Updated: Jun 12
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 at 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.
Second of all, 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.
About my tasting adventure, the texture is 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 it’s own seductive flavor 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 an “exotic coconut chocolate mint latte” (vegan).
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.
The GALAPAGOS has a soft fudge texture, caramel-like cool mouthfeel, and subtle notes of brown fruits that underlie it.
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: