Aged chocolate is a new phenomenon that To'ak has been pioneering since 2013. The process is grounded in the science of flavor extraction, and draws heavily from long-standing practices in both the wine and whisky traditions.
Chocolate has an interesting advantage in extracting flavor and aroma from the wood: namely, the absorptive oils that are naturally present in cacao.
Barrel Aging Applied to Chocolate
Cacao beans are roughly 50% fat. If you press a cacao bean with a great deal of strength, you can actually extract this fat, which is referred to as “cacao butter.” Cacao butter is used as an additive to some chocolates and also as a skin care product, among other uses. At To’ak, we usually don’t add extra cacao butter to our chocolate. But the cacao butter that is already naturally present in our chocolate is put to work during the aging process.
One of the interesting qualities of cacao butter is its remarkable ability to absorb other aromas.
The Element of Time
In some cases, aging chocolate takes many years—for example, our Ecuadorian wood-aged editions require long-term aging—up to six years so far. In other cases, a positive transformation is evident within one year—for example, our cognac edition—but the aroma continues to slowly improve over the course of many more years.
The value of this approach, as opposed to merely adding flavors at the point of production, is the subtlety and elegance of the aromas that are achieved. Over time, the flavor of the chocolate naturally evolves on its own through processes such as oxidation. Flavor extraction from barrels and other vessels adds another layer of complexity, which also evolves over time.
Doesn't Chocolate Spoil After Several Years?
Milk chocolate does spoil, because of the milk, but dark chocolate does not. The abundant tannins and polyphenols in cacao serve as a natural preservative. This study found that 80-year-old cocoa powder and 116-year-old cacao beans were still viable and "still show very high levels of antioxidant activity and flavan-3-ol content."
Many dark chocolate products have a "best by" date range of two years, but this is an entirely arbitrary number that isn't backed by any research. What is important, while storing or aging chocolate, is to keep it at a cool, consistent temperature and protected from direct sunlight.
We age our chocolate in the perpetually cool climes of the Andean city of Quito, Ecuador. The indoor temperature naturally hovers around 20° C (68° F), give or take one degree celsius, pretty much every minute of every day.
A New Frontier
There is no precedent for this. To’ak is the first chocolate maker to deeply explore aged chocolate, so we are learning as we go. In the process, we believe we are building a new system for the production of chocolate and the crafting of flavor and aroma—one which is based on the science of wine and whisky aging, and is implemented through the work of time.
Here’s the full article we wrote that explains why we do it and how it works.
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