Aged chocolate is a new phenomenon that To'ak has been pioneering since 2013. The process is grounded in the science of flavor extraction, and draws heavily from long-standing practices in both the wine and whisky traditions. Here's a look at why we do it and how it works.
The Whisky Precedent
It is estimated that up to 80% of the aroma and flavor of a well-aged spirit, such as whisky, is derived from the barrel itself. Hence the supreme importance of barrel selection and aging conditions for whisky, cognac, tequila and pretty much anything else with an age statement on the bottle.
Oils and other chemical compounds within the wood play a key role in this process. Lignin most notably imparts vanilla notes, and can also contribute floral and spicy aromas. Lactones lend a buttery, coconut character. Hemicellulose offers a gamut of extractable aroma compounds ranging from nutty and caramel to sweet and malt.
"Chocolate has an interesting advantage in extracting flavor and aroma from the wood: namely, the absorptive oils that are naturally present in cacao."
When whisky is stored in an oak barrel, it extracts these chemical compounds from the wood and draws them into the whisky, which imparts flavor and color. When aging chocolate in wood barrels, a similar process unfolds. Usually (but not always) we insert chocolate into barrels and other wood containers when the chocolate is in solid form. Even in solid form, chocolate has an interesting advantage in extracting flavor and aroma from the wood: namely, the absorptive oils that are naturally present in cacao.
Barrel Aging Applied to Chocolate
Cacao beans are roughly 50% fat. If you press a cacao bean with a great deal of strength, you can actually extract this fat, which is referred to as “cacao butter.” Cacao butter is used as an additive to some chocolates and also as a skin care product, among other uses. At To’ak, we usually don’t add extra cacao butter to our chocolate. But the cacao butter that is already naturally present in our chocolate is put to work during the aging process.
"One of the interesting qualities of cacao butter is its remarkable ability to absorb other aromas."
One of the interesting qualities of cacao butter is its remarkable ability to absorb other aromas. Anyone who has purchased a bar of To’ak online is most likely familiar with the storage instructions we offer to each of our customers. In addition to not storing your dark chocolate in a freezer, we also remind people to protect their chocolate from other strong odors.
If you want to experiment with this phenomenon at home, try storing an open bar of chocolate in the vicinity of a sliced onion. Within a very short time, the aroma of the onion will be impregnated in the chocolate. (Please don’t use To’ak Chocolate for this experiment).
The inverse of this experiment is to store dark chocolate with pleasing aromas. This is the basis of our aging program. We age chocolate inside specialty casks (ex-cognac, ex-whisky, ex-port, etc) as well as inside Ecuadorian wood containers that we’ve built ourselves, in some cases for periods as long as four or five years.
We also produced aged dark chocolate with certain highly aromatic substances, such as Cambodian Kampot pepper, Ecuadorian Palo Santo wood, among several other experiments that we are not yet ready to announce. In each case, the fat content of the chocolate (i.e., the cacao butter) extracts these pleasing aromas from the aging vessel or aromatic medium, and the flavor of the chocolate is accordingly transformed.
"The value of this approach, as opposed to merely adding flavors at the point of production, is the subtlety and elegance of the aromas that are achieved."
The Element of Time
In some cases, aging chocolate takes many years—for example, our Ecuadorian wood-aged editions require long-term aging—up to six years so far. In other cases, a positive transformation is evident within one year—for example, our cognac edition—but the aroma continues to slowly improve over the course of many more years.
The value of this approach, as opposed to merely adding flavors at the point of production, is the subtlety and elegance of the aromas that are achieved. Over time, the flavor of the chocolate naturally evolves on its own through processes such as oxidation. Flavor extraction from barrels and other vessels adds another layer of complexity, which also evolves over time.
Doesn't Chocolate Spoil After Several Years?
Milk chocolate does spoil, because of the milk, but dark chocolate does not. The abundant tannins and polyphenols in cacao serve as a natural preservative. This study found that 80-year-old cocoa powder and 116-year-old cacao beans were still viable and "still show very high levels of antioxidant activity and flavan-3-ol content."
Many dark chocolate products have a "best by" date range of two years, but this is an entirely arbitrary number that isn't backed by any research. What is important, while storing or aging chocolate, is to keep it at a cool, consistent temperature and protected from direct sunlight.
We age our chocolate in the perpetually cool climes of the Andean city of Quito, Ecuador. The indoor temperature naturally hovers around 20° C (68° F), give or take one degree celsius, pretty much every minute of every day.
A New Frontier
There is no precedent for this. To’ak is the first chocolate maker to deeply explore aged chocolate, so we are learning as we go. In the process, we believe we are building a new system for the production of chocolate and the crafting of flavor and aroma—one which is based on the science of wine and whisky aging, and is implemented through the work of time.
To'ak's Aged Chocolate Experiments
Barrels & Casks
- French Oak, ex-Cognac (private bottling)*
- American Oak, ex-Scotch Whisky (Laphroaig)*
- American Oak, ex-Tequila (Don Julio)*
- American Oak, ex-Bourbon (Woodford Reserve)*
- Spanish Oak, ex-Pedro Ximenez Sherry
- Spanish Oak, ex-Port
- French Oak, ex-Sauternes
- American Oak, Ecuadorian Rum (Canuto)
- Spanish Elm*
- Andean Alder*
- Coastal Ecuadorian Mahogany
- Coastal Ecuadorian Cedar
- Santos Mahogany
- Palo Santo*
Other Aging Media
- Kampot Pepper*
- Pu'er Tea
- Galapagos Sea Salt
- Madagascar Vanilla Bean
*Already launched as a commercial edition.
You can check out our current offerings of aged chocolate here.