Dear reader, brace yourself, get a drink and settle in. This review will be slightly longer than my normal ones. Not often does one sample a complete tasting session in a single box.
There are times whey you are thrilled when you discover a new chocolate bar. And there are times you are seriously excited. Receiving the chocolate bar we are about to discuss today, is a prime example of the latter.
To’ak sounds like a bell in the origin chocolate world. In 2013, To’ak emerged on the scene with a bang. The simply offered the most expensive chocolate bar in the world. The news traveled through the bean-to-bar community like a wild fire. It was unheared off that a chocolate bar would sell for a couple of hundred dollars.
In 2021, To’ak is still around. Even more than ever. Their product line has expended and their products are now distributed by some very renowned names in the chocolate world.
To’ak has been founded by Jerry Toth, Carl Schweizer and Dennise Valencia, as a result of a rainforest conservation project. The brand has focussed its attention to the Arriba Nacional cocoa bean. This strain of cocoa has long been a pride of Ecuador. This cocoa is believed to date back more than 5000 year ago, during the Mayo-Chincipe culture. Early 1900’s though, a cocoa disease called witches broom decimated the cocoa trees bearing these beans. For long, it was thought that genetic pure Arriba Nacional was a thing of the past. Sure, there are cocoa’s out there who share genetics with this type. Yet as cocoa is one of the most promiscuous plants around, genetics are mingled all the time.
To’ak found some remaining genetic pure Nacional trees, deep within the rainforests of Ecuador, in the Piedra de Plata valley. Today, the company has teamed up with a small selection of cocoa farmers, to grow and source the best quality cocoa of this pure Nacional type. To’ak’s chocolate is made using only matching the Heirloom cocoa, referenced by DNA testing. Their beans have been awared Heirloom designation as a result.
To’ak is involved in the post-harvest treatment of the beans and turns the cocoa beans into chocolate locally in Ecuador.
Their vision is that chocolate is a noble product, not different from fine wines or single malts. A product many people are willing to pay premium prices for, depending on quality, origin of age. Yet so many people see chocolate as a cheap snack, available cheap in every supermarket. To’ak want to turn this idea around, by offering their product in a total new context and at a price far away from your industrial chocolate bar. More on this at the end of this review.
For now, let’s see what we have at hand.
Discovering a To’ak product is an adventure at itself. Shout-out to The High Five Company by Dennis Van Essen. The bar came in a simple looking cardboard box, yet inside, the chocolate was wrapped in paper, lots of protective paper curls and finally a nice cotton sack with their logo. Talk about presentation and care of the delivered goods.
The mini bar selection comes in a great looking cardboard display box. Delicate cocoa drawings on the outside. A separate silver band shows the selection name, the different chocolates to be found inside, the weight and the batch + bar number. On the back, your typical info, such as ingredients, nutrition facts, manufacturing address, certifications, etc.
So far, it looks nice. But then you open is. And it turns out to open like a small jewelery box. Inside the lid, To’ak describes why this chocolate is special and how they work with their farmers. A small tasting a pairing guide can be found as a booklet. QR codes give you access to additional info and tasting note sheets. Details. It is all about details.
18 pieces, roughly 2 by 2 cm await you, like gems in a chest. Every piece is wrapped in a sliver foil and a paper band, showing the edition, cocoa percentage and To’ak logo. And when you take out all pieces, a thank you note ensuring you that your purchase helps preserve biodiversity and helps out our planet, while keeping complexity of our food alive.
This has to be the most intricate and special packagings of a chocolate bar I have encountered so far. Experience wise, you feel this is something different and special.
The chocolate itself can be divided in two sections – Harvests and Aged chocolate. In the Harvest editions, you get to experience just how the weather and growing conditions can affect the final flavor produced by the same cocoa beans. An eye opening experience.
Aging chocolate is fairly new. Most chocolate makers age their chocolate (which means they will rest the chocolate for a while, before turning them into bars, in order to mellow down the vibrant, sometimes wild flavor notes of fresh made chocolate). Aging does affect the flavor of the final product. But To’ak takes it some steps further. They age the chocolate in specific conditions and allow the surroundings of the aging chocolate to influence the flavor. This is done by aging the chocolate in wooden spirit barrels or wood boxes or in the presence of spices. And this is new to the chocolate world, but is well known in the wine and spirit making tradition.
Bean: Arriba Nacional
Origin: Piedra de Plata valley – Ecuador
Maker: Ecuatoriana de Chocolates under the authority and supervision of To’ak Ecuador – Quito, Ecuador
Ingredients: organic cocoa beans, organic cane sugar
Price: €64 – 54g – webshop To’ak website
Batch: 2 – bar 113
1) Rain Harvest 2016 El Niño 78%
Color: Dark ebony brown
Aroma: light, chocolaty, slight floral tone
Taste: sweet start, roasted nuts, earthy flavors. building in intensity, chocolaty tones kick in. a hint of raw cocoa in the back (chestnut), a delicate floral note. Roasted bread with hazelnut spread. Delicate, slight tannins and a hint of bitterness. Light hearted after flavor, roasted in nature.
2) Rain Harvest 2017 76%
Color: Dark ebony brown, slightly more reddish than the 2016 version.
Aroma: chocolaty, slight floral tone, more of a green note
Taste: sweeter, deeper chocolaty notes (chocolate cake!), intense flavor. Nuttiness crawls in. a touch of dark fruits flow through (cherry). Sweeter in over all flavor, dark forest honey note. Lush and warm. Very harmonious and full bodied. Chocolaty flavors and fruitiness come together and lift the flavor. Slight touch of wood at the end. The after flavor adds a touch of bourbon vanilla and remains sweet brownie like.
3) Rain Harvest 2018 74%
Color: Dark ebony brown, close to the 2016 version
Aroma: very light, a hint of tobacco
Taste: quickly starting, immediate floral explosion, mixed with lush cocoa. The floral notes keep lasting. Jasmin, orange flower. It has the honey touch of the 2017 harvest, but less pronounced. Even the brownie like chocolate flavors are less pronounced this time and the floral notes get all the attention. Near the end there is an ever so slight touch of wood and a spicy hint I can’t quiet grasp. The after flavor is long and satisfying. The floral notes fade away to give room to the chocolaty notes.
4) Palo Santo aged 5 years 80,5%
Harvest: not mentioned
Color: lighter ebony brown, reddish brown
Aroma: an interesting difference from the other versions so far, spicy, floral, a hint of tobacco
Taste: chocolaty start, a short herbal note. spicy flavors build (nutmeg, cinnamon). Lighthearted, yellow preserved fruits mingle in (dried apricot, dried raisins). The spices keep lingering and flow over to coconut as if it was hidden in the overall flavor and now gets the chance to shine. Rolls back to chocolaty, spicy flavors. Mint pops to mind for a second.There is not a trace of tannins or bitterness present, the flavors feel more rounded off, more molten together, without the wild spikes younger chocolate may bring. Only at the very end of the after flavor, you get a slight mouth drying feeling. And more chocolaty notes. Even though the chocolate is 80,5% , it feels lighter.
To bad I never encountered Palo Santo wood, so it is somewhat hard to understand whether this chocolate embraces the fragrances of the wood.
5) Islay Cask aged 5 years 73%
Harvest: not mentioned
Color: ebony brown, reddish brown, equal to the Palo Santo
Aroma: Dark, chocolaty, a hint of leather
Taste: Same chocolaty start, as usual, but quickly the islay flavors roll in. The chocolate feels sweeter, honey, apricot appear. But there is a clear peaty, smoky aroma flowing around the main flavor. Islay single malt for sure. Distinct, yet never overwhelming. It gracefully blends with the chocolate. A touch of salt twirls among the other flavor notes. Wood and vanilla appears near the end of the melt. The after flavor has a more earthy feel to it. Stronger than the previous pieces. Cocoa and still smoky single malt touches. This chocolate give you a real mouth filling taste experience. The chocolaty, sweet honey, caramel notes are especially clear on the tip of the tongue, where the slightly salty, smoky whiskey notes appear on the back of the tongue. A special experience.
Research on the website reveals the Whisky barrel to be a Laphroaig one.
6) Kampot Pepper aged 5 years 73%
Harvest: not mentioned
Color: ebony brown, reddish brown, equal to the Palo Santo
Aroma: clear peppery note, a herbal note almost hay-like
Taste: chocolaty start, again, but with a peppery undertone. Not aggressive at all, yet spicy, blooming open the longer the chocolate remains in your mouth. There is no heat, but a woody, dried pepper flavor. It joins the chocolaty notes very nicely. But it also hides other notes you would get from the chocolate itself. Just a roasted nuts note pops up briefly. Once the chocolate has molten completely, the pepper note drops of and you get a mature, woody chocolaty flavor in return. Roasted cocoa and a dash of brown sugar come to mind. The nuts reappear clearly later on.
General final evaluation:
Visual appeal: 5/5
Melt and mouth feel: 5/5
Flavor profile : 5/5
Overall: 24/25 (*****)
This little box of chocolate feels like a treasure chest. I here, so many glorious flavors are locked. So many different expressions of the same cacao bean and origin. The diversity is astonishing. Unbelievable how just 6 piece of chocolate can take you all over the chocolate universe. Not every expression will be to the liking of everyone. For me, the 2017 Harvest and Islay Cask 5 years aged chocolates stand far above the others.
The 2017 harvest captures a lot of what I love in chocolate. A floral not, cherry fruit, full bodied chocolaty flavor, a touch of uplifting sweetness, yet complex and harmonious. It’s hard not to be impressed.
The Islay Cask pairs the chocolate perfectly with one of my other beloved products, peated single malt whisky. Being such a strong product itself, it takes a skilled hand to pair it with chocolate in such a delicate manner and created a final product which combines the hallmarks of both elements and pairs them to allow them to lift them to a new height. Simply brilliant.
Non of the other harvest and aged products made me go mèh either. Each and every single one has its own character and accents. It’s amazing to place them next to each other and experience in just how many ways, the finals flavors can be affected by year the bean was grown, or how it was aged.
To me, the harvest editions bring you closest to the flavor of the cacao as it is. The aged versions seem more creative and sculpt the flavor profile in the direction the maker wants them to go.
Now, all of this brings us to the elephant in the room. You can’t talk about To’ak and not mention the price of their products. They are simply known as manufacturer of the world’s most expensive chocolates. Even as this collection is to be considered more of an entry-level product, the price point is still steep. There is no way around it.
The question is, is this bar (or shall I call it a collection?), worth the price? I guess it all depends on how you look at it. Bean to bar origin chocolate is a lot more expensive than your regular industrial bar. And with good reasons. This is not meant as a snack. This is meant to be savored. One small piece at the time. In all peace and quiet. This type of origin chocolate is produced using premium cocoa beans. I order to get the farmers on board, in an attempt to produce better beans, a higher prices is paid. The cocoa is delicately treated to let the final chocolate show of the flavor notes the beans have locked inside them. This takes a lot of time and effort. All these elements combined, mean that origin chocolate is a noble product.
Many will happily spend money on a fine single malt or nice bottle of wine. So why can’t high quality chocolate be seen the same way? It is a luxury product, created with care. Aging chocolate in specific situations will add to the price. Just as working with premium raw materials, being rare, pure cocoa beans in this case. Some will appreciate and are willing to pay for these products. Other will set a limit on what they think a product is worth.
To’ak clearly masters the marketing aspect of their product and they have a clear vision on the chocolate. Releasing their products as limited editions, further adds to the feel of exclusivity. They offer their customers a chance to choose just how luxurious they want their experience to be.
Top of the line? The Art series, currently featuring a 3year old matured blend of the 2015 Harvest
Do you want nothing but the utter best in presentation, luxury? Go for the Origin series. This will offer you a 50 g chocolate bar, with the iconic To’ak chocolate bar design, containing a roasted cocoa bean in the middle. The bar is packed in a wonderful wooden box, includes tweezers to handle the chocolate and add a small book about the chocolate. All put together in a more than luxurious package. It sure will impress anyone you are willing to share this with. Prices range from € 188 to €209, depending the edition.
Are you interested in the chocolate itself, but want to experience it at a reduced price? Go for the Signature series. The exact same chocolate as in the Origin series, yet in a less luxurious packaging. Still, elaborate and very stylish. This product line focuses on the bar and less on what goes on around it. Price range: € 25 to €64.
This collection box will be without a doubt, be of interest to any serious chocolate lover or any one interested in fine flavors and who is willing to pay a premium price. You have your own little, luxurious tasting in a single box. And the chocolate is satisfying and complex.
So in the end it all boils down this this, what is good chocolate worth to you?