How does one enjoy a nearly $300 bar of chocolate? In the case of To’ak Chocolate, one pairs it with a really good glass of whiskey, cognac or rum, says co-founder Jerry Toth, who recommends a Pappy Van Winkle, Frapin XO or El Dorado 21 year as options.
The former Wall Street investment banker turned environmental conservationist-chocolatier had an unlikely career trajectory, but Toth says he’s putting his economics degree from Cornell to good use.
While working at rainforest conservation organization Toth found himself in the valley of Piedra de Plata in the Ecuadorian province of Manabí. He left Wall Street after realizing pretty quickly that wasn’t the lifestyle for him. He relocated to South America where he met a woman from Ecuador who would become his girlfriend and soon help him launch a rainforest conservation organization in her home country. “We developed a 1,000 acre forest preserve in coastal Ecuador and started working with nearby farmers to reforest their cattle pastures with shade-grown cacao trees,” says Toth.
Toth and his girlfriend also started growing cacao trees on their own experimental agroforestry plot, where they found groves of old cacao trees growing wild. “We started to harvest the fruit and ferment, dry and roast the beans and make our own chocolate, and immediately we recognized that this chocolate was in a different universe from anything else we had ever tasted that bore the name ‘chocolate,’” Toth says. “Only later did we find out that the cacao beans in this province of Ecuador have historically been considered the most prized variety in the world. It was like a wine maker one day waking up and someone telling him that he’s been living in the Côte d’Or, Burgundy his whole life.”
When Toth and his friend Carl Schweizer set out to find the best cacao beans to create their chocolate bar, they paid particular attention to the soil and climate in which the beans were grown. The flavor characteristics of cacao vary by location—think of it as similar to the characteristics of the different grape varieties used to produce wine.
What Toth didn’t know was that an outbreak of “Witch’s Broom” disease all but decimated the source of Ecuador’s national treasure: the heirloom cacao tree. Most of the trees currently growing in the country are hybrids, bred with foreign varieties of cacao. Only scattered remnants of heirloom cacao trees are left, and those are usually found in remote pockets of the country, with the most cherished among them residing in the famous Arriba cacao growing region.
Toth and Schweizer set out to find the ideal appellation, which turned their attention upriver, toward the watersheds of the Daule and Babahoyo Rivers. They enlisted the help of a local friend, Servio Pachard, a fourth generation Manabi cacao grower. His great-grandfather was one of the first men to settle the hinterlands of Managi, and Pachard’s own explorations of the region as an agroforestry specialist provided him access to isolated valleys beyond the reach of roads
The expedition led them deep into the low-lying mountains where only a handful of Nacional Arriba cacao trees remained, some of which are more than 100 years of age. They found their source.
Not all beans pass muster. “Our beans are subjected to six different phases of hand-selection—in each phase, we remove beans that are deemed too small, under-ripe or over-ripe or imperfectly fermented,” notes Toth. The final selection process took three days of inspecting the beans one-by-one and making value judgments on their suitability.
Unused beans were returned to the forest floor and now serve as nutrition for the soil or were sold to producers of lower-grade chocolate products. “At production time this year, we actually produced over 900 bars, but roughly one-third of them were found to have blemishes on the surface, so they were separated from the rest and are being used for various tasting and aging experiments,” says Toth. The remaining 574 bars, deemed worthy for packaging, are the only bars we have released to the public.” The goal for 2015’s harvest is to produce just over double that amount, around 1,200, depending on a number of factors including climate.
In addition to the 2015 Rain Harvest release, the team is currently aging a portion of its 2014 harvest. “We are not aging them as bars—rather, we are aging the chocolate mass prior to tempering and formation into bars,” adds Toth. “As with wine, slight and long-term access to oxygen (in a controlled temperature setting) helps soften the tannins of chocolate and rounds out the acidity. In 2015, we will also be releasing about 400 bars of 2014 One-Year Reserve.”
Toth says what makes the beans prized and the chocolate so strong is its complexity and balance, and he thanks the growing region for that. “What I think is special, particularly with our chocolate—and this has a lot to do with terroir of Piedra de Plata—is the wealth of secondary flavor characteristics that evolve from one second to the next,” he says.
The chocolate’s complexity is partly what makes it such a good candidate for pairings with high-end alcohol like cognac, whiskey and rum. Three, soon to be four, retail locations throughout the U.S. offer tastings.
Cognac is the best spirit pairing, according to Toth, preferring Kelt XO and Frapin XO as top choices. “Rum is the other definite winner,” he adds. “El Dorado 21 year and El Dorado 15 year are top choices in the rum category.”
“If Cognac is the most divine, and rum quite nice, whiskey is the most complex,” he says. “Some whiskies are amazing, others are not. In the realm of Scotch, peaty whiskies, such as Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Bruichladdich do not work—the peatiness overwhelms the chocolate. Very oaky whiskies are also not great. The best Scotch whiskies are whiskies that are aged or finished in sherry casks or port-aged casks. Aberlour is arguably the best. Balvenie 15 year and 21 year (in port wood) is quite interesting.”
The best pairing of all, says Toth, is the Pappy Van Winkle. “Not only because of the name, but really, the nuances of both Pappy and of To’ak somehow manage to stand on equal ground,” he explains. “A mouthful of Pappy Van Winkle and To’ak Chocolate is an experience that is worth having, even if only once.”
To’ak Chocolates and pairing are available in Chicago (both Lush Wine & Spirits retail locations), Los Angeles (Wally’s Wine & Spirits), and in the San Francisco Bay Area (Beltramo’s Wine & Spirits in Menlo Park). Individual bars can be purchased on the To’ak website. Each 50 gram bar comes packaged in a wooden box and accompanied by a 116-page booklet that includes an extensive guide to dark chocolate tasting, so not all of your $260 will go down your gullet.