At US$250 a bar – and that’s a small bar of 50 grams – it’s the most expensive chocolate in the world. But To’ak, based in Ecuador, produces only 1,000 bars, from three harvests, each year. This is not the Cadbury, Nestlé or Mars business model.
Co-founder Dennise Valencia laughs, “I’m doing an MBA at the moment and, if we had followed the normal route to business, To’ak would never have started. To’ak’s vision of success is not about profit. As soon as people hear about our approach to business they are fascinated, though, and supportive.”
For $250 on Valentine’s Day you’d expect a highly aphrodisiac product – we’ll get to the science around that in a minute.
Success for To’ak is rescuing the world’s oldest cacao species from the brink of extinction, paying farmers three to eight times the local market price, and living chulla vida – enjoying life on a day to day basis.
Dennise Valencia, who began her career by studying ancestral medicine and sustainable local development, met Jerry Toth just as he was planning to start To’ak, a chocolate brand to sit at the heart of his passion for conservation.
A 2018 study confirms that cacao was being consumed in Ecuador in 3,300 BC – a good 1,700 years earlier than had been thought. It moved the earliest use of cacao from Mexico to Ecuador. So, Ecuador’s native species was confirmed to be 5,300 years old.
Ancient Nacional cacao is the direct genetic descendent of those original trees. But from 2009, it was believed to be extinct. American Jerry Toth had been searching for surviving samples.
“Chulla vida drives our experimentation and it’s led us in a lot of interesting directions”
In 2015 he had the DNA analysed of cacao trees from Ecuador’s Piedra de Plata in Manabi Province. Nine were confirmed as 100% Ancient Nacional.
From these nine, he has now grown 300 Ancient Nacional trees through his Third Millennium Alliance (TMA) conservation project. In tandem, TMA is re-planting on degraded land and will encourage farmers to grow Ancient Nactional when his plants are ready. That’s project number one.
In the meantime, To’ak has access to more than the nine Ancient National trees for its cacao. The Piedra de Plata region is also home to Heirloom Nacional trees – a hybrid genetically comprising 70 to 99 percent of the coveted Ancient Nacional, mixed in with other varieties, and Complejo Nacional which is 30 to 69 per cent Ancient.
These trees, managed by 13 farming families in the region, produce the cacao for To’ak’s chocolate. Working in partnership with these families is a second project. It’s significant in a chocolate market renowned for exploitative labour practices in the supply chain.
Supporting the sustainable chocolate model is a sister project – an app for use by consumers, brands and producers that traces the entire supply chain of a product. It’s called Orijin. The platform allows consumers to see where their chocolate is coming from.
The ideal sustainable chocolate is like To’ak, manufactured at or near the source, with complete traceability.
To’ak’s chocolate production is of course project number three. Dennise Valencia explains, “Chulla vida drives our experimentation and it’s led us in a lot of interesting directions.”
“One woman burst into tears when she tasted this, it can open spiritual doors”
In the first year, 2015, just 500 bars were produced, now, with new collections, including a line at the more accessible price of US$25 a bar, that number has doubled.
The team is ageing chocolate in former whiskey and cognac barrels for example, ageing it with Cambodian Kampot pepper, that comes with a protected geographical indication. And Quota’s favourite is the product aged with Palo Santo, sacred wood, that lends flavours of coconut and mint.
Palo Santo shavings have been burned like incense for thousands of years in Ecuador, as medicine, to keep away mosquitoes and for its pleasant scent. The tree grows most prolifically in the province of Manabí, where To’ak harvests its cacao.
“One woman burst into tears when she tasted this chocolate because it reminded her of her grandmother,” Dennise Valencia says. “Palo Santo is a delicious way to open spiritual doors.”
Some chocolate, barrel aged for five years, has been released for sale, but some will stay inside for as long as 20 years, and with each year the flavour will change.
The flavours also change with each harvest.
To’ak’s dark chocolate contains small quantities of tryptophan, a building block of serotonin
“Every harvest is different depending on the temperature and rainfall,” Dennise Valencia explains. “As the air changes, the wood ages, all the elements lead to new tastes.”
To’ak elevates chocolate from a cheap, unhealthy snack, to a unique luxury on a par with fine wine, both healthy and sustainable in moderation.
With Valentine’s Day tasting kits starting at $85, it makes for a high-end date night, but what do you get for your money? Will it enhance libido?
The team says fermenting cacao beans brings out trace amounts of phenylethylamine (PEA), an amphetamine-like substance that raises blood pressure and heart rate and triggers the release of hormones like norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, all linked to the brain’s pleasure system.
In truth though, blood levels of PEA don’t increase after eating chocolate, meaning not much, if any, is absorbed.
However, To’ak’s dark chocolate contains small quantities of tryptophan, a building block of serotonin, the hormone released when attracted to another person and after reaching climax.
They say eating chocolate can reduce stress. And that dark chocolate is a rich source of zinc, magnesium, and quercetin, all improving general health.
What you’re really buying is a rare taste of the world’s most prized chocolate, a link to an ancient species, and support for an ambitious restoration project.
“This business is about preserving a variety, it’s about working with our farmers and it’s about enjoying every day,” says Dennise Valencia. “Success without being happy is not success.”
How is To’ak’s business philosophy different?
What is the barrel ageing programme?
Quota will be hosting a tasting event with To’ak in the next month. We’ll send you a hamper, and meet via Zoom, discussing the varieties and flavours and hearing more from the team about the broader conservation vision. If you’re interested in joining us please email LiseColyer@quota.com.