Chocolate Maker Interview: Fred Lullﬁtz, Birdsnake Chocolate
For our very first interview, we catch up with Fred Lullfitz from Birdsnake Chocolate in Melbourne, Victoria.
Birdsnake was established late in 2018 by Fred Lullﬁtz, Bridget Amor and Mark Dundon. And their new Colombia 70% bar is featured in our March subscription boxes. So we thought this would be the perfect time to have a chat and learn more about why he got into bean-to-bar chocolate making & how Birdsnake was born…
1. Can you tell us about your background before chocolate and why you started making chocolate from bean-to-bar?
Alrighty! My background is in speciality coffee. I started in Brisbane roasting for a few years, and came to the conclusion that I wanted to learn more from producers, and just about the world in general. One side of my family are green thumbs, working in different parts of WA with native flowers and in other areas of the horticultural industry and I think that’s what made me want to get out of the city and over to farms to figure out how things worked, and taste as many different coffees as I could. I moved to South America and got a job with a pretty cool, forward-thinking coffee exporter in Colombia called Caravela Coffee, and that allowed me to have the balance of working in the office and getting my hands dirty.
I was primarily based in Bogota, but as I learnt to become a coffee judge/taster I was able to visit a lot of countries in Central and South America and develop a perspective of the obstacles farmers/producers in less privileged countries actually face.
I learnt about all things processing – picking, fermenting, drying and then the team I was in would analyse the physical quality & cup the coffees. If these small batches of coffee passed the quality control, we would mill and export them to different roasters around the world including my now business partners at Seven Seeds. I still am very passionate about tasting! though it’s less coffee these days, and more chocolate. A lot of what I learnt in coffee has been very applicable to what I do now so thankfully it hasn’t been too much of an adjustment.
From there I guess it was only a matter of time before I started hanging out on Cacao farms and meeting people in the chocolate industry. When I lived in Ecuador for a little while, I really got into chocolate, as Quito had a few B2B makers and there were a lot of similarities in coffee and cacao. A few years later I was in the states and working in San Francisco where I came across the crew at Dandelion, and was also exposed to many other chocolate makers… and the rest is history.
2. What’s the story behind/inspiration for your unique graphic brand name and packaging?
This was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be, picking a name, coming to an agreement on packaging but it was so much fun. Mark came up with Birdsnake after looking into the history of Cacao and the legend of Quetzalcoatl the feathered serpent gifting humans with cacao. It’s always an interesting time telling people the name of the business over the phone, Birds neck? What? Why? – which works because it sticks.
We wanted a bar roughly the size of a passport that people could take travelling (back when that existed). Also it had to stand out on the shelves, there are a lot of chocolate makers out there so we knew we had to make an impression so we went for the very colorful, loud, expressive option. Some people love it and it’s also kept us out of a few minimalistic grocery stores / cafes but that’s cool.
We originally started out with foil wrapped bars, in these beautiful embossed boxes but decided to make a change to recyclable, resealable pouches and reduce our carbon footprint. The response has been very positive thus far.
3. What are some of the benefits of making chocolate from scratch on a small scale?
You can learn very quickly how chocolate works, and how to achieve the flavour profiles you’re aiming for by recording everything you do. As a taster, I would hate to have to work with the same homogenised product day after day, so I’m very happy to be working in small batches, and able to tweak things as I go.
(I encourage everyone to have a crack at making chocolate at home because it’s a lot of fun – pun intended.)
4. What origins do you work with and where do you source your cocoa from?
We work with 5 currently:
- Ecuador – Hacienda La Victoria (purchased directly)
- Colombia – Ralito (purchased via Cacao Disidente)
- Peru – CAC Pangoa (purchased via Bareseed)
- Madagascar – Sambirano Valley (purchased via Silva Cacao)
- Tanzania – Kokoa Kamili (purchased via Silva Cacao)
We aren’t yet at the stage where we can by half containers on our own which is our goal, but are happy working with the legends who help us bring our stuff in. We occasionally share containers with other Australian makers which has been great. I would love to do more of this in the future.
5. How would you describe the chocolate scene in Melbourne & how has it evolved over the years?
Well, we are the new kids on the block so to speak, but I have heard whispers of others on the way which is very exciting! I don’t know a lot about the scene in Melbourne previously, but the majority of the other makers I’ve met so far have been awesome.
On a side note, It’s been a goal of mine to organise a craft chocolate festival similar to the NW festival in the US one day and get as many Australian or NZ makers under one roof as possible. Whether it’s in Melbourne or Perth or Sydney It doesn’t matter, just as long as we get the public involved, I think it could be fun to get a scene going.
6. How do you convey high-quality chocolate(compared to remelting) to potential customers, and is there anything in particular that helps people understand it?
I think a lot of consumers assume that everyone roasts their own chocolate, so when they learn that we make our bars from scratch they are usually surprised. I hope it makes them wonder where the cacao they have been eating their whole lives actually comes from. I think some of the huge commercial companies *might* wonder that too at times haha.
I generally like to relate it to coffee: Imagine going to a café that purchases their coffee pre-roasted from somewhere in Italy months prior. The baristas are unable to tell you which origins are used in their house espresso blend and not due to a breakdown in communication from the shift manager, and the consumer might wonder why the coffee tastes burnt, stale and sad.
I would like to note – If someone can’t afford to pay a premium price for coffee or chocolate, I understand that. I just get frustrated when there are people selling albeit certified but untraceable chocolate, at premium prices higher than mine or other bean to bar makers.
7. We’re featuring your new Colombia, Ralito 70% bar in our March subscription boxes. How did you source those beans and why did you decide to use them?
When we started the planning process for Birdsnake in 2017, we were introduced to Manlio Laratonda from Cacao Disidente through a good friend of ours in Bogota. Cacao Disidente is a chocolate maker/exporter and is doing some very cool things over there.
Manlio shares the same passion for working with separate varietals, refining fermenting and drying practices to get the best out of each lot of cacao. He has a scientific background so it’s always very fun and interesting hanging out and tasting chocolate samples with him.
When he’s not making chocolate in Bogota, he works on the ground at his own farm or with producer groups to make really amazing cacao. Earlier I mentioned that one of the benefits of working in small batches is the ability to make small adjustments to achieve the best results in a small amount of time, and that’s the same on the farm level.
Having direct communication and a good working relationship with producers is an amazing thing. We actually purchased the Ralito beans from his personal stash that he intended on using but was so kind to share with all of us. The Cacao we purchased is from a producer group in the department of Cordoba, and I’m looking forward to working with them in the future and maybe one day getting to visit them!
8. What’s your favourite chocolate bars that you’ve tasted recently (other than your own)?
I would have to say it would be a tie between Foundry and Baron Hasselhoff’s in New Zealand! They have very different approaches to chocolate, but both make an incredible product. I feel like I could learn a lot from spending some time with them. We are planning on doing a trans-Tasman collab with BH in April which I’m really looking forward to.
9. Throughout your chocolate making journey, you must have so many experiences; what have been your best, worst and funniest moments so far?
Best: It has to be doing a pop-up chocolate market in Tokyo with the crew at About Life. It was my first time in Japan, and everyone really enjoyed having us there and were excited to try something I had worked really hard to make.
Worst: Launching Birdsnake in 2018 during a heatwave. It sucked, everything I was making was melting, and the tempering room was like being inside an oven. I was still figuring things out, paired with the lack of orders coming in was the recipe for a big sad sandwich… there were tears, let me tell you!
Funniest: Probably being asked for $40,000 worth of free stock from a wine subscription company who wanted “samples” for their customers.
10. Where do you see the chocolate industry in the next 10 years? Do you have any hopes predictions for the future?
Well hopefully it doesn’t get any hotter because it’s hard enough keeping chocolate in temper as it is ☺
I would like to see a bunch of craft chocolate makers coming together to make an association or group of some sort so we can get this craft chocolate festival underway.
It would be good to get more media outlets talking about the massive issues we face with child labour in the cacao world, I’ve only seen the Washington post talk about it.
11. If you had to sum up the craft chocolate industry in one word, what would it be?
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