January 19, 2021

The Fascinating History of Chocolate

By Stephanie Garr

Chocolate has long been considered sacred—far longer than any organized religion. Babies were baptized in its ground-up beans, soldiers sipped it for strength on the battlefield, emperors drank it for longevity in the bedroom, and—many centuries later—inventors, makers, and chocolatiers would turn it into a multi-billion dollar industry.

Here’s a deep dive into the long, fascinating history of chocolate, starting in the lush rainforests of the upper Amazon over 5,000 years ago. Learn how this once elite-only elixir became the world’s most treasured treat.

The Mayo-Chinchipe of Modern Day Ecuador

Roughly 3300 BCE: The Mayo-Chinchipe of Modern-Day Ecuador

Most histories of chocolate cite Central America as its birthplace, but recent evidence has found that cacao was likely consumed by humans some 1,700 years earlier than previously thought—and some 2,000 miles south. In 2018, archaeologists from the University of British Columbia discovered traces of cacao residue, biomolecules specific to cacao (including theobromine and caffeine), and DNA evidence in ceramic vessels and stone artifacts used by the ancient Mayo-Chinchipe culture as far back as 5,300 years ago. Living in what is now southeast Ecuador, the Mayo-Chinchipe people enjoyed both the seeds and the sweet pulp of the cacao pod and consumed it for not only ceremonies and rituals but everyday nourishment. 

1900 BCE: The Mokaya of Southern Mexico

Over the next several centuries, cacao was likely traded or transported northward from Ecuador into Colombia and Panama before reaching Southern Mexico. Here is where one of Mesoamerica’s earliest sedentary villagers, the Mokaya, possibly consumed cacao. Researchers in the Chiapas area of Mexico found vessels that exhibited traces of cacao, concluding that the Mokaya people of the Pacific coast were processing and consuming liquid chocolate as early as 1900 BCE. A similar vessel was found in the nearby Gulf Coast area of Mexico, meaning that the pre-Olmec people in this area were also enjoying swigs of cacao by around 1750 BCE.

The Ancient Olmec of Southern Mexico

1500 BCE: The Ancient Olmec of Southern Mexico

In their 2013 book The True History of Chocolate, archaeologist Michael Coe and anthropologist/food historian Sophie Coe offer evidence that cacao was discovered and domesticated by the ancient Olmec in present-day Veracruz, Mexico. Regarded as the first civilization of the Americas, the Olmec fermented, toasted, and ground cacao beans and consumed it as a drink. Coe and Coe discovered that the Olmec called it “kakawa,” a term used as early as 1000 BCE.

300s AD: The Ancient Maya of Mexico and Guatemala

Many people credit the ancient Maya for finding the divine in a life-giving swig of cacao. The magical bean had significant religious, economic, and social meaning to the Mayans over the centuries of their reign. They drank a thick, frothy concoction called xocoatl (“bitter water”) of roasted cacao seed, chili, maize, cinnamon, and water for rituals, celebrations, important transactions, and medicinal purposes. They believed cacao was discovered by Mayan gods; they’d baptize their babies in cacao water and celebrate the God of Cacao, Ek Chuah, every April.

The Maya Begin Cultivating Cacao

600s AD: The Maya Begin Cultivating Cacao

The first known cacao plantations can be credited to the Maya, who, around 600 AD began cultivating cacao trees, which they called cacahuaquchtl. The variety of cacao linked back to the Maya is the coveted Criollo bean. Their sophisticated agricultural systems allowed them to plant wild cacao trees alongside coconut, citrus, and papaya trees in lowland forest gardens. Still, cacao was (and still is!) difficult to grow, thus its production limited, making its seeds both a valuable form of currency and a premium product mostly reserved for the Maya elite. 

The Aztecs Deem Cacao Better Than Gold

1300s & 1400s AD: The Aztecs Deem Cacao Better Than Gold

As the Aztecs began to grow their empire, cacao became the hottest commodity—more valuable than gold. It came to them from their god Quetzalcoatl, who stole a cacao tree from heaven and brought it down to earth (none of the other gods felt humans were worthy of such a divine plant). In actuality, they first had to import their beans from the Mayans. The Aztecs drank their chocolate elixir cold and unsweetened, thickened with corn, and boosted with chili peppers and other warming spices. They believed cacao brought wisdom, power, immunity, and… a libido. As the legend goes, Aztec emperor Montezuma II guzzled the stuff down like water—up to 50 golden goblets a day before bedding down with his harem. He did apparently save some goblets for his military at least.

1502 AD: Columbus Discovers Cacao

On his fourth voyage in 1502, Christopher Columbus landed on Guanaja, one of the Bay Islands off the coast of present-day Honduras. Here, he seized a Mayan trading canoe carrying cacao beans, which he thought were almonds. He reportedly brought the beans back to Spain—but with little fanfare.

1519-1528 AD: Cortes’ Conquest

How chocolate officially made its way across the Atlantic and into the hearts of Europeans is still up for debate. Some believe that, while Columbus did little with the magical cacao bean, follower Hernan Cortes realized its full potential. After toppling the Aztec Empire in 1519, the Spanish Conquistador reputedly helped develop cacao plantations in his new colonies across Mexico and throughout the Caribbean. Some believe he finally transported cacao to Spain in 1528 and made the world-changing suggestion of adding sugar to the liquid concoction. But, according to The True History of Chocolate, by Sophie and Michael Coe, there’s no evidence Cortes ever had any cacao in his possession when returning to his homeland.

Chocolate Makes Its European Debut

1544 AD: Chocolate Makes Its European Debut

Chocolate may have actually been introduced to Europe by the Maya themselves, specifically a group of Kek-chi Mayan nobles from Guatemala who were brought to Spain by Dominican friars. There, they presented Prince Phillip with their beloved chocolate. The Coes surmise that the Spaniards combined the Maya word chocol (“hot”) and the Aztec word atl (“water”) to produce the word chocolatl. Soon, after experimenting with the addition of sugar, vanilla, and spices like cinnamon, the Spanish were hooked. Still, it was mostly a treat for the elite. Over the next hundred years, chocolate’s popularity quickly spread across France, Italy, England, and beyond. Chocolate houses became the places to be and be seen in cities around Europe. As the demand for chocolate grew, so did the need for more plantations, which would rapidly expand throughout Central and South America.

1670 AD: Chocolate Reaches New England

By the late 17th century, chocolate was making its way over to the New England Colonies. One of the earliest records of chocolate in New England dates to 1670 when Dorothy Jones and Jane Barnard were approved to serve “Coffee and Chucaletto” in Boston. Meanwhile, a British customs record from 1682 is the first to show cacao’s arrival in Boston—via Jamaica.

1689 AD: Sir Hans Sloane Invents Chocolate Milk

The child in each of us must bow down to Anglo-Irish physician Hans Sloane who is credited with (possibly) inventing chocolate milk. After a trip to Jamaica, where he became fascinated by the locals’ version of boiled cacao water, he tried mixing cacao (which he believed to contain therapeutic properties) with cow’s milk and sugar to make it much more palatable. He returned to England and sold his “Sir Hans Sloane’s milk chocolate” as a form of medicine at a London apothecary.

Cacao Goes Commercial

1729 AD: Cacao Goes Commercial

In Bristol, England, the first mechanical cacao grinder was invented by Walter Churchman and patented by His Majesty King George II. The grinder, which ran on a water engine, allowed for a faster and finer cacao-crushing process. Over the next century, inventors on both sides of the pond began outdoing one another in a race to make chocolate easier to make on a larger scale. Already in 1730, the price of cacao beans had dropped significantly.

1753 AD: Chocolate is Officially Coined “Food of the Gods”

Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus had already identified medicinal uses of chocolate, so when he was putting together his systematic list of scientific names for living things, published as Systema Naturae, he turned to the Aztecs for inspiration. He named the cacao plant Theobroma cacao—combining the Latin name Theobroma (meaning “food of the gods”) and the Aztec word xocolatl (“bitter water”).

America's First Chocolate Company

1765 AD: America’s First Chocolate Company

The beginning of American chocolate started with the Walter Baker & Company, later named Baker Chocolate Company, out of Dorchester, Massachusetts. The oldest chocolate company in the U.S. still exists, with Baker’s bulk chocolate products found in nearly every grocery store’s baking aisle.

1795 AD: The Industrial Revolution Infiltrates Chocolate

Improving on Churchman’s grinder, fellow Bristol native Joseph Fry successfully uses a Watt steam engine to grind cacao beans at a faster and more cost-effective pace.

1815-1828 AD: Cacao Turns to Dust

In 1815, Dutch chemist Casparus van Houten and his son Coenraad opened a chocolate factory in Amsterdam. In 1828, they patented a hydraulic cacao press that squeezes out the fat (cacao butter) from the beans, leaving behind the fine, defatted cocoa powder, which would become the foundation of nearly all chocolate products. Son Coenraad treated the powder with alkaline salts to allow it to mix more easily with water. That’s where the term “Dutch-processed cocoa” comes from. It helped make mass production of chocolate cheap and easy.

Cacao Heads to Africa

1822 AD: Cacao Heads to Africa

It’s not totally clear when cacao was first introduced in Africa, but it may have been sometime around 1822 when the Portuguese reputedly brought the cacao tree from the New World to the African tropics and planted it on the island of San Thome in the Gulf of Guinea. Plantations quickly popped up throughout the island and eventually along West Africa’s Gold Coast—many established by European companies. Africa would eventually become a major cacao producer. Today, roughly 70% of the world’s cacao beans come from Africa, specifically The Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon.

The Chocolate Bar is Invented

1847 AD: The First Chocolate Bar!

Up until now, chocolate was consumed as a beverage. Joseph Fry’s British chocolate company J.S. Fry & Sons is credited with producing the first-ever solid chocolate bar by combining cacao powder, sugar, and melted cacao butter and pressing it into a mold. Chocolate as the world knew it would never be the same.

1875 AD: All Hail Nestlé’s Milk Chocolate

The Swiss managed to make chocolate even more irresistible with some serious teamwork: In 1867, Henri Nestlé discovered how to make a viable powdered milk. In 1875, his neighbor, Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter, added Nestlé’s powdered milk to his chocolate and created the world’s first milk chocolate bar. The duo partnered up and formed the Nestlé Company in 1879. And this is how chocolate’s medicinal magic would start to give way for a treat far sweeter.

1879: Lindt Invents the Conching Machine

Another Swiss inventor, Rudolf Lindt took chocolate to a whole new stratosphere when he created the first chocolate conching machine. Conching helps evenly distribute the cacao butter to enhance the chocolate’s flavor and give the final chocolate bar its extra smooth, melt-in-the-mouth texture.

Hershey Woos America

1900: Hershey Woos America

With a significant price decline in cacao and sugar, the 20th century kicked off with a heavily sweetened bang thanks to Pennsylvania native Milton Hershey, who introduced his Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bars in 1900, followed by the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Hershey’s Kisses in 1907. Today, over 70 million Kisses are produced per day. Much of the 20th century saw a rise in mass-produced chocolate throughout the U.S. and Europe, dominated by companies like Hershey, Nestlé, Mars, and Cadbury. Chocolate was no longer reserved for royalty.

1930: The World’s First Cacao Research Institution is Established

Trinidad is home to the Trinitario cacao bean as well as the Cocoa Research Centre of the University of the West Indies, which has played a significant role in the conservation and characterization of cacao. The geneticist/botanist F.J. Pound began collecting much of the original germplasm (genetic material) of cacao during his expeditions throughout Central and South America in the 1930s. What he gathered was collected here. Since then, the centre has developed cacao quality standards and DNA fingerprinting, promoted genetic research and diversity, and supported cacao producers around the globe. Today, it boasts the world’s largest public collection of cacao types. Even more fascinating: much of the cacao grown in the world comes from plants that were bred here.

1980s: The French Introduce Single-Origin Chocolate

Ever the masters of sweet confections, two revered French chocolate companies—Bonnat and Valrhona—began perfecting single-origin chocolate bars with beans exclusively from one region. In 1986, Valrhona debuted its Guanaja chocolate bar (named after the island Columbus first encountered cacao) and was one of the first to highlight the bar’s cacao content on the front of its label.

Chocolate Gets the Fair Trade Stamp

1994: Domori Fights to Save the Criollo Bean and Chocolate Gets the Fair Trade Stamp

After traveling to Venezuela to research the rare Criollo bean (prized by the Maya), Gianluca Franzoni, the founder of Domori chocolate, began his Criollo Project. His goal was to help preserve this prized bean, which represents only 0.001% of all cacao produced in the world. He’s since recovered more than 10 varieties of Criollo cacao. Also in 1994, Green & Black’s Maya Gold Chocolate, made with cacao from Belize, earned the first fair trade certification of a cacao product.

1996: The New American Craft Chocolate Movement is Born

Until now, America’s contribution to chocolate had not been too terribly impressive (at least when it comes to flavor). In comes sparkling winemaker John Scharffenberger and physician Robert Steinberg, who founded the California-based Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker, the first small-batch, bean-to-bar American chocolate company focused on careful sourcing of beans from growers. Hershey eventually bought the company in 2005, but there's no doubt Scharffen Berger helped pioneer a new wave of chocolate in the 21st century.

2008: Cacao’s Rich Diversity is Revealed

Agricultural engineer Juan Carlo Motamayor set out on an ambitious genome project and finds that cacao is far more diverse than previously thought. Along with the three types of cacao beans—Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario—his team discovered seven more genetic clusters. This is just the beginning of more cacao genome mapping and preservation of heirloom varieties.

Bean-to-bar Chocolate Dominates

2010s: Bean-to-Bar Chocolate Dominates

The craft chocolate movement explodes. In 2017, the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute counted 481 bean-to-bar chocolate makers worldwide according to specific criteria. “Significantly, the thing that they most share in common is a claim that they actively seek to differentiate their end product by claiming superior flavor experience,” Executive Director Carla Martin writes. Many of these companies focus on single-origin, small-batch chocolate sourced via fair or direct trade. Packaging starts to look more like wine, including detailed information about the cacao’s origin and the tasting notes within.

To'ak Chocolate: Chocolate is the New Wine

2014: Chocolate is the New Wine

While pushing to revive the thought-to-be-extinct Nacional bean—a varietal that can be traced back to the beginning of chocolate’s history in Ecuador—To’ak launched its first bar of chocolate, initially priced at $260 per bar. Redefining the way the world sees and enjoys the precious cacao bean, the Ecuador-based endeavor brought chocolate to the same revered, luxurious status as wine. In 2015, To’ak raised the bar even further, launching its first cask-aged chocolate, aged three years in a 50-year-old cognac cask, with a price tag of $360. Chocolate proves—yet again—to be as precious as gold.

The Demand for Better Chocolate

2020s: Consumers Demand More—and Better—Chocolate

The global chocolate market continues to grow—at an estimated $41.15 billion between 2020 and 2024. This estimate came before the COVID-19 pandemic; however, that hasn’t slowed down the world’s craving for chocolate. In fact, the U.S. market for it expanded in 2020. Along with a growing hunger for cacao, more chocolate consumers are refining their palates and demanding higher-quality chocolate and better working conditions for farmers. In early 2020, Hershey announced that they’d finally met their promise to use 100% certified fair trade and sustainable cacao. Going forward, there will be a greater push for transparency and traceability—from tree to bar—and we can expect more small chocolate makers prepared to step up to the challenge.

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