How To'ak Is Pioneering Sustainable Chocolate
3 min read

How To'ak Is Pioneering Sustainable Chocolate

Stephanie Garr

3th of July 2024

“Sustainability” is the shiniest buzzword on the market and no industry nor customer is safe from its ambiguity. As Sharon Terenzi (aka The Chocolate Journalist) explains here, “This term has no legal criteria nor official definitions that can keep companies accountable for their claims.”

And so we now have “sustainable chocolate,” a sleek new framing of the status quo. This phrase can mean just about anything to any company (even those promoting “cacao-free chocolate”), so we’d like to use this blog to fill you in on every step of our chocolate-making process as a small sustainable chocolate company based in Ecuador.

To To’ak, sustainable chocolate requires transparency and accountability at every step, from the land the cacao is grown on to the packaging our chocolate is wrapped in.

*Chocolate can be used to destroy the rainforest or help restore it. We choose the latter.

Starting from the ground up

Co-founder of both To'ak and Third Millennium Alliance (TMA), Jerry Toth is on the ground in coastal Ecuador. Here, he manages eight parcels of heirloom cacao in the Jama-Coaque Reserve and personally spearheaded a regenerative cacao cooperative that currently numbers 77 farmers. One of those parcels is the so-called “genetic bank” of pure Ancient Nacional. These are trees grafted from the nine mother trees whose DNA tested at 100% pure Nacional by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund via the USDA's genetic lab.

man holding cacao pod

Committing to regenerative cacao

To’ak partner TMA, a rainforest conservation organization, works to reproduce these trees by grafting a few thousand each year and distributing them to farmers as part of our Regenerative Agroforestry project in the buffer zone around the Jama-Coaque Reserve. The basic concept is that farmers are planting cacao trees in combination with a wide variety of shade trees onto deforested cattle pasture, in an effort to convert the land into productive and healthy agroforests. 

Going beyond Fair Trade

To’ak pays some of the highest farmgate cacao prices of any chocolate company on the continent—up to 700% above the local market price for wet cacao. (Note: These numbers are always fluctuating).

Check out our transparency report for more on our pricing. When comparing prices to other producers, please be mindful of the wet cacao to dry cacao conversion. U.S.-based chocolate companies tend to quote their cacao prices in dry weight and may also include freight costs. Our prices are wet farmgate prices.

Making sustainable chocolate

Below, Toth takes us through what To’ak does on the farm and in the factory:

1. Tag and catalog cacao trees

We started by doing a complete inventory of the cacao trees in the region of Piedra de Plata, physically tagging all 570 trees that match the age and morphology of pure Ancient Nacional, in addition to cataloging several other thousand trees that fall into the Nacional Hybrid/Complejo Nacional range of genetics.

harvesting cacao pods in ecuador

2. Receive wet cacao from the farmers

On harvest day, we go to Piedra de Plata to receive the wet cacao from each farmer. Cacao from the Ancient Nacional trees is brought in the pod, which we (usually Toth and two of the farmers) manually open with machetes on site and then weigh the wet mass. Cacao from the rest of the trees is brought in sacks and weighed.

3. Ferment and dry the cacao

In the past, we always loaded those sacks into trucks and took them to the post-harvest facility that we built at Servio’s farm or, more recently, to the post-harvest facility by Don Arnoldo’s house in Piedra de Plata. [Servio Pachard is a fourth-generation cacao grower and a member of the Seed Guardians Network, an alliance of families working to promote regenerative agriculture and save heirloom seeds.] Here, we manage the fermenting and drying process ourselves.

4. Manually sort the beans

We then transport the fermented and dried cacao to our own production facility (on the first floor of the building where our office is located) in Quito, where we manually sort the beans ourselves.

fermenting and sorting cacao beans

5. Roast, winnow, grind, and conch

For our Alchemy line, we take the beans to Ecuatoriana de Chocolates [a Quito-based producer of high-quality gourmet chocolate] for roasting, winnowing, grinding, and some conching. For some of our Signature editions, we also conch at Ecuatoriana. We’re physically present during the entire process, managing the roasting curve, testing the micrometers of the ground cacao, etc. It has long been our dream to buy all of our own equipment. Little by little we’re buying what we can.

6. Add inclusions for Alchemy

For Alchemy, we take the ground cacao back to our own production facility to add the inclusion ingredients and temper and mold into bars. We also finish all of the inclusion ingredients here—i.e., making dulce de naranja (candied Galapagos orange), roasting the Amazonian nuts, preparing the salprieta, etc. 

dark chocolate sea salt and candied orange

7. Prepare and package the chocolate bars 

We do all the packaging in our production facility in Quito. *A note on sustainable packaging: Finding and using sustainable packaging has proven to be a challenge, one that we are continually working to improve. For our new Essentials line, we are using biodegradable bags made of PLA, a 100% plant-based compostable material and boxes made of 40% post-consumer recycled cacao waste and produced with 100% green energy.

100% cacao powder in box

Keeping us accountable

You are a key part of this equation. Your purchase supports our work in regenerative agriculture and heirloom cacao conservation. Our sustainability commitment only works when consumers are onboard with this approach and hold chocolate companies accountable.

To'ak team and Ecuador cacao farmers