History of Chocolate (Cacao), as we know it

By Gary R. Beck

Theobroma cacao beans were roasted, fermented then ground to a powder by pre-Olmec people in Mesoamerica, with evidence it was made mainly into beverages. Then experts found traces of chemical substances (markers for chocolate) on fragments of plates uncovered at the Paso del Macho archaeological site in the Yucatan, Mexico, demonstrating that culture about 2,500 years ago influenced the modern Mexican cuisine. Markers were found on flat vessels used for serving in other ways than a beverage.

Pre-Hispanic Maya may have eaten foods with cacao sauce similar to mole, extending the roots of Mexican cuisine and the importance of chocolate further back into the past than previously thought. Historians had long thought cacao beans and pods were mainly used as a beverage, made either by crushing the beans andmixing them with liquids or fermenting the pulp of the beans in the pod. Such a drink was believed to have been reserved for the elite class. Chocolate played a significant role in both Maya and Aztec royal and religious events. Cacao seeds were offered to the gods and chocolate drinks were served during sacred ceremonies. The Maya carved images of cacao pods on many of their stone temple walls. The Aztecs called their prized cocoa bean drink “chocolatl”.

In the 1500’s, the Spanish explorers/conquerors learned about cocoa from the Aztecs and brought it to Europe where it was enjoyed by the privileged who added refined sugar for usage in sweets and desserts. Cortés presented the Spanish King, Charles V with cocoa beans. The bitter beverage was blended with sugar or honey and often vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg or cloves. The results were coveted and reserved for the Spanish nobility. Chocolate was a secret that Spain managed to keep from the rest of the world for nearly 100 years. Popularity spread through the European royal courts and by the 1600’s, it was widely enjoyed by the wealthy, remaining too expensive for commoners.

For hundreds of years, the chocolate-making process remained unchanged. When the Industrial Revolution arrived, many changes occurred that brought this sweetened candy fame. In 1730, mechanical steam engine mills were created squeezing out cocoa butter, which in turn helped to create hard chocolate making it affordable to most Europeans. Chocolate production became faster and easier once the steam engine was invented. North America’s first chocolate factory opened in the United States in 1756. The invention of the cocoa press in 1828 greatly improved the quality of chocolate. The first chocolate bars were produced in England in 1847. By 1875, London chocolate houses became the to-be-seen meeting places where society sipped this new liquid luxury. Not long after the revolution, companies began advertising this new invention to sell a wide variety of chocolate treats seen today.

Milk chocolate was invented in Switzerland in 1876. Although chocolate was popular with Europeans, chocolate production in the United States rapidly exceeded Europe’s. When new machines were produced, people began experiencing and consuming chocolate worldwide in large quantities. But devastation of tropical forests is of grave concern: cocoa trees thrive in the shade of towering, equatorial rain forests. While these forests dwindle in size and the demand for chocolate increases, scientists are studying how to manage cocoa farms, thus preserving the environment.

Although cocoa is originally from the Americas, today Western Africa produces almost two-thirds of the world’s cocoa.

Gary R. Beck

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Living in Mexico full time since 2011, Madeline is a graphic designer, writer, iPhone photographer and road tripper.