Chocolate divides a nation

The chocolate industry is worth more than $3 billion internationally each year.
The chocolate industry is worth more than $3 billion internationally each year.

The chocolate dollar in Australia spans a great divide: on one side, a price war dominates at the supermarket checkout. On the other, a world of high-end, artisanal chocolate, where quality trumps price.

Darrell Lea, which was placed into administration last week, sits somewhere in the middle.

Internationally, chocolate is worth more than $3 billion annually, an industry growing 2.2 per cent a year. The new vogue with discerning Australian customers is quality, with nuanced and novel flavours. Think dark chocolate with rose and black pepper, milk chocolate with caramel, pine nuts and sea salt, and 99 per cent cocoa mass chocolate bars from Peruvian beans.

The flavours also tell a story of state rivalry. Lindt says it sells more dark chocolate in Sydney than Melbourne. At Haigh's, dark chocolate almonds are the Sydney favourite. In Melbourne, the peppermint frogs are most popular. And while chocolate-covered apricot pieces are among Haigh's best sellers in South Australia, no one buys them in Sydney.

Haigh's has been growing over the past five years and has opened two new stores. Its chief executive, Alister Haigh, said it was important for stores to innovate.

"Customers are looking for something different, so any company not introducing more products won't fare too well," he said.

Independent chocolate producers, such as Katerina Robb of Cicada Chocolates, were not surprised that Darrell Lea was now looking for a buyer after 85 years.

"I'm old enough to remember Darrell Lea being a quality chocolate product . . . [but] you cannot charge what Darrell Lea was for confectionary and expect to survive," she said.

The head pastry chef at Baroque Bistro, Jean-Michel Raynaud, knows good chocolate.

He takes Valrhona, widely recognised as the world's best, and transforms it into bittersweet ganache, delicate mousse and rich macaroons. He says tastes are becoming more refined.

"Anglo-saxon palates are becoming more accustomed to 50 to 90 per cent cocoa mass chocolates through [influences] like MasterChef," he said.

At the supermarket, brands are working a lot harder to court the price-savvy consumer dollar. The confectionary aisle has become a theatre, where favourites change from week to week, Kristen Young from Woolworths said.

With many products constantly on sale, brands are trying a lot harder to differentiate themselves.

Customers shop for an occasion rather than by brand. This makes the price race all the more important, Ms Young said.

"Price is a key consideration . . . You could walk into the aisle today and see at least one or two of the biggest brands on sale," she said.

And there was some good news at the supermarket for the ailing Darrell Lea. Woolworths is preparing to release a new Darrell Lea range in its aisles.

Lindt customers' tastes are similar - there is slightly higher demand for dark, fine chocolates in Sydney than in Melbourne, said Andrew Curran from Lindt

At Haigh's, different states have different tastes. Dark chocolate-covered almonds are most popular in Sydney, while peppermint flavoured chocolate (in milk or dark varieties) is the most popular in Melbourne. In the Haigh's homeland of South Australia, fruit lines are the most popular.