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Charley's & chocolate

Growing cocoa

Mission Beach is in the wet tropics region of Australia at 17.8 degrees south. The entire coast from the tip of Cape York to as far south as Bowen and beyond is subject to cyclones from December to April each year. These cyclones are typically quite localised and not much more that strong wind and rain. We occasionally receive category three and above cyclones and these cause damage. Having seen firsthand what 300 km/hour wind can do, making sure the cocoa plantation had survivability built in was critical in the planning from the beginning.

To protect the cocoa plants we installed a sophisticated trellis system, a tropical adaptation of the Tatura trellis developed over several decades in Victoria’s Goulbourn Valley region. Originally designed for apples, pears and stone fruit, the Tatura trellis system was straightforward to modify for cocoa and, with appropriate strengthening, to cyclone proof the trees. 

Although our adaptation focus was on cocoa growing and cyclone proofing, the trellising aids light penetration beyond the top of the canopy and so also produces earlier fruiting, increased yields and easier tree management and harvesting. 

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We required, however, a significant upfront capital investment in materials and skilled labour to construct the trellis. During cyclone Yasi not a single tree was lost at a neighbour’s property growing other tropical species, proof of the trellis’ effectiveness. After a few months rather than many years this grower was back in business, giving us confidence in investing in the Tatura trellis adaptation. 

With our continued innovation focus, we’re now at the early stages of exploring robotics in cocoa harvesting. The uniform, two-dimensional way the cocoa trees grow lends itself to the introduction of robotics in harvesting. Australia is a high labour cost country and robotics in cocoa production is an exciting avenue to pursue.

Making chocolate

In 2014 the planets seemed to be aligning. Prior to the 2010s only huge industrial chocolate machinery was available for purchase. We were now seeing smaller scale, highly sophisticated production equipment being marketed. To fund purchase and installation of this modern equipment we needed additional capital, so the first of a growing group of investors joined Charley’s.   

Less than two years after the seeds were planted at our Mt Edna Mission Beach plantation, our first cocoa pods were harvested in August 2014. We produced these pods into 50 individually numbered chocolate bars under the Charley’s brand.  A pretty proud moment in Charley’s short life!

To enable increased production, we rented nearby commercial food premises. Our first FBM Tempering Machine, which had served as a learning and training tool, was relocated along with the initial small, granite base conches. Commercial production was up and running!  

From our prior experience, we’d always intended Charley’s to become an online retailer. Charley’s first website was launched and orders soon shipped all across Australia. At the same time local retailers began to stock Charley’s.

We now realised the cocoa from the Mt Edna plantation was nowhere near enough to make all the chocolate needed.  So ripe cocoa pods from other local cocoa growers were sourced, as well as beans from highly reputable growers in the Solomon’s, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.  

By early 2017 it was clear the production facility was too small for future growth. Ever one to think outside the squares, Chris developed the modular manufacturing unit. This unit is a 40 foot high cube (extra high) new steel shipping container extensively modified to create flexible and cost effective manufacturing space. The first unit was installed in late 2017; here it is.   

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Based on consumer trends and market analysis, milk chocolate was added to the range in early 2018 to complement our successful inclusions range and single origin plain dark chocolate products. Most commercial milk chocolate uses around 30 per cent cocoa only. Charley’s milk chocolate differs with 52 or 60 per cent cocoa content, depending on the Charley’s product. In addition to health and food benefits, a high cocoa content provides a unique chocolate flavour rather than the taste being dominated by sugar and milk.  

In late 2019 we successfully completed a crowd funding capital raise, adding an additional 150 shareholders. We’re using the new capital to substantially increase tree plantings as well as processing and manufacturing capacity. We ordered a second modular manufacturing unit in early 2020 and installed a larger roaster and conch capacity.