History of Chocolate
Learn all about the history of the cocoa bean, where we get chocolate from, with the Wild Guide to chocolate!
History of the Cocoa Bean
The history of theobroma cacao, or cocoa as it is often referred, echoes the history of many native species found in the South Americas.
It goes something like this:
- Indigenous people have been using a plant for many years and introduce it to the explorers.
- The Europeans, always looking for a new good to profit on, bring the crop back to Europe.
- Trade is setup and the rest is history (often a very bloody and gruesome history).
The hot cocoa beverage made by the natives—which was usually thick and never sweetened—was too bitter for the European pallet, and so they started adding sugar to the recipe. This helped drinking chocolate quickly become a sought-out commodity after become a staple of the rich and noble in Europe.
As it goes with most new foods to the European market, once it becomes popular with the rich and powerful it becomes only a matter of time before the rest of the classes get access.
From Tree To Bean To Bar
The Mesoamerican cultures during the middle of the century enjoyed access to thousands of species of plants to experiment with. The lush forests of central and south America are the perfect breeding ground for a rich, natural bounty.
One such species of plant, a tree usually ranging from 13-26 feet, is where our story of chocolate begins.
The earliest recorded history of the cocoa cultivation dates to around 1900 BC off the Pacific coast of modern day Chiapas, Mexico.
Buried within the “Mokaya” archeological site, researchers discovered ceramic pots and vessels containing cocoa residue.
It's clear from the archeological evidence that these ancient people did not use cocoa the way we do nowadays. What archaeologists found, based on chemical sampling, shows us that this early cultivation fermented the cocoa beans to make alcoholic beverages.
In the Mokaya civilization, cocoa was also mixed with ground corn to make a drink called “atole.” This atole drink was found in elaborate pottery, and is thought to have been used in social settings in a host to guest type of situtation.
Of course, it wasn't only the Mokaya people that discovered the many uses of the cocoa tree. By the time the Europeans arrived in the new world, societies ranging from the Mayans to the Aztecs were using cocoa in a handful of ways.
Currency and Barter in the Americas
Like tea in Asia, the cocoa bean quickly became an important part of South American daily life. The upper and lower class were exposed to cocoa and it quickly became the preferred currency for many peoples of the region.
For example, the Aztec empire received an annual tribute of 7.8 million cocoa beans from local tributes under their control.
As cocoa grew in popularity as the de facto currency of central and south America, counterfeiters started creating counterfeit cocoa beans. It wasn't long before court officials became more aware of the unique cocoa bean features as a means of dealing with these counterfeit beans circulating through the market.
Early Beverages and Flavorings
Although cocoa was initially cultivated for fermentation and alcoholic purposes, the integration into native societies made it popular to use cocoa in other ways. The Maya used cocoa for ceremonial purposes in the form of a warm, frothy, bitter drink.
In time, central Americans started adding flavorings to reduce the bitterness and enhance the flavor of this dark brew. Vanilla and chile pepper were added, and soon after, honey became a popular ingredient that helped improve flavor. This was the product of the Aztecs, who also enjoyed cocoa consumed cold instead of the Maya way of consuming it hot.
Today, the legacy of these American civilizations still lives on in chocolate bars on store shelves. The “Maya Gold” chocolate bar, among dozens of others, includes chile pepper, vanilla, and a variety of other ingredients indigenous to Mesoamerica.
Europeans Discover Cocoa
The term theobroma is Latin for “food of the gods,” and was coined after Europeans discovered the cocoa bean.
Christopher Columbus noted mysterious looking “almonds” in 1502 when his crew captured a canoe on an island in the Caribbean. At the time, Columbus did not realize the gravity of this discovery.
In 1519 Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes, witnessed and recorded the widespread use of cocoa in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.
Before overrunning Montezuma and conquering the Aztec, Cortes learned much about the bean and shipped it back to Spain for the royalty to experience.
Once in Spain, the drink spread quickly, but primarily through the upper classes. The king of Spain enjoyed the frothy drink and spread it through the nobles.
As it trickled down to the common folk and royalty of other nations, demand spread in Spain.
By 1602 chocolate had spread from Spain to Austria and it was not long before it made it to France, Portugal, Britain, and other far flung regions of the world.
Through the bustling globalized trade of the period, chocolate made a rapid jump from an exclusively central and south American product to a world-wide favorite in a relatively short period of time.
Of course, the cocoa product had obvious physical effects, like increased mood, concentration and alertness, that it sold itself.
And the more it sold, the more demand grew.
Chocolate in the New World
Although chocolate and cacao grew in popularity in Europe, it was the new world that was to bear the brunt of this expansion.
Europeans did not have the proper climate for growing cocoa beans and so the only way to produce it was to expand far from home to new and existing overseas colonies.
The Spanish started cultivation on their colonies in south America. Portuguese, French, and English settlers soon followed.
The process to create cocoa products—cocoa powder, cocoa beans, cocoa nibs, cocoa butter and chocolate—is time and labor intensive. This prompted European countries to bring boatloads of slaves to assist in the effort.
Between the early 17th and late 19th centuries, the slave trade flourished in the new world in order to provide labor for many crops, among them cacao. As the industrial revolution took hold, and the morality of slavery was questioned, Europeans were forced to find new methods of producing cocoa in ample supply.
In 1815, a Dutch chemist named Coenraad van Houten introduced a method for reducing the bitter flavor of chocolate by using alkaline salts through a specific process. This is now called "dutched" or "dutch" process and is in use to this day.
13 years later, Houten patented method of pressing the fat (cocoa butter) from roasted cocoa beans. This improved the overall quality of cocoa and consistency while reducing the cost of cocoa by introducing cocoa powder that became the base for all chocolate products.
While technological innovations made up the bulk of European advances in cocoa processing and growing, another greater contribution to the global chocolate supply was bringing the cocoa plant to tropical colonized regions in other parts of the world, most specifically West Africa.
The English and French colonies of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire have in recent times become the largest producers of cocoa during the 19th century.
And while some shun chocolate from Africa compared to the native South American cocoa, this African cocoa became responsible for mass-produced chocolate, again lowering the cost and spreading its availability.
In the early stages of cocoa cultivation by humans, processing methods of cocoa was limited. Beverages were the common mode of consumption due to the well-known method of grinding cocoa seeds into a paste before mixing with water (or cornmeal).
With innovations like those made by Coenraad van Houten, Europeans started creating entirely new products out of the cocoa bean.
Joseph Fry created moldable chocolate in 1847 when he melted cocoa butter and blended it back into chocolate liquor. Less than 30 years later, Daniel Peter mixed powdered milk with the liquor to create the modern “milk chocolate” that has become so popular today.
Before long, modern companies such as Cadbury, Nestle, and Hershey, produced chocolate for the masses. The Swiss and Belgian became known for their artisan chocolate. France had their truffles. And so on.
Nowadays, chocolate is a staple in most of our lives.
I, for example, keep a bar of delicious dark chocolate in my house at all times to serve as a low-sugar dessert or snack anytime I feel my sweet tooth knockin.
What We See Today
Most of us think of chocolate bars and candy as the main form of cocoa available today. But these are not the only products to come from the humble cocoa bean.
The cocoa tree products a modicum of products that many of us enjoy on a regular basis.
The most basic cocoa husks are used as animal feed. The bean, once roasted, is often broken into cocoa nibs. These nibs are used in smoothies and provide a crunchy, bitter flavor. Or you can lightly sweeten cocoa nibs with sugar to create a energy-dense superfood snack—like we did with our Wild Sweet Nibs!
Once cocoa beans are roasted, the cocoa liquor (mass) is processed further to produce cocoa powder—which is consumed separately in shakes, smoothies, and even hot chocolate—and cocoa butter—used to create chocolate, white chocolate and used in a plethora of skincare products.
The "Food of the Gods"
Although the history of cocoa is tied to slavery and the extermination of many South American peoples, it is a product that has developed over thousands of years.
In spite of its tumultuous past, the cocoa bean and its byproducts have become some of the most widely consumed ingredients in the world.
Their popularity is a testament to not only the flavor and properties of the bean itself. As true as it was in the day of Cortes and the Aztecs, the cocoa bean sells itself.