The History of Chocolate

The History of Chocolate

This is 4,000-year this historical journey began in ancient Mesoamerica. It is here that the first cacao plants were found. 


There’s no delicacy more beloved than chocolate — millions worldwide would agree! — and people have been consuming cocoa for thousands of years. However, in the beginning, chocolate wasn’t the confection many of us know today. 


Our exploration begins around 2500 BCE in Central and South America when chocolate began as a drink. The Olmec civilization in the Mexican Gulf Coast region was the first to cultivate and domesticate cocoa trees as crops. They used cocoa beans to create a bitter, fatty drink that later Mesoamerican societies would also add to their cultural practices.


The word “chocolate” as we know it today originates from the word “xocoatl/chocolatl,” in Nahuatl, the language spoken by many native groups including the Mayans and Aztecs. This word translates to “bitter water,” describing the bitter beverage indigenous people made with cocoa beans.

The Aztec beverage was made from sun-dried shelled cocoa beans, probably fermented in their pods. The broken beans, or nibs, were roasted in earthen pots and then ground into a paste in a concave stone over a small fire. Various spices and herbs were added, and corn (maize) was sometimes used to produce a milder flavour. The paste was formed into small cakes and was cooled and hardened on shiny leaves placed under a tree. The cakes were broken up, mixed with hot water, and beaten to a foamy consistency with a small wooden beater, a molinet, producing a fatty, frothy, bitter beverage. The Aztecs and Mayans flavoured their chocolate drinks with spices, such as chili and sometimes honey or cinnamon, and served them in specially-made ceramic vessels marked with religious iconography.

Cocoa beans, and the beverages made from them, held immense significance in local cultures, serving as currency during trades, rewards for warriors after battles, and delicacies that graced royal feasts and religious rituals only accessed by an elite few.


Spanish Conquistadors also recognized the value of the local cocoa crop when they arrived in the New World in the early 1500s and began the process of invading, colonizing, and ultimately destroying the native cultures.

During Columbus’s fourth expedition to America in 1502, he became the first European to encounter cocoa beans. He recognized these beans held significant value among the natives, serving as currency and as a ceremonial bitter beverage. The Aztecs introduced the cocoa beverage to Hernando Cortez in 1519, and he found its taste unappealing. However, he also recognized the value of cocoa beans as a form of currency. Cortez established a cocoa plantation in the name of Spain, a cultivation site for the new “currency.” He later brought the first cocoa beans and the necessary tools for its preparation as a chocolate drink back to Europe in 1528. It was kept a closely guarded secret for a hundred years, but by the early 1600s, drinking chocolate (now sweetened with sugar and honey and flavoured with added spices and cream) had become popular among European royalty and the affluent elite.


Chocolate remained an exclusive drink until the Industrial Revolution when several technological innovations quickly led to the development of chocolate as we know it today. Keep reading — you'll probably recognize some of these names from your local grocery store!

Dutch chemist C.J. Van Houten invented the hydraulic cocoa press and patented a process for obtaining “chocolate powder” in 1828. He did this by putting roasted and ground cocoa beans (known as cocoa mass or cocoa liquor) into the press and squeezing out the cocoa butter, leaving behind a brittle chunk which workers then ground into fine cocoa powder. Van Houten invented the cocoa press because he knew the cocoa bean was more than 50% fat, and his invention meant that now the cocoa bean could be made into two separate products: cocoa butter and cocoa powder. Van Houten also discovered that adding an alkaline wash of potassium carbonate to cocoa beans before processing would reduce their acidity and bitterness and would make the resulting cocoa powder easier to mix with liquids. This process was named “Dutching” and “Dutch-processed” cocoa powder was born, leading to the development of delicious cocoa-based drink mixes and desserts for the masses, not just the elite.

The bigger innovations began in 1847. Englishman Joseph Fry discovered a way to combine cocoa butter, cocoa mass, and sugar to create the first mass-produced solid moulded chocolate bar and in doing so, he inventing a chocolate product for eating instead of drinking. John Cadbury refined this process and began mass-producing his own line of chocolate bars in 1849. Then, Switzerland’s Daniel Peter invented sweet and creamy milk chocolate by adding dried milk powder (invented by Henri Nestlé) to cocoa mass, cocoa butter, and sugar in 1876. By the 1900s, these innovations were used by chocolate manufacturers and confectioners around the world to create cocoa-based treats for everyone to enjoy.


Nowadays, we have all sorts of options for chocolate. Dark chocolate may be your go-to option if you prefer a slightly bitter yet satisfying cocoa treat. You can also find chocolates filled with delicious ingredients such as caramel, buttercream, ganache, and peanut butter. Not to mention countless scrumptious chocolate-based desserts. 

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