Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tasting the world's most expensive chocolate

The shocking thing about the world's most expensive chocolate bar is that, even at $260 for 5 ounces, the producer doesn't expect to make money.

Jerry Toth, co-founder of To'ak Chocolate, is a leftist do-gooder. It's weird for him to be peddling a $260 bar of chocolate, but maybe philosophically it's better that it almost certainly will not be profitable.

Yet per ounce, To'ak is more expensive than Harlan Estate or Screaming Eagle. 

I met Jerry at Dolores Park Cafe in my neighborhood in San Francisco. I'm spoiled: winemakers of wines much cheaper than Jerry's chocolate take me to expensive dinners all the time. Jerry didn't even spring for a coffee. But that was OK, I was there to taste and didn't want to screw up my palate.

Because I know what everybody reading this is thinking: How the fuck can a 5-ounce bar of chocolate be worth $260?

There are three ways to answer that.

Jerry Toth (gray shirt, unshaven) helps separate cacao beans from the pod
1) Of course it isn't. 2) But it is expensive to produce. 3) And it's all about exclusivity.

Toth is selling his chocolate at wine shops for a reason. The story behind To'ak is good, and it's not about terroir per se; it's about variety.

Ecuador is believed to be where the cacao tree originated. In 1916, a fungus called "witch's broom" wiped out many of the cacao trees in Ecuador. Growers brought in new, resistant trees and the business went on.

Toth graduated from Cornell nearly 90 years later and promptly fell in love with an Ecuadorian woman. Moving to South America, he tried working for the radical magazine Ad Busters, and started a conservation foundation. He became interested in cacao because it can be farmed without clear-cutting. Like coffee, cacao needs shade, so it can grow in old forest.

He found a village of gun-slinging cowboys a 30-minute mule ride from paved roads, where old cacao trees grow tall and wide. Maybe they're the legendary "rio arriba" cacao trees that Swiss traders in the 1800s thought made the best chocolate. ("Rio arriba" just means "up river." When asked where the great cacao beans came from, that's what the locals said.) Maybe they predate the witch's broom plague. Or maybe it's just a good story. In any case, they're big old cacao trees from an isolated village. As with grapevines, older cacao trees are believed to produce fruit with more intense, complex flavors.

Cacao traders were paying $45 per 100 pound sack of freshly harvested cacao beans. Toth and his partners pay $65, and go straight to the village to pick them up, saving the mule ride and a 3-hour bus ride besides.

They ferment the beans in open-top elmwood tanks, covered with banana leaves and burlap sacks. Then they add raw cane sugar, and nothing else, unlike other chocolate bars, which often have added cocoa butter, vanillin and other products. The 2014 vintage is 81% cacaco.

"This is a carefully, consciously produced chocolate," Toth says. "It's our favorite. But we'd never say it's the best."

The marketing is all about exclusivity. They made 900 bars in the first harvest, 2014, but are selling only 574 because they want each bar to be visually perfect. And why not, at $260 each? Each bar is hand wrapped by Toth's partner, comes in a wooden case with a single dry coffee bean and a booklet describing its production.

Now here's the $260 question: How good is it?

We warmed up by tasting some other expensive chocolates: Marou from Vietnam, a Dick Taylor bar from Madagascar, and Pierre Marcolini single-finca bars from Venezuela and Brazil.

The To'ak is a delicate, pretty chocolate, with red berry character and some mandarin notes on the very long finish. The mouthfeel is surprisingly milky in a good way. It's an excellent bar, far more complex than your typical $10 luxury dark chocolate bar.

I don't know that it's better than the Pierre Marcolini Brazil bar (which is about $8.50 for 2.8 ounces), but it just has to be great, not the best ever, and I'm not going to be James Suckling this morning and give it a 100-point-scale rating. (Though I will say "I'm here.")

Is it worth $260? I don't know, is Screaming Eagle worth $2000, or Romanée-Conti worth $10,000? Because that's the same audience. To'ak is only being sold right now online at the company's infuriating website, and at Beltramo's in Menlo Park and at Wally's Wine & Spirits in LA.

Let me get this out of the way before the rush of poorly conceived Valentine's Day wine articles. Toth says wine is a lousy pairing for his chocolate. Cognac is best, but he also likes non-peaty Scotch whisky and Irish whisky.

Even if Toth sells all 574 bars, he won't make money.

"We need to sell 1000 to 2000 bars just to be all right," he said.

No wonder he didn't buy me a coffee. He did grudgingly let me take home a quadrant of To'ak -- about $22 worth -- for my wife to taste. I tried to tell her when she got home from work that I had cajoled a piece of the world's most expensive chocolate for her, but she wasn't that interested and it's now sitting on top of some wine tech sheets alongside a box of crackers and the last of a hunk of Wensleydale cheese. But we're not the audience for this chocolate.

So, dear reader, do you want to experience the world's most expensive chocolate bar for yourself? If so, here's the website.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

1 comment:

  1. The most expensive chocolate sounds very interesting.
    I'd like to try it!
    But I'm not sure if I want to pay more than $15 for a chocolate bar... Lucky you.