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, ServioPachard, 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.