As tree-to-bar chocolate makers, we draw heavily from the techniques and tradition of both winemakers and whisky distilleries. As with wine, the flavor characteristics of dark chocolate vary according to the soil and climate in which the cacao was grown. At To’ak, we make our chocolate to express the land and weather idiosyncrasies of each specific year.
Next, there is the matter of applying barrels or other aging vessels in combination with time. As we’ve learned from whisky makers, about 70% of the flavor of a well-aged whisky is derived from the barrel in which it was aged. Extractable flavor compounds in the barrel are what give the whisky its defining features. To’ak is the first tree-to-bar chocolate maker that comprehensively applies this principle to chocolate.
TASTING THE LAND
Cacao growers in Piedra de Plata practice “dry farming,” as it is known in the wine world. In other words, they do not irrigate their cacao. As a consequence, our harvest is especially expressive of terroir and varies each year according to weather fluctuations. Embracing these idiosyncrasies of land and weather, and likewise engaging their consequences during various phases of the production process, is the art and challenge of tree-to-bar chocolate-making.
Consistent cloud cover during the dry season limits annual sunlight hours in coastal Ecuador to about half of the average of other cacao-growing regions. This effect is believed to exert a unique influence on the flavor profile of Ecuadorian cacao, owing to the critical relationship between sunlight and rain and the resulting differences in acidity and sugar levels of the fruit—think of the difference between Pinot Noir wine produced in Burgundy versus the Russian River Valley in California.
When properly fermented, Nacional cacao from Manabí tends to be well-balanced with moderate acidity and tannic structure, famously aromatic, with a highly complex range of flavor notes across the floral-fruit spectrum, often with grassy and wood notes, among other accompanying characteristics.
The very finest of wines, be they from Bordeaux or Napa or Tokaj, allow us the privilege of tasting the valley in which the grape was grown. To’ak’s Harvest editions offer connoisseurs of dark chocolate this same opportunity—to taste not only the land, but also the characteristics of the particular year in which it was harvested.
Even within the Ecuadorian province of Manabí, growing conditions vary according to topography, climate, soil composition, and growing style. Piedra de Plata is located 70 kilometers to the east of the Pacific Ocean and 70 kilometers to the west of the Andes Mountains—exactly equidistant from the two most important weather generators in Ecuador. The terrain is a network of forested hills and valleys, ranging from 100-300 meters (330-1,000 feet) above sea level. Slightly acidic soils of volcanic origin predominate, oftentimes rich with calcium and iron.
The cacao trees in these small family-owned plantations are intermixed with banana and papaya and grow in the shade of larger fruit trees, such as mango, citrus, guava, mamey, breadfruit, sapote, soursop, ice cream bean, and a long list of other tropical hallmarks and regional specialties. Significantly, Piedra de Plata was disconnected from the rest of the country by road up until the 1990s. This peculiarity is responsible for the somewhat accidental preservation of Ancient Nacional cacao genetics among its unusually old cacao trees.
For us, Piedra de Plata is to cacao what the Côte de Nuits in the French province of Burgundy is to wine.
In the photo you can see To'ak cacao growers standing in front of a cacao tree in Piedra de Plata estimated to be over 100 years old. DNA analysis has confirmed that this tree is 100% pure Nacional.
The equatorial climate of Piedra de Plata is greatly influenced by two competing ocean currents that converge offshore. Both ocean currents ultimately work together to moderate temperatures and atmospheric humidity, producing year-round weather that is ideally suited to Nacional cacao. However, annual and cyclical patterns in the relationship between these two ocean currents, in addition to numerous other factors, account for year-to-year weather variations that can noticeably influence the flavor profile of any given harvest.
It is not merely a question of the balance between rain, sun, and clouds—it is also the timing, duration, and relative intensity of each of those elements that determines the quality of a cacao harvest. For example, a rainy season that gets off to a weak start can result in smaller fruits with greater acidity. Excessive rains at the beginning of the rainy season can disrupt flowering and fruit-set during the most critical months of growth, resulting in a lower yield. Steady rains and otherwise optimal weather can produce a high yield of healthy fruit with low acidity but also, potentially, less polyphenolic complexity.
An unseasonable drought during ripening can result in low sugar/high acidity fruit with high tannic content and also admirable complexity. Rainy weather during fermentation can reduce fermentation temperatures, which can result in greater astringency but also greater polyphenolic content and more intense aroma. Conversely, hot and sunny weather during fermentation can increase fermentation temperatures, facilitating a smoother, more balanced cacao with a more delicate aroma.
These are but a few of the scenarios that can exert influence on the flavor profile of our cacao during any given harvest year. Managing these scenarios as they arise, and addressing their implications during various different phases of the production process, is the challenge and the joy of tree-to-bar chocolate-making.
Arguably the single most critical element of the entire chocolate-making process is the fermentation and drying of the cacao beans once they are harvested—known as the “post-harvest” process. Together with Harvest Master Servio Pachard, we have designed and built our own small-scale fermentation and drying installation in the middle of his farm, located downriver from the valley of Piedra de Plata.
Once harvested, we place our cacao beans in Spanish Elm wood fermentation bins for a period of three to six days, depending on harvest characteristics and flavor profile objectives. The fermentation process breaks down unwanted tannins and other coarse polyphenols within the beans, thus muting the bitterness and releasing the finer, more subtle flavors. The fermented beans are then very gradually dried by sun and fresh air in an installation that resembles a small greenhouse, albeit one that is surrounded by cacao trees.
The selected beans are then carefully roasted, de-shelled, and ground into tiny bits, which are called nibs. In the most basic sense, dark chocolate is made by further grinding and liquefying the nibs through heat and mixing them with varying amounts of sugar. Every single step of our production process is aimed at expressing the unique flavor profile of the terroir and variety of the cacao beans we have the privilege of working with. Carl and Jerry produce the chocolate together with other renowned chocolate makers based in Ecuador, such as Vicente Norero at Camino Verde and Guillermo Heredia at Ecuatoriana de Chocolates. To’ak chocolate is certified Organic and Fair Trade.
In the middle of each To’ak chocolate bar is a single roasted cacao bean, which co-founders Carl and Jerry hand-select themselves. We recognize there is a tendency to forget that chocolate is ultimately derived from the fruit of a tree. It is our wish to share with connoisseurs the opportunity to taste the true source of chocolate and its most fundamental element—the cacao bean itself. Although the bean inevitably expresses some of its inherent bitterness, it also reveals the more robust, unprocessed elements of its essential flavor, with a rich nutty undertone. We believe that tasting the actual cacao bean is a crucial step toward the understanding of chocolate from a deeper perspective.
Dark chocolate and wine are both rich with tannins and other polyphenols. These compounds, also called flavonoids, largely determine what we taste in a wine or dark chocolate and how it feels in our mouth. Over time, these compounds are chemically altered through processes such as oxidation. Extractable compounds from oak barrels and other storage vessels add another layer of complexity through the process of aging. As dark chocolate matures with age, its flavor profile evolves.
As chocolate-makers who also appreciate both wine and whisky, this struck us as an interesting concept. Winemakers and whisky distillers have been using the phenomenon of aging to their advantage for centuries. In the world of chocolate, the concept of aging had never been thoroughly examined prior to To’ak’s aging program. Starting in 2013, we initiated the world’s first-ever long-term aging program for dark chocolate, with some of our chocolate currently in it’s fourth year of aging.
Since that time, we’ve consulted winemakers, enology professors, sommeliers, molecular scientists, conducted phenolic analysis in partnership with the enology department of Washington University, and experimented with twelve different aging vessels in countless different forms and conditions. Every year, we release to the public our finest expression of aged chocolate as one of our Vintage editions. If you’re interested in delving more deeply into the science involved in the process, you can download our e-book on the subject.
If you’re interested in delving more deeply into the science involved in the process, you can download our e-book on the subject.