Cacao, Cocoa, and the story of what we know as Chocolate
The History of Chocolate
~From then until now~
Background of Chocolate
There are few things as polarizing and desirable in the world as beverages such as coffee, tea, alcohol, and chocolate… Yes, that’s right; Chocolate is a beverage. In most of the world, it has been for longer than you’ve been alive, tenfold. Chocolate is a cash crop that has a very specific growing region, is complicated to produce and due to its nature is still to this day, hand-harvested and processed. This sounds like coffee right? Chocolate, just like Coffee, has high and low land growing regions, acidity levels based on tropical conditions and myriad depths of flavor based on the level of roasting. Coffee and Tea have dominated the market of gourmet beverages with esoteric nuances, regional variances, and excessive brand competitiveness, but it wasn’t all that long ago that Chocolate was the preferred indulgent drink in Europe and a status symbol among royalty and the wealthy. Although the discovery of Tea in China reportedly dates back to 2732 B.C. and takes the win for the oldest iconic beverage by a landslide, Coffee and Chocolate seem to have made a grander performance on the world’s stage.
Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia in the 15th century(1400’s A.D.) by farmers who noticed the stimulating effects their goats exhibited when they consumed the raw berries. It was an evolution of time and experimentation until the late 1500’s before that initial botanical discovery led to what we now recognize as coffee, but despite how long ago that seems to be for what is arguably America’s favorite beverage; Chocolate has been around for much longer. Chocolate is reported to have been documented as long ago as 250-900 A.D. in the Mayan Culture. The Mayans were an incredible civilization and paved many a way for what Mesoamerica would ultimately rely on as a foundation for different ways of life. The first record of Chocolate, or what was then called Xocoatl, is in a small village in the Ulúa valley in modern-day Honduras.
The name of the Chocolate plant, Cacao, comes from a Mayan word “Cacau” which means: “carrying over from those who walk, work or cultivate” which is largely interpreted as those who do commerce. The Toltecs succeeded the Mayans naturally and geographically before the Aztecs conquered much of the land owned by both, but all three held religious beliefs about who they considered the god of chocolate, named Cocoa Quetzalcoatl. Cacao was the source of “chocolate” beverages made by the indigenous people during this time, but it was also a form of currency. The Aztecs initially didn’t understand the Mayans affection for Cacao, but used it as their currency system. There was also a circulation of Cacao beans as currency throughout the region that stemmed from their scarcity and high regard. A food/beverage that was held in such high regard and also used as a currency seems a bit absurd, but it is not the only time.
Have you ever heard the phrase “A man is worth his salt”? In Roman times, salt was so rare and precious that it was both a food and a currency. A soldier could be paid a wage in salt. Likewise, during the early years of sea exploration within the expansion of the British Empire, when pirates ruled the high seas, it was not uncommon for a man to be paid in rum for his service aboard a ship, whether it be legal work or not. Extra fun fact: the entire “Proof system” of alcohol we use today comes from the time of rum, or alcohol, being a currency with which to pay a wage to a sailor or soldier. Your average bottle of booze in the store is 80 proof, which means 40% alcohol and 60% water. When it came time for the men to be paid, the first mate would pour some of the liquor onto a small pile of gunpowder and light it. If the alcohol was overdiluted then the gunpowder would not ignite as it contained too much water, but if it did ignite then it “proved” that the potency of the alcohol was sufficient and worthy of the wage being paid.
Chocolate and the Mayan religious culture was very closely intertwined. The Mayans believed it to be a very mystical and empowering beverage, but unlike the many cultures who followed them, it was not exclusively for royalty. The Mayans actually had a rather gruesome ritual in which they held their own version of what we would consider the Olympics. A competitive display of sport and combat that ultimately led to the last man standing, quite literally. Rather than the victor being gifted with rewards or wealth, he or she was honored with being sacrificed for the community. They would sacrifice the victor in a way that would harvest their blood and all their blood would be mixed into a large community caldron of cacao that everyone in the whole tribe would have a cup of. The mentality was that drinking the blood of their strongest and most powerful warriors would invigorate and strengthen the whole of the people. It was a primitive and gruesome practice, but many things were at this point in time.
The Aztecs were also a warrior people, even more so, but they did not subscribe to this practice of sacrificing their best warriors. They amended the recipe of chocolate, corn maize, flor de cacao and seed of the mamey sapote plant, plus the victor’s blood that Mayans used by substituting the Annatto seed, commonly called Achiote, instead of blood. Achiote has been used for a long time as a source of strong red pigment and to this day is a staple in Hispanic cuisine. This gave the blood color to the drink they were accustomed to without losing their best warriors frivolously. Another fun fact: The Native Americans of North America used Achiote in a diluted paste form as a natural sunscreen and skin protectant. When European explorers first landed and encountered the native peoples and saw them covered in this paint they nicknamed them “redskins”. This initially was not a racial slur or major differentiation from other non-white peoples. It was merely observational as the Native Americans literally had red skin due to being slathered in a paste from the annatto seed.
Evolution of Chocolate
When Hernando Cortés first arrived in 1519 he was mistaken as the returning god of chocolate, Cocoa Quetzalcoatl. The Aztecs under Montezuma’s rule offered him their bitter and spicy concoction of chocolate as tribute but the Spaniards didn’t care for the taste. They did understand though that the Aztecs regarded it as highly as the Spanish did the gold they were seeking in their explorations and took full advantage of that.
From 1528-1590 the Europeans develop and change the recipe of Chocolate at home to suite their tastes by experimenting with honey, cane sugar and spices to make the bitter drink more palatable. The Europeans are credited with first using Cinnamon, Anise, Clove, and Dairy. The surprising stimulating benefits of chocolate mystified the people of the time and it soon becomes regarded as a healthy tonic, a status symbol due to its expense, and the most desired indulgent beverage. The Catholic Church frowned on the level of chocolate consumption at the time, seeing it as sinful to overindulge and prohibited it from being consumed inside the church. Many at the time enjoyed sipping on chocolate during service to help them endure the long-winded sermons. They were eventually pressured to relent on this rule though as many of the more prominent, and specifically the largest financial donors, stopped coming to church. In order to appease the wealthy, they abolished that rule.
Chocolate begins to travel the world and makes its way to Italy, France, The Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. Chocolate arrived in Florida on a Spanish ship in 1641. It’s thought the first American chocolate house opened in Boston in 1682.
David Chaillou becomes the first Chocolatier in France and confections with chocolate begin their existence, but it would still be some time before “eating chocolate” or anything resembling candy or bars are made. The first Praline, however, is invented by the duke of Plessis-Praslin and his chef Lassagne.
The first large scale production at a factory level begins in the U.K. by the Fry family. The U.S. gets better introduced to chocolate and the first factory is established in Massachusetts. By 1773, cocoa beans were a major American colony import and chocolate was enjoyed by people of all classes. During the Revolutionary War chocolate was provided to the military as rations and sometimes given to soldiers as payment instead of money. The Cacao plant is given an official Latin name: Theobroma Cacao, referring to its mythical background. It literally means “cocoa, food of the gods.”
Things really start to change here as the cocoa press is invented which allows for cocoa butter and defatted cocoa powder from the cacao nibs to be separated and reintroduced at different ratios along with sugar. In addition to inventing the press, the “Dutch” processing of cocoa is also invented by Dutchman Coenraad Van Houten which alkalinizes the cocoa powder and neutralizes the strong acidity of cocoa. This opens up much innovation in the production and uses of chocolate in baking and paves the way for candy making. Henri Nestlé and Rudolph Lindt both begin their journey towards creating their chocolate empires. Milk powder is also invented in this time period and milk chocolate, candy, and bars are born.
Chocolate production soars and all the major countries are getting in on the ground floor of this new commodity. The major brands are born and farming is established in Africa and Asia along the same latitude where it natively grows in the very South of México, Central America, and the Northern tip of South America. Cacao requires high heat and high humidity to thrive, but does not do well with high sun exposure. It only grows in jungle climates where it can be shielded by the canopy of taller trees. The Europeans initially tried to grow it back home in Europe with no success, but took their seeds south to Africa where they could have easier access to their new favorite food.
At this time, the cost of the raw ingredients combined with the better and faster production made chocolate affordable to the middle class and most everyone had access to it. Chocolate became an important ration during the world wars and at one time was the cheapest food per kilocalorie.
How Chocolate is Made
The Cacao tree, officially known as Theobroma Cacao grows only in proximity to the Equator where the high heat and humidity conditions are ideal for this plant. The tree produces pods that contain seeds. The pods ripen at different times and must be hand-harvested with each region usually having two harvest periods per year. The pods are broken open by machete and the “beans” are scooped out. One tree can produce anywhere between two and three pounds of dry cocoa beans per year and it takes approximately 500 cocoa beans to produce one pound of bittersweet chocolate.
Cocoa beans have a white, mucilage-like coating around each bean which needs to be fermented. This fermentation process is key to producing what we recognize as chocolate. Fermentation causes enzymatic changes to occur, produces much of the chocolate flavor and dissolves the coating on the bean. The beans are covered with large banana leaves which causes them to sweat and retain humid moisture to support the fermentation process. This process can take 2-8 days depending on the conditions and must be monitored.
The beans are dried in the sun and turned by hand, or foot, daily. The seeds are brought under cover at night or if it rains and put back out the next day to continue drying. Larger plantations use electric dryers to speed up the process, but on average it takes 1-2 weeks to fully dry the cocoa bean which darkens in color during this time.
Before they are roasted, not much of the smell or taste we know is present, or activated rather, in the raw cocoa. The roasting process helps break apart the remaining nibs and hulls of the seeds, disinfects any bacteria and creates the flavor we all love. Much like Coffee, without roasting, you have two completely different products that seem to bear no resemblance. The roasting process is usually done by a chocolatier or in a factory, not at the farmer level. Like coffee, cocoa is best put towards its intended application as soon after roasting as possible and each company or chocolatier is going to have their own preference on roast level.
The remaining bits of hull and debris are separated from the cocoa nib, which is the meat of the seed that this is all about. This process is called Winnowing and is akin to separating grain from the chaff. The nibs are roasted and ground into a paste and pure cocoa paste is called chocolate liquor, but it is not alcoholic. It has this name referring to it now being in a liquid form that is pourable. Chocolate liquor is roughly equal parts cocoa butter, which is the fat and mouthfeel smoothness of chocolate, and cocoa solids which is a powder when all the fat is removed.
The chocolate liquor must undergo a process called conching which is done by a machine that blends and stirs the liquor with heat to smooth and melt all the little particles and bits left after grinding. After this process, you have pure bakers chocolate that can be poured into molds and sold. The liquor can also be separated into its two constituent parts of cocoa butter and cocoa powder.
Chocolatiers can begin to make their blends and will separate and recombine the cocoa butter and powder at different ratios with sugar to produce a range of products from light to dark, bitter to sweet, and the inclusion of milk or other flavorings. Chocolate bars and candies have a higher ratio of cocoa butter in them and go through a heat tempering process to stabilize the mixture so that it sets well in molds and retains its integrity when eaten in solid form.
White chocolate is cocoa butter without any cocoa powder in it which some argue is not really chocolate or is fake chocolate. If you look at the process, cocoa butter is 50% of what makes up pure chocolate and cocoa powder is the other 50%. It would seem that only in its full state is it REALLY chocolate and anything made with its derivatives are cocoa products or by-products. Cocoa powder isn’t any more or less chocolate than cocoa butter is if you’re looking at the plant and the process logically, but all the flavor we associate with chocolate is lopsided to just the cocoa powder. No matter where you land on that debate or whether you care or not, it is clear that chocolate in any form is a versatile product with many applications and a global fan base.
Hopefully, you enjoyed your journey through the history of Chocolate and have a deeper appreciation for all the steps and travels chocolate has taken to be accessible to you the way it is today! If you would like to try the regional differences in how chocolate has evolved then see below to our drinking chocolate mixes that we are releasing this winter 🙂
A Chocolate Trip Around the World
Come taste the evolution of Chocolate!
We have developed 5 flavors in our line of Drinking Chocolates,
which are a rich and authentic homage to how the ancient world used to enjoy Cacao.
Chocolate has been prepared as a beverage for as long as it has
been around, solid candies and bars are relatively new. We have put
together a line of Drinking Chocolates that tell the story of Chocolate
from its humble beginnings with the Mayans and Aztecs, through the
changes affected by the European Conquistadors, to its current
versions in modern-day México and America.
These are available individually or in a sample pack.
Come and experience a hot cup of Cocoa like you’ve never had before!
The Cocoa Azteca
The Cocoa Méxicano
The Cocoa Americano
The Peppermint Cocoa
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Awesome info about chocolate, it makes me want to sample chocolates from around the world! I’m excited for Drinking Chocolate!
Great article! So much I didn’t know about chocolate. So glad it made its way to America! :). Can’t wait to try your chocolate drinks!
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