In a small hotel lounge in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito one bright morning a few weeks back, Mario Ramache poured small disks of chocolate into bowls and laid them out in front of two appreciative visitors. Ramache, a sushi chef by training, now works for the Quito-based chocolate maker Conexion. Among other responsibilities, he concocts new varieties of dark chocolate bars, infused with such novel ingredients as wasabi, coriander and anise. During the demonstrations, he waxed poetically about the subtle differences in flavor between bars made from cacao of various regions in Ecuador, urging samples to first be snapped and sniffed, before popped into mouths and savored.

“What notes can you detect?” he coaxed from the guests, using the language of wine tasting. “Passion fruit,” one responded. Remache smiled broadly, then explained that this particular chocolate is made from cacao planted between several varieties of tropical fruit trees.

Conexion calls its products “from farmer to bar,” part of what’s globally called a “beans-to-bar gourmet chocolate offering.” Conexion goes one step further and offers not just Nacional, or the Ecuadorian variety of fine aroma cacao, but single-origin chocolate sourced from cacao-growing cooperatives in particular Ecuadorian provinces. It’s akin to wine from a particular location in France or Italy.

The bars typically contain at least 60% cacao. (Mass produced chocolate, by contrast, contain as little as 6% cacao.) They come with a stiff price tag. A 50-grams bar sells for about $9.

But that’s nothing compared to To’ak, an Ecuadorian brand whose luxury chocolate bars range in price from $25 to an astounding $210, where each bar is numbered and packed in a handcrafted wooden box. To’ak uses only ancient or heirloom cacao, the purest form of Nacional.

These local chocolate makers and others like them offer their products locally and overseas. Conexion, for example, sells in New York, Brazil, Hong Kong and several countries in Europe. They are attempting to harness their success to Ecuador’s reputation as the source of highly-prized cacao beans, while adding enormous value to the commodity. To put this in perspective, the highest priced To’ak 50-grams bar costs about as much as 50 kilos of Nacional beans.

“Ecuador is moving from a country that’s solely exporting the raw material to one that’s actually doing the full value add and finished products in country,” said James Le Compte, To’ak’s CEO. “There’s a lot of potential.”

It’s a tough slog, however. While Ecuador’s cacao has a global reputation for the top quality, its chocolate makers struggle to establish themselves as international players. It’s also become highly competitive. A decade ago, there were only two quality chocolate makers in Ecuador, Pacari and Republica del Cacao. Now, there are upwards of two dozen, with large-scale cacao growers such as Agricola Guangala joining the fray.

The export process is difficult as well. “The export and logistics are really expensive on a per unit level because there aren’t much economies of scale,” said Le Compte. “We also face challenges because of the fact that we’re exporting a finished product from Ecuador, and that’s not so common.”

These days, the entire global industry is in turmoil, as the coronavirus endemic has hammered high quality chocolatiers worldwide. “Bean-to-bar makers cannot sell their chocolates to consumers because nobody is doing shopping anymore, they’re not going to stores,” said Marika van Santvoort, who heads the Amsterdam-based cocoa consultancy and logistics firm Moving Cocoa. “That business has been blown away.”

Just getting established in the local market isn’t easy, where cheap, sugar-heavy chocolate still dominates and where premium remains for many synonymous with foreign. But several of the high-end chocolate makers including Conexion and To’ak have grabbed international awards for their bars and they’re slowly gaining traction with retailers overseas.

Moving into premium chocolate making adds value in other ways. Businesses such as Conexion and To’ak offers top dollar for the best cacao.

“The amount of money these guys pay the farmers is great and they are getting the best beans in the country hands down,” said Francisco Miranda Guangala’s sustainability manager. “No foreign buyer or local exporter can match the prices they pay.”