World’s Most Expensive Chocolate Brand Creates "Noah’s Ark" of Ancient Cacao To’ak Chocolate Resurrects a 5,300-year-old Variety of Cacao in Ecuador
Famous for its ultra-luxurious dark chocolate aged in specialty casks, To'ak Chocolate is now creating a "Noah's Ark" of endangered cacao. The bold new project is aimed at resurrecting the oldest and rarest variety of cacao on earth, previously believed to be extinct.
Famous for its floral aroma and complex flavor profile, Nacional was the most highly-coveted variety of cacao in the 18th and 19th centuries, when chocolate first started taking Europe by storm. In 1916, a disease called Witches Broom arrived to Ecuador and devastated the variety. Up until ten years ago, pure Nacional cacao was believed to be extinct.
“Imagine that all of the pinot noir vines in the world were lost to disease and hybridization, except in one or two forgotten valleys in Burgundy. That’s basically the situation that Nacional cacao is in today,” says co-founder Jerry Toth.
In the valley of Piedra de Plata, in a remote part of Ecuador, To’ak found cacao trees that were over one hundred years old, which pre-date the arrival of Witches Broom disease. With help from USDA geneticists and the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund, DNA analysis confirmed a 100% genetic match. The USDA has coined the term “Ancient Nacional” to describe trees with this rare genotype. They are believed to be the direct genetic descendant of the oldest cacao trees known to humankind.
Resurrecting the Holy Grail of Cacao
“The scary thing is that these old trees are already at the end of their projected lifespan, so reproducing them is urgent,” says co-Founder Carl Schweizer. To’ak has teamed up with some of the top cacao specialists in Ecuador to graft cuttings from Ancient Nacional trees onto three-month-old seedlings. These seedlings, which will eventually bear 100% pure Nacional cacao fruit, are then planted in a protected plot of land in the nearby Jama-Coaque Ecological Reserve, managed by the rainforest conservation foundation Third Millennium Alliance—another one of Toth’s co-creations.
This genetic bank contains thirty grafted seedlings from each of the DNA-verified Ancient Nacional trees from Piedra de Plata. Within three years, each of these young trees will be able to provide enough cuttings to reproduce dozens of additional pure Nacional seedlings each year, which will then be distributed to any local cacao grower who wants to help save this historic variety from extinction.
Toth says that the next challenge is persuading farmers to cultivate these trees. He explains, “Nacional cacao is notorious for producing extremely low yields. Modern high-yield varieties like CCN-51 produce up to ten times as much as Nacional. But in terms of quality, when it comes to single-origin dark chocolate, Nacional cacao surpasses everything else out there. That’s the trade-off.”
Many cacao growers in Ecuador have already replaced their old Nacional trees with high-yield varieties. Piedra de Plata is a rare exception to this rule. To incentivize the survival of these old trees, To’ak pays the cacao growers of Piedra de Plata the highest price in the entire country, by a wide margin. Toth and Schweizer harvest the cacao alongside the growers and manually participate in every single phase of production.
As for the fate of Nacional cacao, Toth and Schweizer both agree that it ultimately rests in the hands of chocolate consumers. “What we’re trying to do now is change the way people value chocolate--and this includes the price they’re willing to pay for it,” says Toth. “Behind every cheap bar of chocolate is a terribly underpaid cacao grower with zero economic incentive to cultivate anything other than the lowest common denominator. We’re trying to replace that paradigm.”
About the Chocolate
To’ak’s flagship edition was aged for four years in a French oak cognac cask and retails for $365 per bar. Each bar of single-origin dark chocolate from Piedra de Plata is packaged in a handcrafted Spanish Elm wood box with the individual bar number engraved on the back. The box includes a 116-page booklet and specially designed tasting utensils. Most editions are limited to only one hundred bars. When available, To’ak chocolate can be purchased online at www.toakchocolate.com and ships worldwide. It is also available at Harrods in London, Wally’s Wine & Spirits in Los Angeles, 2Beans in New York, and Chocolate Club in Hong Kong.
A native of Chicago, To’ak co-founder Jerry Toth relocated to Ecuador in 2006, where he co-founded a nonprofit rainforest conservation in the famed cacao-growing province of Manabí. His work developing sustainable agroforestry projects in Manabí quickly converted into a passion for organic cacao farming. Jerry later joined forces with Carl Schweizer, an Austrian expatriate and long-time transplant to Ecuador, and together they created To’ak Chocolate. Their mission is to change the way the world experiences dark chocolate, elevating it’s making and tasting onto the level of vintage wine and aged whiskey. To’ak Chocolate is Organic and Fair Trade certified.
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