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Nacional cacao pod

The intention of this blog is to draw together the knowledge I’ve obtained about Nacional cacao through my work as a permaculturist and cacao grower with Third Millennium Alliance (TMA) and as a chocolate maker with To’ak. TMA is a non-profit tropical forest conservation organization I co-founded in coastal Ecuador in 2007 with María Isabel Dávila and Bryan Criswell. To’ak is an Ecuadorian dark chocolate company I co-founded in 2013 with Carl Schweizer. Both entities are legally independent, but also closely intertwined. In the field of Nacional cacao, my work with TMA and To’ak intersects. Until now I’ve tried to segregate my communication about cacao into the separate institutional languages of both entities. I eventually came to the practical conclusion that bringing these two information streams into one source will better serve the dissemination of this content.

This blog is written for people who cultivate cacao and/or tropical fruit trees, people who work in the chocolate industry and are interested in learning more about cacao in general and Nacional cacao in particular, and chocolate connoisseurs who wish to dive deeply into the subject. My focus here is cacao cultivation and genetics and the way in which these two elements are translated into dark chocolate.

Background

Ocean view from the peaks of the Jama-Coaque Reserve in Manabí, Ecuador - circa 2009.
Ocean view from the peaks of the Jama-Coaque Reserve in Manabí, Ecuador – circa 2009.

TMA was founded in 2007. By that point I had been living in Latin America for about six years, and had relocated to Ecuador the year before. I spent much of the year 2007 investigating different forests in Ecuador, including various parts of the Amazon, cloud forests in the Andean foothills, and coastal lowland forest in several locations. Late in October of 2007 my fellow co-founders and I first stepped foot onto a forested mountain range in the coastal province of Manabí, about 7 km inland from the Pacific ocean and 12 km south of the equator. It was (and still is) one of Ecuador’s last large remaining tracts of coastal Pacific forest—a remarkably diverse ecosystem that was almost entirely deforested in the 20th century and is still being deforested today.

At the time, this particular expanse of forest was totally unprotected. It rose to the fog-shrouded peaks of the coastal mountain range and was surrounded on all sides by cattle pasture. Because of its relative inaccessibility in the mountains, it was the last area in the region to be exploited. Once most of the surrounding forest had been eliminated, people slowly began chipping away at it. If we hadn’t started when we did, I don’t think this forest would still be intact today.

A camera with a timer was set on a log to take this picture of the three founders of TMA during our first month living inside the forest which later became the Jama-Coaque Reserve, January 2008. Bryan Criswell, Isabel Dávila, and Jerry Toth (from left to right).
A camera with a timer was set on a log to take this picture of the three founders of TMA during our first month living inside the forest which later became the Jama-Coaque Reserve, January 2008. Bryan Criswell, Isabel Dávila, and Jerry Toth (from left to right).

We raised $16,000 to buy 100 acres of semi-abandoned cloud forest at the very highest peak of the mountain and thus established a forest preserve. Ten years later, this forest preserve now protects 1,500 acres of Pacific Ecuadorian Forest—arguably the most threatened tropical forest in the world. We call it the Jama-Coaque Ecological Reserve (pronounced Hama Ko-Ah-Kay), which is named after the ancient civilization that settled the region from 500 BC to 1531 AD.

When we first started exploring the forest, we came upon several old, forgotten cacao groves hidden amongst the native vegetation. These small cacao orchards, intermixed with banana and a smattering of moss-covered orange trees, had been planted by homesteaders who colonized this area over the course of the last 115 years. The groves were now abandoned and wildly overgrown, but fully adapted to the understory of the forest. The trees produced frustratingly few pods, and those which they did produce were usually eaten by animals and insects before we could get to them.

A feral Heirloom Nacional cacao grove found in the forested mountains of the Jama-Coaque Reserve, Manabí

At this point we didn’t have a house, let alone a place to properly ferment and process the cacao beans. We were living in tents underneath a rudimentary roof that we fashioned with wild bamboo and tagua palm fronds, which we did not do a good job constructing. We were also undersupplied with food and often hungry. So whenever we did get our hands on a ripe cacao pod, we simply ate it as a fruit. As in, we opened the pods and sucked on the sweet fruit-encased seeds, extracting as much juice as we could, then spat out the seeds. This is presumably the way humanity consumed cacao for a few thousand years before the advent of chocolate. We were vaguely aware of this. But we had no idea that the cacao we were eating was 1) the direct genetic descendent of the earliest known cacao trees domesticated by humanity, and 2) the most rare and revered variety of cacao in the world, currently on the brink of extinction.

These two key pieces of information took a few years to fully filter through to us. In the meantime, we refurbished a wooden house in the middle of our land that had been abandoned 10 years prior, recycling its wood and using bamboo harvested from the site. We now lovingly call it the Bamboo House. Surrounding the Bamboo House was a small patch of land—about one hectare in size—that had been slashed and burned by the previous owner and was overgrown with weeds. We resolved to convert this weed patch into an experimental food forest, and this sub-project became my personal obsession and a great labor of love. Today this one hectare plot of land has over 50 different species of tropical fruit and nut trees growing in it, along with papaya, banana, and coffee copiously planted in the understory, as well as—of course—cacao. I planted the vast majority of these trees myself—which I say with immense pride—and have cared for all of them like babies ever since. Many are over 6 meters (20 feet) tall by now, and several are already producing fruit.

Aerial view of the Bamboo House, Jama-Coaque Reserve. Hidden amongst the native vegetation is a cultivated food forest of over 50 different species of tropical fruit and nut trees.
Aerial view of the Bamboo House, Jama-Coaque Reserve. Hidden amongst the native vegetation is a cultivated food forest of over 50 different species of tropical fruit and nut trees.

Of all the different types of tropical trees I’ve been cultivating, in my opinion cacao is the most interesting and challenging. In addition to the cacao trees we planted around the house, we’ve also planted several small parcels of cacao in other previously-cleared patches of land inside and outside of the Reserve. Once we began harvesting our cacao—albeit in very small quantities—we started making chocolate with it. Our house was (and still is) without electricity, and at the time it was also without a gas-powered stove. We roasted the beans in a big iron pot over an open wood fire, de-shelled the roasted beans by hand, often by candlelight after dinner, and grinded them with an old hand-grinder. None of us were experts, we were learning this on the fly, but the chocolate we made was unlike anything any of us had ever experienced. The aroma, in particular, is what conquered me. Making chocolate thus became another obsession, which led to To’ak.

To’ak co-founder Carl Schweizer at Finca Sarita
To’ak co-founder Carl Schweizer at Finca Sarita

 When To’ak first began its work, our mini cacao plots in the Jama-Coaque Reserve (JCR) still weren’t producing enough cacao to meet commercial production needs. To’ak started out by sourcing cacao from another valley nearby, called Piedra de Plata. The trees here were even older than the ones we found in the forest of JCR. The old arbor trees in Piedra de Plata were 100-120 years of age and born before the 1916 and 1920 disease events responsible for the near-extinction of pure Nacional cacao. With the help of the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund and the USDA-ARS genetic lab, we were able to analyze DNA samples from these trees. Out of sixteen old arbor trees that were tested in Piedra de Plata, nine proved to be 100% genetically-pure Nacional. A few years prior, Ecuador’s agricultural institute (INIAP) conducted genetic tests of 11,000 cacao trees throughout the country and only five trees were genetically-pure Nacional, representing 0.05% of trees tested.

DNA-verified 100% pure Nacional tree in Piedra de Plata, estimated at 100-120 years of age

The nine DNA-verified pure Nacional trees in Piedra de Plata are just the tip of the iceberg. We have since identified, labeled, and mapped 364 additional old-arbor trees in Piedra de Plata, which match the age, morphology and color profile of Ancient Nacional cacao. Currently, To’ak exclusively sources its cacao from Piedra de Plata, but we’re in the process of exploring other appellations in which Ancient Nacional trees can still be found. To’ak also expects to begin sourcing cacao from JCR within the next two years. The old heirloom trees in the forest of JCR are in the process of being rehabilitated through radical pruning and fertilization, to increase their production. The first generation of cacao trees planted around the Bamboo House have been productive for years, but there aren’t enough of them for commercial chocolate production. However, there are two other experimental plots in JCR which are just now coming into productive age, and we’ve recently planted two additional ultra-experimental plots comprised of trees grown from genetically-pure Nacional trees from Piedra de Plata, which have been reproduced via grafting, rooting, and seed. To’ak and TMA are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to taste the fruits of this labor.

Piedra de Plata, 2013
Piedra de Plata, 2013

As much as I enjoy making chocolate, that is not the focus of this blog. The focus here is everything that goes on at the farm (or forest) and the genetics that are at play. I’ve been at it for almost ten years now, and still I consider myself to be a novice compared with masters like fourth-generation cacao grower Servio Pachard—my longtime friend and agroforestry mentor, who is now our Harvest Master at To’ak. That said, despite the long history of cacao cultivation in Ecuador, and the considerable amount of private and public money spent on cacao research, technical information on this subject is sparse, scattered, occasionally faulty or contradictory, and in some cases misguided. Technical misinformation and especially genetic misinformation is a serious limiting factor for cacao growers in Ecuador and for chocolate makers and consumers throughout the world.

Servio Pachard pruning cacao in the farm he grew up in
Servio Pachard pruning cacao in the farm he grew up in

To look more closely at this subject, the logical first step is to start with its source. A persistent point of collective misunderstanding among farmers and chocolate makers alike is the convoluted genetics of Ecuadorian cacao. The problem begins as early as the mere definition of “Nacional” cacao, which means markedly different things to different people. More on this subject in Genetics. There is also considerable disagreement—among farmers, agronomy technicians, and conservationists—about various technical aspects of cacao cultivation. For example, the shade-grown vs sun-grown debate, the efficacy of polyculture vs monoculture, organic vs chemical, clones vs heirloom, and especially the yield vs organoleptic debate. More on these subjects in Cultivation.

I don’t consider myself an expert on any of these topics. But I have been exploring them for many years, both in terms of academic research and through practical application in the field. Working alongside Servio for many years has also helped. To the extent that I can shed light on certain subjects in this realm, I wish to do so. I regard this blog as an opportunity to synthesize that which is known in the world of Ecuadorian cacao and also to highlight that which still needs investigation and clarification. Lastly, I wish to glorify Ecuadorian cacao and celebrate the craft of cultivating it and making it into chocolate.

Where the information I put forth is deemed incomplete or inaccurate, I welcome constructive feedback and clarification, and will make every effort to publish useful entries submitted by other people. I hope for this blog to serve as a place where ideas and information on this subject can be shared, analyzed, and thoughtfully debated. Thank you for joining me in this endeavor.

– Jerry Toth

The Ecuadorian province of Manabí is to cacao what Burgundy is to wine…like a hundred years ago. The Jama-Coaque Reserve is only 82 km from Piedra de Plata but it takes five hours in a truck to travel between the two.
The Ecuadorian province of Manabí is to cacao what Burgundy is to wine…like a hundred years ago. The Jama-Coaque Reserve is only 82 km from Piedra de Plata but it takes five hours in a truck to travel between the two.

Partners

To'ak's Vintage 2014 edition aged for 3 years
To’ak’s Vintage 2014 edition aged for 3 years

To’ak Chocolate

In ancient times, chocolate was considered sacred and noble. Then in the industrial era it was commodified and mass-produced. To’ak is working to restore chocolate to its former grandeur and push its boundaries to new horizons. Its mission is to transform the way the world experiences dark chocolate, elevating its making and tasting onto the level of vintage wine and aged whisky.

To’ak sources its chocolate from the extremely rare Ecuadorian cacao variety called “Nacional,” which traces its genetic lineage back at least 5,300 years. Believed to be on the brink of extinction, To’ak found a valley with 100-year-old cacao trees that have been confirmed by DNA tests to be 100% Nacional. To’ak’s chocolate is highly terroir-driven, and in some cases it is aged like whisky. Each bar is presented in a handcrafted Spanish Elm wood box that has the individual bar number engraved on the back. The box includes proprietary tasting utensils and a 116-page booklet that tells the story of the provenance of To’ak chocolate and provides a guide to dark chocolate tasting. To’ak’s flagship edition was aged for 3 years in a French oak cognac cask and retails for $365 per bar. Organic and Fair Trade certified. In January of 2016, To’ak’s cacao was designated Heirloom by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP).

To’ak chocolate has been featured in Forbes, L.A. Times, Wine Spectator, Fortune Magazine, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Süddeutsche Zeitung, TV channels such as BBC, CNBC, CNN, and FOX, and dozens of other publications across five continents. The Restaurant at Meadowood, one of only 12 restaurants in the U.S. to earn Three Michelin Stars, features To’ak chocolate in its most innovative cuisine.

From earth to tree to bean to bar, To’ak Chocolate is produced entirely in Ecuador. Founded by Jerry Toth and Carl Schweizer. Learn more at www.toakchocolate.com.

View from the balcony of the Bamboo House, Jama-Coaque Reserve.
View from the balcony of the Bamboo House, Jama-Coaque Reserve.

Third Millennium Alliance (TMA)

Third Millennium Alliance (TMA) is a nonprofit conservation foundation working in Ecuador. TMA’s mission is to preserve the last remnants of Pacific Ecuadorian forest and to empower local communities to restore what has been lost. TMA started in 2007 by purchasing 100 acres of land at the very top of the coastal mountain range in Ecuador, in one of the last remaining tracts of contiguous forest in this ecosystem. Ten years and fifteen land purchases later, what is now the Jama-Coaque Reserve protects 1,500 acres of critically-endangered Pacific Ecuadorian forest.
One of TMA’s core conservation strategies is to promote, incentivize, technically support, and implement sustainable land-use practices in areas surrounding the Jama-Coaque Reserve, primarily by converting cattle pasture and other degraded lands into productive agroforestry systems that generate revenue through tree crops. Cacao research and cultivation is a primary focus, along with conservation of genetically pure and heirloom Nacional cacao. Founded by Jerry Toth, María Isabel Dávila and Bryan Criswell. Executive Director is Ryan Lynch, Director of Agroforestry is Nick Slobidian, and Director of Research is Mike Ellis. Learn more at www.tmalliance.org.

Ecuadorian Nacional Cacao Conservation Project

The Ecuadorian Nacional Cacao Conservation Project is a joint project between To’ak and TMA with the mission to conserve, cultivate, and research Ecuador’s legendary and endangered cacao variety called Nacional. Seeds and graft material from genetically pure and heirloom Nacional cacao are being collected from diverse parts of coastal Ecuador for reproduction and cultivation in experimental plots in and around the Jama-Coaque Reserve as well as in Finca Sarita in Calceta and in Piedra de Plata. To learn more, continue reading this blog.

Industry Resources

Bar Cacao: “Your friendly virtual craft chocolate bar tender…Here you’ll discover cacao-producing regions, chocolate makers and everything in between and beyond the two.”

Chocablog: Started in March 2006 by Dom Ramsey with help from an international team of writers, Chocablog’s mission is to spread the word about quality chocolate and the amazing chocolatiers, chocolate makers and cacao farmers who help create it.

TheChocolateLife: “Founded in early 2008 by Discover Chocolate author Clay Gordon as a means for crowdsourcing answers to questions about cocoa and chocolate posed to him by visitors to his pioneering chocolate blog chocophile.com, which he started in mid-2001, as well as by readers of his IACP-finalist book Discover Chocolate.”

Chloe Chocolat: Chloe Doutre Roussel is an author, consultant educator and world reknowned expert on all things chocolate. Her book The Chocolate Connoisseur translated in 5 languages.

The Chocolate Journalist: The latest news and trends in the fine chocolate industry or both chocolate professionals and consumers.

Chocolate Noise: A journey to explore the world of American craft chocolate.

The Chocolate Tester: After pioneering the bean to bar chocolate movement with his former company, Coppenauer, Georg Bernardini has devoted the past five years to tasting the world’s chocolate and sharing his knowledge with chocolate lovers.

CIRAD: The French agricultural research and international cooperation organization working for the sustainable development of tropical and Mediterranean regions–one of the leading genetic research institutes in the field of cacao.

The C-spot™:”The C-spot™ has become the most hated voice in the industry because it cuts straight to the chase, never cutting corners, so consumers won’t get taken for a ride”

DallasFoodOrg: The bean-to-bar world’s investigative journalist.

Ecole Chocolate: School for chocolate arts and our chocolate making courses. Learn how to make chocolate, use chocolate molds and create professional chocolate recipes.

Flavors of Cacao: Reviews of over 1,800 bars of chocolate, plus many other resources.

Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund: A not-for-profit organization in collaboration with United States Department of Agriculture. Together, chocolate industry professionals, chocolate makers, farmers, and chocolate enthusiasts from around the world are determined to save the quickly diminishing Theobroma cacao  trees that produce the most high quality, flavorful chocolate and certify the farmers who grow them.

The New Taste of Chocolate Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes: “Celebrated author, scholar, and chocolate expert Maricel E. Presilla introduces us to the broad array of cacao cultivars, meticulously covering the latest research, then explores the art of cacao farming and the people who dedicate their lives to cultivating the precious cacao pods.”

USDA Agricultural Research Service: One of the key genetic researchers in the field of cacao and collaborator with the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund.