“Our mission was to transform the way that the world experiences dark chocolate, elevating its making and tasting to the level of vintage wine and aged whisky,” explained Jerry Toth of To’ak, which exclusively produces Ecuadorian dark chocolate produced from the cacao variety called Nacional from the Arriba cacao-growing region of coastal Ecuador. In an interview, we discussed the origins of the company, the history of chocolate, and their current limited edition products that are sure to delight even the master chocolatier.
Chicago native with an economics degree from Cornell University, Jerry Toth relocated to South America in 2001, where he worked various jobs ranging from waiting tables at a boutique Italian restaurant in Chile to working as the Latin American correspondent for a radical activist magazine called Adbusters. In 2007, he co-founded a rainforest conservation foundation in Ecuador called Third Millennium Alliance. Starting with a $10,000 donation and an abandoned house without electricity in the middle of the woods, Jerry and his two partners built a 1,200-acre rainforest preserve called the Jama-Coaque Reserve. By chance, the Reserve is located in a province that is to cacao what the French province of Burgundy is to wine. It was here that Jerry began harvesting semi-wild cacao and making chocolate by hand in an off-the-grid house in the middle of the forest.
By 2008, he started planting cacao trees in a small organic fruit orchard that he designed surrounding the house, and also helped plant cacao trees with his neighbors on their adjoining properties. Over the years, Jerry continued to hone his skill in cacao cultivation and subsequently in chocolate-making, and eventually decided to take this passion to another level.
Tell me a little bit about how To’ak Chocolate was founded.
To’ak was born from a rainforest conservation project that I started with two other people in 2007. We created a 1,500 acre forest preserve in the Ecuadorian province of Manabí, which is to cacao what the French province of Burgundy is to wine. We managed our fledgling forest reserve from a thatched bamboo house secluded in the middle of the forest, which is where I lived most of the time. As part of our conservation work I spent several years cultivating an organic fruit tree orchard there, which features cacao trees mixed with over fifty different species of other tropical fruit trees. In the mountains above the house we also found semi-wild cacao growing along stream banks. We harvested it and used it to make chocolate by hand following the methods taught to us by our neighbours. The house didn’t have electricity, so initially the entire process was done by hand. We roasted the cacao beans in a big iron pot over a wood fire and then de-husked the beans by hand, one by one. I would then use an old hand grinder to manually grind the beans. The unforgettable aroma that wafted from that grinder was my first cue that Ecuadorian cacao was unlike any other.
Slowly but surely we started to receive biology researchers and ecology interns who came to study the forest. When they heard that we make our own chocolate by hand—starting with harvesting the fruit in our backyard—naturally they all wanted to take part in the whole process themselves. So it became a rite of passage for people who visited our forest preserve—to make their own chocolate. When we finally sat down together to taste the fruits of our labor—usually with big insects whizzing by our heads, as our house in fully-open air—it was almost always a pleasantly mind-blowing experience for everyone. Not just the taste itself, but all the work that went into it, starting on the land and culminating in our mouths. On top of that, you have the ancient history of cacao in Ecuador, and what you finally get is something as deep and rich—if not more so—than even the best wines of France.
After several years of working with cacao in this way, I linked up with my co-founder Carl Schweizer and fourth-generation Ecuadorian cacao grower Servio Pachard. Our mission was to transform the way that the world experiences dark chocolate, elevating its making and tasting to the level of vintage wine and aged whisky. And I think we’re on the right path to do so.
Where does the name To’ak come from?
To’ak (pronounced Toe-Ahk): Derived from a fusion of ancient dialects in Ecuador, the name To’ak means “earth” and “tree,” which together represent the true source of all chocolate. We liken this name to the French term terroir, which describes how the taste of an artisanal product (wine, cheese, chocolate) expresses the specific soil and climate conditions of the land on which it was grown.
How would you place chocolate in the context of history?
In ancient times, chocolate was considered sacred and noble. In the industrial era it was commodified and mass-produced. To’ak is working to restore chocolate to its former grandeur and push its boundaries to new horizons. The finest of wines and whiskies allow people the privilege of exploring something sublime and timeless.
Ecuador is the motherland of cacao. The Ecuadorian cacao variety called “Nacional” traces its genetic lineage as far back as 5,300 years, to the earliest-known cacao trees domesticated by humanity. In the 18th and 19th centuries Nacional was considered by many European chocolatiers to be the most coveted source of cacao in the world because of its floral aroma and complex flavor profile. This was the golden era of Ecuadorian cacao, but it came to an abrupt end in 1916, when an outbreak of “Witches’ Broom” disease decimated the Nacional variety throughout the country. By the beginning of the 21st century most people believed that the pure Nacional genotype no longer existed. Our goal was to find it.
Our journey ultimately took us deep into the low-lying mountains of the famous Arriba cacao growing region, to the valley of Piedra de Plata. This valley had been disconnected by road to the rest of the country until the 1990s. Here we found groves of remarkably old cacao trees, in some cases over one hundred years of age. DNA tests would later confirm the presence of the pure Nacional genotype in this valley. We formed an association with 14 cacao growers there, from whom To’ak exclusively sources its cacao.
Describe some of the products themselves and how you’ve created an experience like no other.
The 2014 Rain Harvest Edition from Piedra de Plata was To’ak’s inaugural edition. 574 bars were produced. The recipe was 81% cacao. To’ak’s 2015 Rain Harvest Edition includes two expressions of dark chocolate from Piedra de Plata: “Dark” (80.5%) and “Light” (73%). With the terroir and variety held constant, these two expressions are distinguished from each other through several key differences in production process, namely: harvest period; fermentation time; conch time; and cacao percentage. The result are two distinct personalities that each showcase a different spectrum of the Nacional cacao flavor profile.
Our Vintage edition has been aged in a fifty-year-old French oak cognac cask for three years. We sourced the cask directly from France in 2014 and have been aging our Vintage 2014 harvest inside it ever since. We’ve also released an edition aged in Spanish Elm wood. Later this year we’ll be releasing an edition aged in a Laphroaig scotch barrel and another edition released in Ecuadorian Cedar.
Aged chocolate—does it really work, you ask? Yes it does. We concede that if the science behind wine aging is still not fully out of the woods, the science behind chocolate aging is stuck in a cave. To explore this question we contacted a wide range of wine-makers, master sommeliers, professors of enology, and even molecular scientists. Our findings are revealed in a 116-page booklet that accompanies each engraved box of vintage chocolate.
For all of our chocolate we use only two ingredients: cacao mass and cane sugar. Both are certified Organic and Fair Trade. No other additives are included, such as vanilla, extra cacao butter, emulsifiers, milk or other flavors.
In the middle of the bar is a single roasted cacao bean, which is hand-selected and hand-measured by Carl (the other co-founder) and I ourselves. To match the width of the bar, each bean has to measure within the range of 7mm-8mm. The roasted cacao bean in the middle of the bar is meant to showcase the raw and unadulterated flavour at the origin of this particular chocolate, and it’s our way of reminding us all that chocolate comes from the fruit of a tree, not a factory.
Each bar weighs 50 grams. Each bar of chocolate is packaged in a hand-crafted Spanish Elm wooden box with the individual bar number engraved on the back. Spanish Elm is the same wood used to ferment To’ak cacao beans. The Spanish Elm box includes a 116-page booklet that provides a guide to dark chocolate tasting and tells the story of how the beans are sourced and how the chocolate is made.
Another item included in the box is a tasting tweezers, made from responsibly-sourced Ecuadorian bamboo. Carl and I created the tasting tweezers to help people perceive the subtle aroma of To’ak chocolate without the interference of other odours that tend to accumulate in the skin of fingers and hands.