loud ping from the cocoa-bean roaster, which propels Darryl from his seat. “I did think I probably shouldn’t start roasting this morning,” he smiles. “But then I did it anyway.” 

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