History of Chocolate
Can you imagine a world without chocolate? If you don’t want to, you’re not alone. People consume more than seven million tons of chocolate worldwide every year. Fortunately, a world without chocolate hasn’t been a reality for thousands of years.
Even though it’s been around for centuries, chocolate hasn’t always looked or tasted the way we’re used to these days. While the specifics of chocolate history get a little hazy because it’s been around so long, we do have some information on the origin of chocolate that sheds light on a favorite sweet treat of many.
What Is Chocolate?
Before we answer questions about where chocolate was invented and who discovered it, let’s take some time to clarify a few terms used when we talk about chocolate production. Cacao is the plant itself that grows the beans used to make chocolate. The official name of the plant is Theobroma Cacao, which means “cocoa, food of the gods.” The beans grow on small tropical trees, which can produce almost 2,000 pods every year.
The pods, shaped roughly like footballs with ridges along them, grow from the branches and trunk of the tree. They protect the seeds, or the cacao beans, that later become chocolate. The sticky white pulp that surrounds those seeds is also used as food and in drinks. It has a flavor that’s both sweet and tart.
Chocolate is the resulting product that you make when you use the cacao beans. The beans are extremely bitter straight from the pod. It’s not until they’re processed and combined with sweeteners that they become the type of food you recognize as chocolate today. The chocolate you think of today is much different than the earliest creations made from cacao. A quick walk through the history of chocolate will show you just how far the cacao bean and its uses have come over the centuries.
When Was Chocolate Discovered?
Part of the mystery surrounding chocolate’s origin is who discovered it and when. Most historians thought chocolate had been around for about 2,000 years, but many now believe it could be older based on new evidence. Some anthropologists believe chocolate production dates back to 1900 B.C. in pre-Olmec cultures. A group from the University of Pennsylvania working in Honduras found pottery dating to 1400 B.C. that had cacao residue on it. Whatever the date is that people started putting the cacao bean to use in the form of chocolate, it’s been around for centuries. It has, however, changed dramatically over the years.
Where Did Chocolate Originate?
Figuring out where chocolate originates from isn’t straightforward since it was discovered so long ago. The cacao plants grew naturally and were originally harvested by the ancient people who found them in Latin America’s tropical rainforests. Eventually, ancient civilizations began growing the plants intentionally as a crop. As the groups migrated to different parts of Latin America, they took the cacao plants with them.
Cacao plants, originally native to Central and South America, eventually started spreading to other tropical climates as people began growing them as crops. Today, cacao grows in countries near the equator, where the trees can thrive. Central America, Brazil and Ecuador are big cacao-producing countries. Outside that region, Africa is a major location for cocoa production, especially in Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria. In Asia, cacao grows in Malaysia and Indonesia.
The mention of chocolate immediately suggests solid chocolate confections that melt into gooey puddles of deliciousness once they hit your mouth. But that’s not the way chocolate has always been consumed. In fact, much of the history of chocolate isn’t sweet at all. And it hasn’t always been solid either.
For much of chocolate’s history, people served it as an unsweetened beverage often reserved for only the rich and elite in many different societies. Kings, noblemen, priests and other members of elite groups sipped on the bitter beverage. No one else could afford the chocolate of the early days.
One of the earliest preparation methods for the drinking chocolate started with fermenting the cacao beans. They were then roasted and ground into a paste. When mixed with water, the cacao paste formed the drinking chocolate. Civilizations in Latin America often mixed local spices in with the drink to add flavor. Spices might have involved things like vanilla and chili peppers, but they didn’t include sugar in the early forms of drinking chocolate.
People often turned liquid chocolate into a frothy beverage by pouring it back and forth between containers. Later, the Spaniards made the chocolate frothy with a molinillo, which was a tool you could twirl back and forth between your palms.
Ancient Beliefs About Chocolate
Drinking chocolate made people in ancient civilizations feel different from how other drinks made them feel. They felt energized and invigorated by the beverage, likely because of the caffeine. They experienced a boost in their moods, and many believed the drink was an aphrodisiac. The feelings caused by chocolate led the ancient people to think it held magical powers. They believed in its mystical and divine power, worshipping the gods of cacao.
Legend says that Quetzalcoatl, an Aztec god, gave cacao to the people. He taught them how to grow it and turn it into a drink. When the other gods found out that he shared the cacao with humans, they became angry and banished him from paradise. Many people believed Quetzalcoatl would come back again someday.
Because of these beliefs about chocolate, it was often reserved for the elite. People also used it in sacred rituals. Brides and grooms exchanged chocolate during wedding ceremonies. It was even sometimes part of baptisms and other religious ceremonies.
The beliefs about chocolate followed it to Europe. The elite in many European countries thought chocolate held magical powers. They also considered chocolate to be a nutritious food and believed it had medicinal qualities. They used chocolate for everything from helping digestion to easing pain and lowering fevers. Imagine if your doctor said told you to take two chocolates and call them in the morning. Who could argue with that?
Chocolate in Ancient Cultures
Since the specifics on when and where chocolate originated aren’t completely clear, there’s some ambiguity about how it was used in ancient cultures. Historians and anthropologists have, however, pieced together some information on chocolate in ancient civilizations.
From roughly 1500 B.C. to 300 B.C., the Olmec Indians likely domesticated the cacao beans to grow them as crops.
From about 300 B.C. to 500 A.D., the Mayans developed and took over the cacao-bean production. They gained much of their culture from the Olmec. In the Mayan society, the elite consumed chocolate on a regular basis while others consumed it only on special occasions, but it wasn’t in the form of sweetened bars. The Mayans ground the cacao beans and turned them into an unsweetened drink by adding the ground powder to water. They called the drink “xocolatl” or “bitter water,” but they also referred to it as the food of the gods.
From 600 A.D. to 1000 A.D., cacao production moved because the Mayans moved north through Mesoamerica. The Yucatan area became home to the first cacao plantations. A frothy drink called cacau made of cacao became popular among the nobles.
By the 1200s, Mayans and Aztecs started trading, including cacau. The Aztecs called it cacahuatl, and members of the Aztec upper class enjoyed the drink. Aztecs made cacao beans an exclusive commodity, allowing only noblemen, priests, officials, warriors and rich traders to have it. In the 1500s, Christopher Columbus is said to have brought cacao beans back to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in Spain. They didn’t find the beans appealing.
When Hernan Cortes arrived in Mexico in 1519, the Aztecs thought Quetzalcoatl had returned, so they served up cacao to him. It turns out he was just an explorer, but he picked up quickly on just how valuable cacao was. He started his own cacao plantations in the area. Later in the 1500s, after conquering the Aztecs, Hernan Cortes brought the beans and equipment back to Spain, where King Charles V was more excited about the product. High taxes on the beans meant cocoa was restricted to only the rich since no one else could afford it.
Another Ancient Use of Chocolate
How many times have you heard that money doesn’t grow on trees? In ancient civilizations and even into modern times, the cacao bean proved that expression wrong. The beans became so valuable that people used them as a form of currency, especially in Aztec and Mayan times. Because the Aztecs couldn’t grow their own cacao beans in central Mexico where their civilization was based, they traded for the cacao beans with the Mayans. Some people found a way to counterfeit the beans by carving them out of clay. Who knew that counterfeiting money started so long ago?
Since cacao beans were used as money, only the rich could afford to consume them during much of chocolate’s history. If you didn’t have much money, you wouldn’t eat the cash in your wallet even if it was edible. Cacao beans continued serving as currency in Latin America even into the 19th century.
Chocolate in Europe
Chocolate first made its European debut in Spain. The country kept the special treat under wraps for quite some time — almost a century. How did they keep something so delicious a secret? It’s said that they turned to the monks in secluded monasteries. The monks processed the beans in those hidden monasteries so no one else would find out about the chocolate.
It wasn’t until the early 1600s that the product started spreading. Princess Maria Theresa, daughter of Spain’s King Philip III, gifted her soon-to-be husband, French King Louis XIII, with chocolate before their wedding. An Italian named Antonio Carletti brought chocolate back to Italy from Spain. Chocolate quickly gained popularity once it reached Italy. Germany, Austria and Switzerland soon followed suit. In Germany, it was common to drink the hot chocolate beverage before going to bed.
In 1657, London got its first chocolate house, which was similar to coffee shops that we visit in modern times. The English changed up the drink somewhat by using milk instead of the commonly used water. Other English additions included Madeira and beaten eggs. The product was still very expensive — again, only the rich could afford it.
Chocolate as a drink continued to spread until it was available around the world in the 1700s. The chilies that were once a common ingredient in drinking chocolate were largely dropped around this time outside of Latin America. In 1659, France jumped into the chocolate game in a major way with its first chocolatier, David Chaillou. He used the sweet ingredient in things like cookies and cakes. By 1728, the first chocolate factory was established in England. The Fry family used it to grind cocoa beans using hydraulic equipment.
Since cacao plants couldn’t grow in Europe, some of the European countries used their power to establish cacao and sugar plantations in their colonies in areas of the world with ideal growing conditions. The more cacao plants they grew, the cheaper chocolate became, which helped make it more affordable for people who weren’t filthy rich.
Despite its popularity in Europe, chocolate wasn’t accepted by all people. Some saw it as a negative because of the aphrodisiac effects. Churches were unsure of chocolate, thinking it was too sinful and decadent to consume. But the churches eventually relented to keep their wealthy members happy. In fact, many noble women liked to drink chocolate during the services because they lasted so long.
Chocolate in the U.S.
Eventually, chocolate made its way to the U.S. In 1755, drinking chocolate was introduced in the colonies. The first chocolate mill went up in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1765 and was used to process beans imported from the West Indies by John Hanan with help from Dr. James Baker. During the Revolutionary War, chocolate was very valuable in the U.S. So much so, in fact, that it was given to soldiers as part of their rations instead of pay.
Origins of Sweetened Chocolate
In Latin American, the chocolate drink was flavored with ingredients available locally like chile, cinnamon, pepper and vanilla. In 1544, Prince Phillip of Spain received jars of a beaten cacao drink from the Mayans. Instead of continuing to make the beverage with chile, the Spanish added sugar to make it less bitter. They also warmed the drink instead of serving it at room temperature.
In 1590 in Oaxaca, Mexico, Spanish nuns added honey, cinnamon and cane sugar to chocolate drinks to sweeten them. Around the same time back in Spain, monks began using honey and vanilla to sweeten the drink.
Origins of Solid Chocolate
The invention of solid chocolate didn’t come until much later. A Dutch chemist paved the way for the development of solid chocolate in 1828. It was then that Coenraad Van Houten figured out he could make powdered chocolate using a hydraulic press by taking some of the cacao butter out of roasted cacao beans. What was left was defatted cocoa powder, known as Dutch cocoa. He mixed the resulting powder with alkaline salts to get rid of some of the bitter flavor and to make it easier to mix with water.
His invention opened the door for more experimentation in making chocolate. Chocolatiers could play with the ratios of cocoa butter and cocoa powder to change how the chocolate tasted. It also helped make chocolate more accessible for people outside of the upper class. Because the chocolate powder could be used to make confections, production costs dropped significantly. Chocolate was more affordable, making it an option for people who weren’t wealthy.
It was that powder that became an important part of the first solid chocolate, which was created in 1847. In a sweet twist of fate, Joseph Fry invented a moldable chocolate paste when he combined cocoa butter, cocoa powder and sugar. Those original chocolate bars, called “eating chocolate” by the inventor, were grainy at the time. The rough texture made it different from the smooth, consistent chocolate we see today.
Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle (that name should ring a bell for chocolate fans) changed the face of chocolate in 1875 by creating milk chocolate. They did it by adding condensed milk into the chocolate mixture. If you’re a milk chocolate fan, you now know who to thank!
Solid chocolate got another boost in 1879 with the development of the conching machine. You can thank this machine for the smooth, consistent, velvet-like texture of chocolate. It works by heating, rotating and mixing the chocolate. The conching process took 72 hours in the beginning compared to about 12 hours today. The machine was one of several advances that led to the mass production of chocolate — a moment in history we can all agree was pretty sweet.
Many well-known chocolate names that still produce your favorite confections got their start in the late 1800s and early 1900s during a time when the chocolate business boomed. Cadbury started selling chocolate in England in 1868. Mars, Hershey and Nestle also began producing their solid chocolate candies during this period.
In its early years, chocolate was usually one type of product. Initially, it was an unsweetened drink. Eventually, it became a sweetened drink. Sure, some people added a few different flavorings, but the basic idea was the same, with only one version of chocolate. Once solid chocolate was invented, all the bars were about the same: a grainy lump of chocolate.
Slowly, people started creating new types of chocolate treats and ways to use chocolate in edible products. For example, 1830 marked the first time people mixed nuts into chocolate. In 1839, Stollwerck, a German baker, started making many different items containing chocolate.
By 1900, the enrobing machine was invented, which replaced the traditional hand-dipping of chocolate candies. In 1912, Jean Neuhaus started making chocolate shells that people could easily fill with soft foods and nut pastes instead of hand dipping or enrobing. In 1930, Nestle produced white chocolate for the first time. All these early creations expanded just how many ways people use chocolate today.
In the late 80s and into the 90s, the idea of designer chocolate bars became a trend. It started in 1986 with a single-origin chocolate bar created with only beans from South America. In the 90s, some manufacturers went so far as to produce chocolate bars made from beans raised on only one plantation.
If you look in any candy store, you’ll see a huge variety of chocolate. Some of the candies that pass as chocolate these days don’t actually have much cacao in them at all. Chocolate candies on the affordable end of the spectrum tend to have more sugar and additives in them than the higher-end chocolates, which have a higher percentage of cacao.
Another trend in modern chocolate is adding creative flavorings that you wouldn’t normally associate with chocolate. You can find chocolate bars with saffron, curry, lemongrass and hot peppers mixed into the chocolate. Some manufacturers throw it back to the early days of chocolate with Aztec-inspired bars that include chile and cinnamon.
Organic chocolate is growing in popularity, as is dark chocolate with high percentages of cacao. In a way, you could say some modern chocolate manufacturers are going back to their roots. But that doesn’t mean the classics like rich, milk-chocolate kisses and candy bars are going anywhere. The best part of the modern chocolate scene is the huge variety in both flavor and price — now the food of the gods is available to everyone, not just the elite.
Satisfy Your Chocolate Craving
Now that you’ve satisfied your curiosity about where chocolate came from and who came up with it, why not satisfy your sweet tooth with your favorite chocolate candies? Candy Central has you covered with a variety of chocolate candies available in bulk quantities. Share your chocolate and your knowledge of chocolate history with friends to sweeten their day!