The History of Chocolate Print E-mail

Ancient Civilizations
The life story of Chocolate starts a little over 3000 years ago. While there are images on Mayan pottery dating back to 1000BC, most historians believe the cacao tree was first cultivated by the Olmecs, who lived in Central America, near the equator and the Gulf of Mexico.  Research into their language has revealed the word cacao was used by this Mesoamerican civilization, dispelling the common misconception that the Mayans were the original founders of chocolate.

By 300 AD the Olmecs had vanished and the Mayan civilization was flourishing in the southern part of what is now Mexico.  With ideal growing conditions in this region, the cacao plant was able to thrive.  The Mayan civilization worshiped the sacred tree, naming it cacahuaquchtl, and believed the pods were a gift to man from the Gods.  Ek-chuah was the patron saint of cocoa and was revered by all.  Writings that survive today describe the cacao as the gods’ food, and many drawings show cacao pods being used in rituals and ceremonies.  These writings also describe multiple ways of preparing the cocoa resulting in drinks of varying consistencies from a thin liquid to a thick paste, with different flavorings.

After the demise of the Mayan civilization around 900 AD, the Toltecs occupied the same region; bordered by the Yucatan peninsula, Chiapas and the west coast of Guatemala.   Their king, Quetzalcoatl, fleeing political unrest, sailed away from his people, vowing to return.  Legend held that he was in fact a god, and that he would return in 1519, as a white faced king, to free his people.  This legend survived through the ages, and became part of the Aztec lore.

Aztecs conquered the Toltecs in 1325. When they discovered the cacao beans that the Toltecs worshiped and transformed into drink, they named the beans cacahuatl, meaning “sun beans”.  Cacao beans were used primarily as currency and a beverage at this time.  The beans were so valuable, they were the only permitted form of payment of taxes levied by the Aztecs rulers.    Cacao was thought to be both  medicinal and an aphrodisiac, and was often given to warriors to strengthen them for battle.

Both the Aztecs and the Mayans concocted a foamy drink with the cacao, and spiced it with chili, allspice, honey or vanilla.  The beverage was enjoyed mostly by the elite upper class as it was an expensive luxury.  There is evidence of a cacao based drink in Costa Rica and Guanaja during the same period.  It is here in Guanaja, in 1502 that cacao beans were first discovered by a European – Christopher Columbus.  He was offered cacao beans in trade for goods of his own.  His confusion over these “almonds” being used as currency led the chief of Guanja to prepare xocolatl for him, which he apparently found bitter and distasteful.  While he did not initially realize the beans were edible, he did report that they were being used as a form of currency, and returned to Spain with some beans.  When he presented his find to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, they were not pleased with the cocoa drink either, and thus Spain did not pursue the import of cacao beans for several decades.

Chocolate as Currency 600-1500 AD
During this period, the dried pods were decorated and used for drinking Xocolatl which at the time was a primitive combination of cacao beans, ground up using stones, to produce a grainy paste.  In 1517 Hernan Cortes received his first taste of Montezuma’s beloved drink, Xocolatl, as part of a royal welcome.  Montezuma and the Aztec people falsely believed Cortes to be the reincarnation of Quetzalcoatl, and thus paid him the homage of a god, welcoming him into the city.  Montezuma realized his mistake too late, shortly before being taken prisoner by Cortes.  By 1519 Cortes had conquered Montezuma’s entire kingdom and gained possession of an enormous store of chcahuatl worth a king’s, or in this case an emperor’s, ransom.  It is said that Montezuma drank 50 cups of Xocolatl every day from a golden vessel, often before going to his harem. 

Journey to Europe
In 1528 Cortes returned to Spain, bringing with him beans and necessary equipment to produce Xoclatl and to make the cocoa beverage for Charles V.  Initial reactions to the dark, bitter liquid were not positive, but with the addition of sugar cane and some spices such as cinnamon or vanilla, the drink began to gain acceptance with the royals and nobles.  Adding to the development, the Spaniards created a tool called a molinillo which made whipping the chocolate in to the frothy beverage much easier.

For the next 80 years Spain controlled the import of all cacao beans, and they began to cultivate them in other areas near the equator such as Trinidad, Haiti, Mexico, Java and the Caribbean.  Because growing and processing beans was very profitable for the Spanish colonists, they were careful to protect their knowledge of working with cacao.  The processing of the beans was performed by Spanish monks in the colonies until 1580 when the first chocolate processing plant was set up in Spain

Chocolate Becomes Vogue Throughout Europe
In the early 1600’s, chocolate began spreading across Europe, first to Holland then to Italy, Germany, Great Britton, France and Switzerland.  As a result these empires began cultivating and producing chocolate in their own colonies including Cameroons, Sri Lanka, West Africa and Malaysia who to this day remains one of the largest producers of beans.

During this period in history, cocoa was known as a clerical fasting beverage, because the Catholic Church permitted consumption of cocoa during lent as a nutritional substitute.  It was still believed to have medicinal and restorative properties, as well as to be an aphrodisiac.

Chocolate was popular amongst the ladies and gentlemen of the court in France. In 1659 Louis XIV granted David Chaillou the first and an exclusive right to sell chocolate in Paris, where he continued to do so for the next three decades.  This shop was the catalyst for high society’s growing adoration of chocolate, as it became vogue to consume this exotic beverage.  In France enjoyment of chocolate was however, restricted by decree, to the French aristocracy.


First chocolate house in England opened in 1657.  Any person able to pay the entrance fee, was permitted to drink chocolate at these very social establishments.


In Italy, the influential scientist and famous author, Francesco Redi, was Cosimo III de' Medici's physician. One of his books documented many delicious recipes for drinking chocolate. These published recipes included beverages perfumed with ambergris and musk, as well as a recipe for jasmine-scented chocolate.

Evolutionary Changes
1700s brought the evolution of chocolate processing with the invention of the steam engine, which made possible the machine grinding of the cocoa beans.  This allowed large quantities of beans to be processed with relatively little labor, causing a decrease in the price. Within 30 years the price of cocoa dropped so significantly that cocoa was available to nearly everyone.

Nearly 100 years later, the cocoa press was invented by the Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten.  The press allowed for even more economical prices on cocoa.  It squeezed out cocoa butter, leaving the cocoa powder, which made cocoa both more consistent and less expensive to produce.


Chocolate was produced in the American colonies as early as 1765, when the first chocolate factory was built.   Dr. James and John Hannon joined together for one of the earliest machine-based chocolate manufacturing businesses. Using an old grist mill, they ground cacao beans into chocolate liquor and pressed the paste into cakes to be used for drinking chocolate. Their company was originally known as Hannon's Best Chocolate.  When Hannon was lost at sea during a cacao-buying voyage to the West Indies, the company was renamed the Baker Company (Baker’s Chocolate) and remained in the Baker family until it was bought out by General Foods in 1927.


In 1847 the first solid chocolate bar was created. It was made by combining some of the melted cocoa butter with cocoa powder and sugar, creating a paste that could be pressed into a mold. The chocolate bar was so popular that people soon began to think of eating chocolate as much as drinking it.


In 1876, Daniel Peter of Switzerland was attempting to devise a way of adding milk to chocolate, but couldn’t create a mixture that would combine smoothly. At the same time, Henri Nestlé was working on a concentrated infant food formula, which required him to find a way to treat milk so that it would not spoil while in storage. He invented powdered milk, which turned out to be the perfect milk form for Peter's purposes; the low water content made it possible to mix it with the chocolate into a bar that did not spoil. By 1879, the two men had joined to form Nestle.


In 1879, Rudolphe Lindt invented a process called "conching," which drastically improved the texture of chocolate by making it more blendable early in the processing. This machine was made of a shell-shaped granite bed, and had rollers that moved back and forth grinding the chocolate liquor, sugar and (if used) milk into a paste that was the smoothest ever created. Soon, conching was adopted as a standard part of the chocolate-making process. Originally, the friction of the rollers heated the paste as they ground it, which served as preliminary roasting. Because of the importance of the roasting process, today’s conching machine rollers are cooled so that the roasting time can be controlled with precision.

The 1900’s saw the creation of Hershey’s chocolate bars (1893), filled bonbons (1913), Perugina and Valrhona chocolate companies (1922), Godiva Belgian chocolates (1926), Toll House cookies (1930) and army “D-Rations” (1941).  Chocolate is now eaten by children and adults all over the world, and comes in many flavors, styles and packages.  It continues to evolve with the proliferation of vintages and “single origin” chocolates at the beginning of this millennium.


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