Jerry Toth and Carl Schweizer make the world’s most expensive chocolate. At $355 per 50-gram bar, it’s very nearly worth its weight in gold. Wrapped and overwrapped in layers of gilt-packaging, and tucked into Spanish elm boxes with a special tasting tool and 118-page informational booklet, To’ak bars are to chocolate what a bottle of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Romanee-Conti Grand Cru, is to red wine.
“We wanted to challenge the whole Halloween/Snickers bar perception of chocolate, as a cheap mass-produced commodity, and flip it on its back,” says Toth, who co-founded To’ak Chocolate with Schweizer in Ecuador four years ago.
Toth first found his way to Ecuador in 2006, writing about South American politics for leftist Canadian magazine Adbusters. Disillusioned with the power of politics to effect meaningful change, Toth turned to nature conservation, co-founding the nonprofit rainforest conservancy that would hatch a new passion for organic cacao farming. That, in turn, led to the birth of To’ak Chocolate, with Schweizer and assistance from fourth-generation cacao grower and organic agroforestry expert, Servio Pachard.
“Rather than produce millions of bars, we produce only a few hundred in an entire year,” Toth explains. “And, these bars are made from the oldest and rarest variety of cacao on earth.”
“Nacional” cacao, prized for its floral aroma and complex flavor profile, was nearly wiped out by witch’s broom disease in the early 1900s. So Toth’s discovery of a motherlode of the trees on land near his forest preserve was nearly miraculous.
“It was like stepping in to a real-world Jurassic Park in the botanical sense,” says Toth.
Ecuador’s leading agricultural institute had previously tested 11,000 cacao trees in search of Nacional survivors, but only found six that were genetic matches. But of 16 old-growth cacao trees that Toth found and had tested, nine proved to be 100 percent pure Nacional, and the rest more than 90 percent pure. Working with 14 farmers, To’ak harvests cacao from these trees and others like them.
But beyond the rarity of the beans, To’ak’s experiments barrel-aging chocolate are equally unusual. Given the similarities between dark chocolate and wine, “You’d think there would already be a longstanding tradition of aging chocolate, but there isn’t,” notes Toth. During their growth, cacao and grapes are both strongly influenced by terroir. Once mature, both are fermented and then submitted to a sequence of processes to produce desired color, flavor, mouth feel, and finish. Both are also rich in the tannins and polyphenols (flavonoids) which, when exposed to oxygen over time, evolve and enhance flavors.
“But while winemakers have been aging wine for hundreds of years, for some reason, nobody’s been aging chocolate,” says Toth. “When we started our chocolate aging program in 2013, people thought we were crazy—nobody had ever heard of that.”
Building on aging techniques proven in both the wine and whisky industries, Toth turned to experts—from enology professors to historians to molecular biologists, to suss out best techniques for aging chocolate. Currently, To’ak is aging in a variety of vessels, including a 50-year old Cognac cask from France and a Scotch whisky barrel from the Laphroaig distillery in Scotland. As a control, To’ak is also aging chocolate in glass, adobe and five kinds of Ecuadorian wood. Tasting the chocolate at three-month intervals over the course of years Toth says it witnessed the gradual extraction of aromas from both the spirits and the wood of the casks into the chocolate. Chocolate aged in glass and some of the Ecuadorian woods also showed a gradual transformation.
Most recent examples of this are To’ak’s newest limited-edition chocolates: the Single Malt Islay Cask Matured, at $355 per bar, and the El Niño Harvest 2016, at $295 per bar. As aging experiments continue, Toth envisions offering bars of chocolate aged for up to 20 years. He also believes that aging dark chocolate in a widening array of casks and barrels—including those with different char levels matured at a variety of climates, will definitely change the way people think about chocolate.
Meanwhile, Toth keeps busy with day-to-day cacao-farm challenges. Heirloom Nacional cacao trees are notorious for meager yields. “So huge chocolate companies encourage farmers to grow higher-yielding, lower-flavor cacao trees at the expense of heirloom varieties,” explains Toth. To counter this, To’ak guarantees cacao growers the highest price per pound in Ecuador, in some cases multiplied by a factor of four.” As well, deforestation and unsustainable land use in Ecuador continue to be problems. In response, Toth’s nonprofit conservation foundation, Third Millennium Alliance, has planted over 18,000 native hardwood trees and protects over 1,400 acres of rainforest in Ecuador. The nonprofit Third Millennium Alliance and the for-profit To’ak, work together to replenish the endangered Nacional trees by grafting budwood from the old-growth trees onto baby seedlings.
As for slightly less expensive offerings? Toth laughs, “Yes! We have that in mind.”
For more information and to purchase, visit toakchocolate.com.