The Rich Origins of Chocolate (Pun Intended)

Chocolate is one of the most universally loved treats out there. It is a central feature in most holidays, it is adopted by cultures and traditions for special occasions, and it is also simply enjoyed in its purest form in people’s day to day lives. It’s hard to imagine a world without chocolate.

But where did this shape-shifting treat come from? Who is responsible for creating the most widely consumed confection in the world today?

Let’s look back at the rich origins of chocolate and discover where chocolate originated and how it ended up as the versatile, ubiquitous sweet (sometimes bitter) treat it is today. It may just be a more surprising tale than you imagined!

What is The History of Chocolate?

Legendary Beginnings

When thinking about chocolate, most people tend to first imagine the Swiss Alps or the cobbled streets of Belgium. But chocolate’s history actually dates back thousands of years – possibly as early as 1,500 BC and not to Europe but to southern Mexico.

The oldest traces of chocolate are credited to the ancient Olmecs, who were possibly the first to ferment, roast, and grind cacao beans. Traces of theobromine have been discovered in vessels associated with the culture, and this stimulant compound is found in an elixir of chocolate and tea in what we’d consider a relative of modern-day chocolate.

Histories and traditions of the Olmecs were orally passed through the lineages, so much is still speculation, but the consensus is that this chocolate origin was used in a ceremonial setting and was something of a sacred item. That the Mayans of Central America revered a cacao drink tells researchers that the secrets, recipes, and respect for “chocolate” was passed from one society to the next.

Mayans left some written histories, and chocolate drinks are mentioned as an important cultural currency, use to note important transactions, and to celebrate events. It was enjoyed widely, across socioeconomic statuses, and was often consumed as a thick and frothy concoction, sometimes combined with chili peppers, honey or water.

Aztecs revered cacao, too, and considered the fruit a gift from the gods. So valuable were the beans that they were used as a currency, and counterfeits were even made out of clay. You may also be familiar with the most notorious Aztec chocolate lover of all – the mighty Aztec ruler Montezuma II. Legend has it that he supposedly drank gallons of chocolate each day for energy both on and off the battlefield.

Across The Pond

Chocolate eventually made its way across the pond as explorers found routes and began moving goods back and forth. Details conflict about exactly who and when brought chocolate across the pond for the first time, but it was at least by the late 1500s chocolate was much-loved by those lucky enough to enjoy the fruits of the Spanish court. First Spain began importing chocolate, and then through trade routes and deals, chocolate began to make its way throughout other parts of Europe.

At this point, chocolate was still in its primary form of fermented, bitter liquid. But this didn’t really suit the palates of many Europeans who had been introduced to sweeter foods. As chocolate spread through Europe, however, many nations set up their own cacao plantations in countries along the equator, and began to create their own versions of chocolate at “chocolate houses.”

A Great Leap Forward

Like so many things, the Industrial Revolution deeply impacted chocolate and changed its trajectory. Until this point, chocolate was made by hand, and it was a long and slow process. Production relied on farmers to harvest the cocoa beans by hand and the process to ferment, press, and grind the fruit was intensive.

However, in 1828 Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten discovered a way to treat cacao beans with alkaline salts to make a powdered chocolate that was easier to mix with water.

He (or possibly his father) also invented the cocoa press. The invention revolutionised chocolate making by easily and cheaply separating cocoa butter from roasted cocoa beans, resulting in cocoa powder. This versatile substance was used to easily create a wide variety of delicious chocolate products.

And thus, chocolate became more affordable and accessible to everyone, paving the way for new concoctions and experiments. The modern era of chocolate was born!

For a long time – most of the 19th century – chocolate was mostly enjoyed in liquid form. But in the mid-1800s the first chocolate bar molded from a paste of sugar, chocolate liquor and cocoa butter was made.

Chocolate when through another experimental phase, and Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter is usually credited for adding dried milk powder to create milk chocolate (finally!!) in 1876. However, it was until his pal Henri Nestle created the Nestle Company that brought milk chocolate to the masses.

And then in the late 1800s, another man with modern-day name recognition, the Swiss fella Rudolf Lindt, invented a machine that mixed and aerated chocolate. Thanks to him, we have the smooth, melt-in-your-mouth consistency we adore today.

It was during that time that the chocolate empires that still rule the world today were born. You’ll recognize names like Cadbury, Mars, Nestle and Hershey, all of whom started their businesses that are global giants to this day.

From the very beginning, cacao and chocolate in its many forms have been integral to the human experience and a deep part of cultural traditions. It has been worshipped, traded, monetized, and enjoyed across the planet, and those families that brought chocolate to the masses are some of the wealthiest in the world today. There’s no doubt that chocolate has shaped humankind, and that it continues to exert its influence.

To this day, quality chocolate is one of the most enjoyed gifts. We hope you get to enjoy some this holiday season!