Ask TCL - How Micro is Micro-batch?

Ask TCL - How Micro is Micro-batch?

While we’re awaiting SSO to be completed, Ask TCL is where ChocolateLife members and others pose their questions to be answered by me – and other members.

A ChocolateLife member wrote in to ask:

I’m just wondering what most chocolate makers consider to be a micro-batch and how much chocolate I should realistically be aiming to make for a micro-batch start-up.

I have been looking at the Spectra grinder, Behmor roaster, Champion Juicer, etc. I’ve also been told I need a pre-grinder.


I don’t know that this is the right question to be asking out of the gate: homing in on a working definition of micro-batch may not get you to the answers you’re looking for.

Please excuse our presuming, but I don’t have anything to go on other than what you wrote. Where I would start is thinking about what kind of business this is and how you define success. For example, is this a hobby business where you maintain a full-time or some other part-time job or is this going to be a full-time business? Are you pursuing this business in retirement or are you younger and have a family with children to support?

One reason I ask is that the answer determines both how much money to invest as well as how much income you need to generate to at least cover expenses.

In the US that makes a lot of difference. If I was 30, married, had a mortgage and two kids I wanted to put through college, my goals would be very different than if I had retired, had paid off my house, and had a pension and/or 401K retirement savings and maybe social security benefits I could count on.

Spectra makes many different sizes of machines. Given the nature of your question, I assume you are referring to the Spectra 11, which has a maximum batch capacity of about 3kg. You will be able to finish around two batches per week of chocolate in this machine. If your bar size is 60 grams you will be making at most 100 bars per week of, at most, two different recipes.

Given all your costs, including paying yourself a wage, can you a) charge an acceptable price; and b) sell what make (where)? In other words, is 6kg/week of chocolate a going business for you?

You may discover that 10kg/week of two different recipes is not enough to have a successful business. The question is – do you prioritize quantity over variety? Would it be better to have one larger melanger or two small ones? I can’t answer that for you – you need to decide what kind of business you want to have, and how much gross profit you need to generate first to answer the question.

Equipment List

You are going to need (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Proper storage for beans
  • Proper storage for other ingredients
  • Gear for bean sorting/inspection
  • Roaster (the Behmor you mention)
  • Cracker and winnower (the Champion is one-half of the requirement)
  • Melanger (the Spectra you mention)
  • Tempering gear
  • Intermediate storage (roasted beans, nibs, liquor, chocolate)
  • Tempering gear
  • Molds
  • Smallwares
  • Furniture (work tables, storage racks, etc)
  • Consumables

A Behmor can roast enough beans in the amount of time available with a 2x batch/week for the Spectra 11 production cycle. A Champion juicer as a cracker (assume a Sylph or similar as the winnower) also has the necessary capacity.

So that suggests another way of thinking at things – what process takes the longest and do you have time to do everything else you need to do in less than that time? If a batch takes 72 hours from when you put it into the melanger until it is done can you complete all the other tasks you need to get done – sort, roast, crack/winnow, temper, deposit, de-mold, and wrap in less than that time?

Experience says yes (and easily) – but it will take time and practice to develop an efficient working routine.

BUT, can you generate enough income on 6kg week? That’s 100, 60-gram bars of at most two different recipes. If you can sell them at a local market for £8 and the COGS is £2.50, that’s a maximum gross profit of £550/week – if you sell everything you make. That has to cover all other costs: packaging, rent, utilities, wages, taxes, stand costs at the market, travel costs, PR/social media/marketing. Everything.

Another Perspective on Micro-batch

Let’s get back to the original question, “What does micro-batch mean in terms of size?”

There is no single definition that is widely accepted, and many definitions incorporate other elements (such as intent, sourcing practices) that have nothing to do with the size of the machines you have.

If I had to pick an upper limit, I would put micro-batch at up to 25kg, but others peg it at 50kg.

I suspect this might have something to do with how you want to position the business – as a micro-batch chocolate maker, and don’t want other makers to be quibbling about your not meeting their “standard.” There is no standard.

Another thing to consider is that the names Spectra uses is not at all helpful. The 11 only processes 3kg (not 11lbs or 5kg which is what I would have guessed). The 45NB processes 15kg. The 25NB just 6kg.

DCM’s naming scheme is much more straightforward. The DCM15 processes 15lbs (7kg), is half the price (at the time of this writing), and is smaller than the Spectra 25NB.

Whatever that size is, you need to make sure you have supporting equipment with the capacity to perform all of the other steps in the time it takes to perform the longest process.

About the Pre-Grinder

TL;DR – with a Spectra 11 it’s a luxury that will almost certainly cost significantly more than the Spectra 11.

What the pre-grinder will do is reduce the particle size (of the nibs) to something much smaller. This means less time in the melanger, maybe. The ingredient that takes the most time in the melanger is sugar. In my experience, you might be able to reach the desired particle size distribution in 24-30 hours but might spend the next 30-48 in the conching stage. A dedicated conche might be a better choice than a pre-grinder if the dedicated conche can reduce the time from 30-48 hours to 4 or less. This will enable you, with the same melanger, to go from two batches/week to three.

If you can’t afford a dedicated conche, then finding a mix of lower-cost approaches to reducing the time in the melanger may be worth the research and investment.

In Closing

One thing that’s missing is any idea of what your budget is. I can guess that the minimal equipment budget looks to be around £3000. This is enough for a decent hobby business but it will be a challenge to grow a full-time business out of cash flow.

If your equipment and overall budgets are larger, my thoughts and conclusions would be different.

YOUR Opinions ...

Don’t agree with me? Have something else you want to say? Questions about any of this?

Let us know in the comments.

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