I'm on a journey to explore the world of American craft chocolate
Is $325 Chocolate Bullshit?
In 2014 a brand-new maker called To’ak took the world by surprise with a $260 bar of chocolate. Now they’ve upped the ante, with a $345 bar that has been aged for 18 months in a Cognac cask (it comes in the same expensive-looking wooden box with gold lettering and handmade tweezers as the first bar). Most makers are having trouble convincing the crowd that they should pay $10 for a bar of chocolate. So is a $325 bar helping or hurting the bean-to-bar cause? And at the end of the day, is the chocolate worth it, or is it simply marketing and hype, otherwise known as (necessary) bullshit?
When I tried the $260 bar last year with co-founder Jerry Toth, I was pleasantly surprised:
I haven’t tried the $345 bar, but something tells me it’s equally interesting. I believe that a crazy-high price like this is ultimately good for the industry, as it forces people to challenge their assumptions that chocolate is a cheap thrill without much depth or nuance to the flavor.
Here’s what Lauren Adler, the owner of Seattle specialty store Chocolopolis, had to say:
Meanwhile Jessica Ferraro of Bar Cacao said in some ways she sees it as a positive because "it's been way easier to work with a $12 bar and a $20 bar since To'ak's release." She also mentioned how transparent Jerry is about the company’s process and goals, which has been my experience as well.
Yet at the end of the day, Jessica said she believes To’ak is more problematic than progressive, because it’s too easy to poke holes in what the company is doing. Through conversations with Jerry, she learned that the $260 bar was the company’s first attempt at making chocolate, and that the $325 bar is their first and only attempt at aging chocolate (in a Cognac barrel or Elm barrel, depending on which bar you buy). In fact, the aged chocolate is repurposed from the first time they made chocolate: Reject bars were remelted into one-gram-size coins and dropped into the barrels.
The bigger problem to me, though, is that there's no concrete evidence that aging chocolate makes it any better (to some degree, all chocolate is aged, since it takes time to get it from the factory to your mouth). To'ak even quotes Mark Christian from the C-Spot in their own pamphlet on this issue:
To’ak is getting press from places like Vice’s Munchies, which highlights the high price they pay their farmers and their profit-sharing program. That’s great, as it sheds light on direct trade and bean to bar. However, they’re hardly the only makers to do this. Taza, Askinosie, Dandelion, Patric, French Broad — the list of makers paying high prices, trading directly, and caring intensely about farmers and the quality of cacao goes on and on. In fact, it’s a hallmark of this new movement, not something unique to To’ak. And you can buy those bars for about $8.50. So what makes this one worth $325?
Lauren wondered that as well:
Meanwhile Clay Gordon of TheChocolateLife.com said, "I'm not convinced that the bars would sell without the gimmicks — the box, the tweezers, etc." Instead he recommended the seven-bar Heirloom Cacao Project sampler from the C-Spot, which is priced at a comparably low $100.
So after all this discussion, should you pay for someone’s experiment? Or, if the chocolate is great, does it matter? What’s the highest price that makers should charge for a bar of chocolate, regardless of how much work went into it?
Sure, To’ak raises plenty of questions. But in my mind it’s not a cut-and-dried good or bad thing, because they’re questions we need to be asking.
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