The first time I heard about TO`AK, I have to admit, I thought maybe it was just for royalty–which is who chocolate used to be reserved for centuries ago.
Because I’ve always been interested in exploring the chocolate world from a different angle, I started to research TO’AK and learn more about their story. Turns out, there’s a lot more than meets the eye.
I also heard conflicting stories about how good their products really are, which was usually based on hearsay. So I decided to contact James Le Compte, one of TO`AK’s owners and leading voices. We spent some time talking about their work in Ecuador and their unique style as a TREE-TO-BAR chocolate maker.
So, what do we really know about TO`AK?
The first thing that quickly became apparent is that it goes much deeper than merely a fancy marketing strategy. It is impossible to think that the people behind To’ak have spent more than twelve years in Ecuador creating the rainforest conservation foundation Third Millennium Alliance, founding a forest preserve, working side by side with local cacao growers, collaborating with universities and other well-known chocolate makers in the country just to play a public relations stunt.
There is a reason why they call their cacao conservation project the “Noah’s Ark of Ancient Nacional cacao.” Their mission is to save and preserve Ecuador`s Ancient Nacional Cacao, which is nearly extinct. We’re talking about an extremely old cacao variety that traces its genetic lineage back to 5300 years! And it also just happens to be famous for its rich and complex flavor profile.
In the valley Piedra de Plata, they found old-growth cacao trees that were confirmed by DNA analysis to be 100% pure Nacional. These trees have been officially designated “Heirloom” by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund. So we’re talking about gold, here.
To’ak chocolate is sourced exclusively from cacao pods that match the morphological and color profile of heirloom Nacional cacao referenced from DNA testing.
They have been inspired by winemakers and whiskey distilleries to elevate the dark chocolate tasting experience onto the level of vintage wine and aged whiskey.
Secondly, I am blown away by their aged dark chocolate!
They started out by experimenting with aging chocolate in empty Cognac and Scotch barrels. They anticipated that “the remnant vapor from the respective spirits was so powerful that it would impart a pronounced aroma to the chocolate.” They also did separate aging experiments in five types of Ecuadorian wood: Spanish Elm, Ecuadorian Cedar, Andean Alder, Olivo, Coastal Ecuadorian Mahogany, as well as in glass and ceramic containers. The form of chocolate they primarily use for this is a tempered one-gram “chocolate coin.” By using chocolate coins, they increase the surface area of the chocolate, which increases aroma absorption.
This is by no means a short-term project for them:
“Our goal is to check each of our harvest for up to 20 years or even longer. In the meantime, we continue to taste each vintage every 6 months to measure its evolution. If and when we find it to be at a phase that is particularly interesting to the palate, we produce a very small edition and offer it to the public”.
Another thing I would like to focus on is the name “TO`AK.” It means “earth” and “tree,” and it’s meant to express the deep connection between the soil, climate, and flavor profile of an extraordinary tree: Theobroma cacao. Indeed, cacao growers in Piedra de Plata practice “dry-farming,” a concept well-known in the wine world. Basically, they do not irrigate their cacao. For this reason, TO`AK Harvest editions allow you to "taste the land" and the weather variations of each specific year. To demonstrate this philosophy, they put a single roasted cacao bean in the middle of each bar. They believe that tasting the source is the best way to really understand chocolate from a deeper perspective.
This is a journey that started with great enthusiasm, no one would dispute that. The aim was not to create the most expensive chocolate in the world but to make chocolate in a way that had never been done before. That is the reason why Jerry, Carl, Denise, and James decided to track down the oldest and rarest variety of cacao on earth.
I asked some questions to James Le Compte to delve a little deeper, among chocoholics.
1. Why is To'ak chocolate the most expensive option on the market?
We work with a very scarce raw material (Ancient Nacional), and we chose to follow a path that meant we couldn't compete on volume or price with other chocolate brands. By pricing our products as they are, we hope:
to contribute to the discussion within the food industry about the true cost of food;
to create the space, we need to be able to put our values into practice concerning direct trade and environmental sustainability;
to give ourselves the creative freedom (without the pressure of competing on price) when it comes to pushing the boundaries of what people expect when it comes to craft chocolate.
2. In what consists of the dry-farming method? What are the difficulties and the effect in terms of growth and flavor profile of the cacao beans?
Dry farming is basically the absence of irrigation and other modern farming techniques. The farmers we work with depending on natural weather patterns and rainfall, just as they have for generations. By leaving the conditions to nature we are working with cacao that is truly terroir-driven.
3. What do we need to know about your Rain Harvest selection?
Fine wines allow us the privilege of tasting the valley in which the grapes were grown. To'ak's Harvest style offers connoisseurs of dark chocolate this same opportunity—to taste not only the land but also the unique weather characteristics of each particular cacao harvest.
We release a limited number of bars from each harvest year. Every time the flavor profile differs, based on changing weather and soil conditions and the final production techniques we apply in terms of fermentation time, roast and conch time, and cacao percentage.
About the new Rain Harvest, it is the most floral edition of To'ak chocolate produced thus far. The cacao was harvested during an unusually dry and cloudy year. This factor, combined with a mild roast and minimal conching, elevated the floral notes in the chocolate. As always, our main goal is to capture and preserve the historic flavor profile of Heirloom Nacional to the best of our abilities.
The Galapagos Harvest 2018 is made in collaboration with Dark Shark. We harvest the cacao for our Galapagos edition from two farms. One of those farms is owned by a woman who works as a tour guide on the islands. She wanted to keep part of the production and sell it in the Galapagos under the brand name "Dark Shark". Due to the pandemic, tourism in the Galapagos has been almost non-existent and therefore she was unable to sell many of her chocolate bars. Since we had a lot of demand for these bars, we agreed to help her sell some on our website. In the end, the only difference is the packaging representing hammerhead sharks. It is the same batch of chocolate made by To'ak. I also would like to point out that in this case, the cacao bean variety goes by the name of Complejo Nacional that is a term coined by INIAP to describe hybrids of Nacional with other varieties as Criollo, Amelonado, Upper Amazonas Forastero. Least but not last, the Galapagos is the only bar in our selection that contains 70% cacao beans and 5% of cocoa butter. Usually, our chocolate is made with just two ingredients which are cacao beans and cane sugar.
For the drinking chocolate, we aged Ecuadorian cacao beans for 6 years in a French Cognac Cask. Another thing that should be emphasized too: our drinking chocolate is first made as chocolate and then ground into a powder, which means we don't press out any cacao butter. This way it gives a richer and creamier hot chocolate.
4. What do you mean by "aging-chocolate"? What are the peculiarities of this process? Can you describe its complexity in terms of researching the right flavor and the minimum aging time to apply? How much the aging time affect the final price and why?
To'ak developed the world's first long-term chocolate aging program. The flavor and aromas of our cask-aged and specialty-aged chocolates evolve slowly with the passage of time. Today To'ak ages its chocolate in casks as diverse as Cognac, Scotch Whisky, Bourbon, PX Sherry, Tequila, Port, Sauternes, and Rum, as well as aromatic Ecuadorian wood and other ingredients.
We age chocolate (rather than cacao) in coin format. Our research has demonstrated that the chocolate is more porous than the beans (therefore it is more aroma absorbing). Coins increase the surface area of the chocolate and the potential for oxygenation and aroma transfer. It is the cacao butter that absorbs the aroma. Just as we use fats in cooking to enhance and transmit flavor, when the cacao butter in the chocolate melts on our palate, it releases the flavors of the barrel and the chocolate together. It is actually quite a simple process — the hardest part is the patience to age the chocolate.
We like to age our chocolate for a minimum of 18 months, but everything depends on the intensity of the partner's aroma. We test the chocolate very regularly to discover when is the ideal time to convert it into bars and share it with our community.
Aging chocolate, rather than selling it as soon as practically possible, implies additional costs from a production and accounting perspective. Consider the fact that we are selling chocolate today that was made with cacao harvested in 2014. We had to finance our operations between purchasing the cacao (at prices 300-800% higher than typical farmgate prices), converting it to chocolate, and getting paid for the sale of our bars.
5. How did you elevate Ecuador Nacional cacao beans to luxurious chocolate with such silky texture, sharp snap, complex aroma, and, depending on the bar, an intricate flavor profile?
We try to do as little as possible to our Harvest editions. We work with exceptional cacao, and our goal is to share the unique characteristics of this variety with our clients in its purest form. We are one of a small number of chocolate makers who are involved in every stage from tree-to-bar. We are present when the cacao is harvested and selected, we ferment the cacao ourselves and continue to manage every single process and quality control measure through to the final packaging. This offers us unparalleled control over quality. Many beans will not pass the harvest stage, the fermentation stage, the drying stage, the roasting stage, etc. Our beans are all sorted by hand and go through multiple quality control checks.
6. Why do you think To'ak chocolate is not properly appreciated?
That is news to us! Trustpilot asks all of our customers (on our behalf) for their honest feedback, and you can see many direct quotes from customers about their appreciation for our chocolate. If your question is "why do some people disagree with To'ak's strategy" this is a different question, as we hear that the far majority of our clients thoroughly enjoy and appreciate the chocolate experience that we offer.
Whenever someone challenges the status quo, there will be pushback. We have never claimed that To'ak makes the best chocolate in the world. There are many fabulous brands in the craft chocolate industry, and we personally buy and enjoy their chocolate very much. We think the market is large enough and the industry mature enough to welcome a diverse group of craft chocolate brands so long as each is approaching their craft authentically. Our belief is that a diverse set of offerings is in the interest of the industry. Price and product differentiation offer consumers more choice and broaden the appeal of the industry—consider the parallels with the wine industry, which provides a vibrant and diverse range of wines for almost every wallet and every occasion. This is a net positive for the industry.
7. What are the various research institutes To'ak collaborate with? And your work with the farmers?
Our team is quite nerdy about cacao, so we enjoy the opportunity to collaborate with research teams. Here are some of the most interesting research institutes/projects we have collaborated with:
The Oenology department at Washington State University to research the effects of aging chocolate.
The University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria, to research the change in the polyphenol content of our cacao and chocolate according to harvest year, fermentation time, roast level, and other production variables.
The USDA and the HCP to genetically test the cacao we source.
ESPAM and the Calceta Agricultural University to provide academic guidance on the design of our Cacao Genetic Bank (read more here).
8. What is the difference between the Signature, Origin, and Art series collection? And why do you decide to give access to some of the most expensive products in your line to retailer stores?
To'ak chocolate is made like a vintage wine, and it is often aged like a fine whisky. Our Origin Bars are presented in an elegant hand-crafted wooden box and accompanied with a color booklet and tasting utensils—offering the ultimate chocolate experience. Our Signature Bars offer the same exceptional chocolate in a minimalistic presentation. Single-origin drinking chocolate and 100% cacao powder are offered under our T.cacao brand. Our Art Series is an acknowledgment of the rich complexity that cacao offers our senses. We pair some of the world's oldest cacao with some of Ecuador's most compelling art to create a complete sensory experience.
To'ak is based in Ecuador and we add all of the value to our product in Ecuador. While we have a growing clientele in Ecuador, the majority of our products are exported. Given we don't have a physical presence in our main markets, we truly appreciate the opportunity to work with retail stores that serve the craft chocolate community in the US, Europe, and beyond.
9. Personally, I am intrigued by the Art Series Guayasamin that sadly I will never be able to buy. But I am very curious to know about its uniqueness.
At To'ak, we've never been satisfied with simply making chocolate. Ultimately what we present to the world is a work of art, and dark chocolate is our medium of expression.
Ecuador's native son, Oswaldo Guayasamín, is one of Latin America's most celebrated artists. His work has been on display in many of the finest museums and galleries in the world. In 1976, Guayasamín and his children created the Fundación Guayasamín with the mission to honor Ecuador's rich indigenous culture and history. In service of this mission, To'ak Chocolate and Fundación Guayasamín co-created a special edition of dark chocolate that pays tribute to the ancient history and culture of Ecuador in a way that has never been done before.
Our 2015 Harvest permitted us the opportunity to highlight a spectrum of flavors that Nacional cacao offers us. We released two editions to the public in 2015, but separately — Rain Harvest Light (73%) and Rain Harvest Dark (80.5%). We allowed people the opportunity to experience both sides of the Nacional flavor personality but only side-by-side. For the Art Series, we created our very first blend, using chocolate aged from our 2015 harvest. We integrated our "Light" and "Dark" editions into a single unified expression, which we call the Duality Blend. This metaphor extends beyond flavor and can also be interpreted in the context of our work on the land. In the drawing by Guayasamín that accompanies this edition, we see an indigenous man that has been beaten down by cruelty, and yet he is also planting a tree. In spite of the suffering that he bears, what he offers is an expression of hope.
Guayasamín once said that his hands have been painting for more than five thousand years. Interestingly, Nacional cacao also traces its roots back by roughly 5,000 years in Ecuador. In this rare edition of chocolate, we are celebrating that which is far older than any of us and transcends time. We are celebrating the human experience in all of its many shades.
10. Can you describe the different grades of Nacional cacao?
Interestingly, many people claim to use "Nacional" without truly doing the necessary investigations to understand the different grades of Nacional cacao or to take the necessary steps to assure themselves that the cacao they are sourcing is in fact Nacional. Unfortunately, a lot of farmers in Ecuador will claim to be growing Nacional. Still, in the majority of cases, they will be growing what is more accurately known as Complejo Nacional — relatively higher-yield clones and hybrids that INIAP created by breeding heirloom Nacional cacao trees with specific cultivars from various other varieties. Complejo Nacional typically contains somewhere between 30-69% Nacional genetics. In our blog article The Different Grades of Ecuadorian Cacao we provide an in-depth look at the topic listing each grade of Ecuadorian Cacao:
Ancient Nacional: 100% Nacional
Heirloom Nacional: 70-99% Nacional crossed with Trinitario
Complejo Nacional: 30-69% Nacional crossed with other varieties
CCN-51: 1% Nacional crossed with six varieties
Ancient Nacional sits at the very top in terms of quality - genetically 100% pure Nacional - and rarity. It was believed extinct we found some trees in Piedra de Plata. Since then, we have never stopped, looking for new directions and new challenges - day after day- motivated by passion and by the desire to do better.
Now tell me, do you still think To'ak chocolate is overrated?
In conclusion, I would like to talk about my tasting adventure. I find the texture memorable and almost always extremely silky leaving a very clean and aromatic palate. The snap is sharp and the scents are very intriguing. Every bar has its own seductive palate and a different story to tell. Tasting To’ak chocolate kind of feels like going on a ride of flavors.
I am obsessed with their PALO SANTO 2015 HARVEST (aged for four years). I like to think about it as a vegan “exotic coconut chocolate mint latte”.
The TEQUILA 3 YEARS CASK AGED is very sophisticated with a perfect balance of flavors. The aroma from the barrel is gentle but evocative. I like to think about it as “tequila chocolate mousse”.
The RAIN HARVEST 2017 has a pleasant fragrant pistachio mouthfeel, rounded off by an espresso aroma.
Of all of TO'AK’s offerings, my heart belongs to their aged dark chocolate bars, which are distinguished by a surprisingly-long and delightful aftertaste. Some residual aromas seem to last until the next day, lingering on the tip and on the side of your tongue. If you’re looking for truly sumptuous flavor profiles, their aged bars are the way to go.
The Signature Harvest selection is perfect for those with an expert palate, who love to not only indulge but to explore the flavor profiles of chocolate. It’s like a sensory meditation experience.
After the first bite, you cannot live without it. TO`AK has created one of the most alluring ranges dark chocolate in the world!
PS: I invite you to read three detailed articles written by To’ak’s co-founder Jerry Toth. I think it helps illustrate the depth of what To’ak is trying to do as a pioneer in the realm of "Tree to Bar" chocolate making: