Lesson 1: History of Cacao

Cacao The History

Mayan Civilization And The Birthplace Of Chocolate

The Mayans of South America are believed to be the first to discover cocoa as early as 900 AD. They learned that the beans inside the cocoa pods could be harvested and made into a liquid that would become a treasured Mayan treat.

Bitter Water

Mayan chocolate was very different than the chocolate we know today. It was a liquid made from crushed cocoa beans, chili peppers, and water. (There was no sugar in South America.) They poured the liquid from one cup to another until a frothy foam appeared on top. In fact, the word ‘chocolate’ is said to come from the Mayan word ‘xocolatl’ which means ‘bitter water.’

“Food Of The Gods”

It may have been bitter water, but it was held in such high esteem that Mayans called it the “food of the gods.” Cocoa was so revered that images of cocoa pods were painted on the walls of stone temples and Mayan artifacts have been found that show kings and Mayan gods drinking chocolate. Cocoa was often consumed during religious ceremonies and marriage celebrations. All Mayans could enjoy cocoa, regardless of their social status.

Mayans and Aztecs 1

Chocolate, mayan style


1)Remove beans from cocoa pods.
2)Ferment and dry them.
3)Roast them on a griddle until done.
4)Remove the shells and grind the seeds into a fine paste.
5)Mix paste with water, chili peppers, and cornmeal.
6)Pour the resulting concoction back and forth from pot to cup until frothy foam develops on top.
7)Serve with pride in finely decorated earthenware cups.

A Coffee Shop On Every Corner

Cocoa was the frothy drink of its day, highly valued for its healing and medicinal properties. Mayans would whip up a mix, and people would enjoy it the same way we enjoy coffee today.

Chocolate And Commerce

Cocoa quickly became the force of the Aztec economy. The demand for the cocoa bean and the beverage that it produced brought about a huge network of trade routes throughout the region. When the Aztecs conquered the Mayans, they were forced to pay taxes to the Aztecs. These taxes were called “tributes” and they were paid in cocoa, so the Aztecs, who couldn’t grow their own cocoa, would always have a supply. Cocoa beans were kept in locked boxes in businesses, and some enterprising Aztecs actually made counterfeit cocoa beans.

Cocoa bean exchange rate

4 beans = 1 pumpkin

10 beans = 1 rabbit

10 beans = lady to stay overnight

The resemblance is remarkable (XOCOLATL >> CHOCOLATL >> CHOCOLATE)

The Aztecs Rise To Power

By 1400 AD, the Mayan power was decreasing. The Aztecs ruled over the highlands of central Mexico, far from the rainforests of the Mayans. Since the Aztecs could not grow their own cocoa, they had to trade to get the beans. The Aztecs also had their own word for chocolate: chocolatl (cho co LA til), which was very similar to the Mayan word xocolatl.

Money Grows On Trees

Cocoa beans were very valuable. The Aztecs used them as money, and were very protective of their beans. They paid for food, clothes, taxes, gifts, and offerings to their gods using cocoa beans. Having a pocket full of beans was like having a wallet full of cash. As far as the Aztecs were concerned, money really did grow on trees.

A Gift From The Gods

According to legend, Quetzacoatl (ket za koh AH tul), the Aztec God of Vegetation, came to earth with a cocoa tree and taught the mortals how to cultivate cocoa and make a drink out of its beans. This made the other gods furious, and they threw him out of paradise for sharing the sacred drink with humans. When he left, he vowed he would return—a promise that would bring about tremendous consequences for the Aztecs.

Secrets Of Aztec Dating

King Montezuma, the Aztec king, drank 50 cups of cocoa a day, and an extra one when he was going to meet a lady friend. Because of its stimulating effects, Aztec women were forbidden to drink it. Unlike the Mayans, drinking cocoa was a luxury that few Aztecs could afford. Aztecs believed that wisdom and power came from eating the fruit of the cocoa tree. The drink was so precious that it was served in golden goblets that were thrown away after just one use!

Explorers Discover Chocolate

In 1502, Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas. He found new and wonderful foods including cocoa. When he returned to Spain, he brought some cocoa beans back to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, but they were not especially interested in the strange new bean.

The History of Chocolate Europe

Making A Good First Impression

Hernan Cortes arrived in the Aztec homeland in 1519, the same year Quetzacoatl promised to return. Cortes happened to land at the exact spot from which the Aztec god departed. In his feather coated armor and gold jewelry, he reminded Aztecs of their returning god. No wonder Montezuma offered him a cup of cocoa and an entire cocoa plantation! It made Cortes’ conquest of the Aztec empire all the easier.

A Spanish Secret

The Spanish kept cocoa beans secret from the rest of Europe for a long time. In 1579, English pirates attacked a Spanish merchant ship filled with cocoa beans. Thinking the beans were dried sheep droppings, the pirates burned the ship in frustration. Once cocoa caught on, it caught on big. Like the Mayans and Aztecs, the Spanish drank cocoa for health and energy. But they also enjoyed it during church services and were even allowed to have cocoa during Lent, because it was considered a necessary beverage. Cortes did not enjoy the bitter cocoa drink, but he was amazed at how the Aztecs valued it. He found that warming the drink made it taste better and “hot chocolate” was born.

Chocolate Conquers Spain

It was not until Cortes returned to Spain in 1528 that the King and Queen took notice. Unlike Columbus, Cortes brought not only the beans but the recipe and the equipment necessary to make the chocolate beverage. For several decades, cocoa was mostly a Spanish secret, but then its popularity quickly spread to the other countries of Europe. Some say the first chocolate makers were monks hidden away in monasteries who mistakenly shared their “secret” with their French counterparts. Once cocoa started catching on, Spanish cooks experimented with the recipe and added sugar to sweeten it.

Chocolate Arrives in France

In 1615, cocoa found its way into the court of the King Louis the Thirteenth of France at a royal wedding. His son, Louis the Fourteenth, was not a great cocoa fancier, but he played a major role in popularizing the drink. In 1659, he granted David Chaillou a ‘royal authorization’ to open the first chocolaterie in Paris. Chaillou roasted the beans in a pan and ground them the same way the Mayans and the Aztecs did, but that was about to change.

Early Spanish Chocolate

With This Bean I Thee Wed

Cocoa made its first appearance in France at the wedding of King Louis Thirteenth to the Spanish princess Anne d’Autriche. Anne not only brought cocoa along in her wedding basket, she also brought a servant skilled in the art of making the foaming beverage.

Channel Crossings

Chocolate soon made its appearance in Great Britain. In 1657, the first English chocolate houses opened, much like today’s coffee houses. Because the drink was still considered a luxury, the shops were only open to men as a place to gamble and discuss politics.

Chocolate Meets The Industrial Revolution

Up until the mid-1700s, chocolate was made much the same way the ancient Mayans made it. Then during the industrial revolution, a series of technological innovations changed many things including the way chocolate was made. First, a Frenchman named Doret invented a hydraulic machine to grind cocoa beans into paste. Soon after, another Frenchman named Dubuisson created a steam driven chocolate mill. It was now possible to grind huge amounts of cocoa and mass-produce chocolate inexpensively and quickly so it was available to people all over Europe. Chocolate was no longer reserved for the elite.

In 1829, Coenraad Van Houten, a Dutch chemist, invented the cocoa press. It squeezed the cocoa butter out of the bean leaving the powder we now call cocoa. He also added alkaline salts to powdered chocolate, which helps it mix better with water, and gives it a darker color and milder flavor. This process is called “dutching” after the nationality of the inventor. All of these innovations made chocolate smoother, creamier and tastier.

Coenraad Van Houten

How Important Is The Cocoa Press?

Van Houten’s invention made it possible to separate the dry part of the cocoa bean (cocoa powder) and the wet part of the bean (cocoa butter). This separation allows chocolatiers to add different amounts of cocoa butter and cocoa powder together to make various flavors of chocolate. Without the cocoa press, we would not have white chocolate, milk chocolate or cocoa powder for making hot cocoa and baking

Some Key Dates of Chocolate in Europe

-1829. Invention of the cocoa press.

-1830. Chocolate mixed with nuts.

-1847. Eating chocolate invented by the Fry Company.

-1847. World’s first chocolate bar.

-1875. Milk chocolate is invented, with the addition of condensed milk.

-1879. The “conching” machine creates rich, smooth cocoa paste.

-1900. The process of dipping chocolate candies is automated by the “enrobing” machine.

1912. Pralines or filled chocolates invented in Belgium.

In 1830, Swiss Chocolatier Charles-Amedee Kohler mixed chocolate with nuts for the first time. But a truly revolutionary advance occurred in 1847, when the Fry Company of Bristol, England created the world’s first eating chocolate. One year later, the very first chocolate bar appeared. After a 1000-year history as a beverage, this was the first time chocolate could be eaten! Then, in 1875, Swiss born Daniel Peter (son-in-law of Henri Nestlé) added condensed milk to chocolate…thereby creating the first ‘milk chocolate.’ The food of the gods had come a long way from the spicy, bitter brew the Mayans knew. In 1879, Rodolphe Lindt created the conching machine, which ground the gritty, chocolate paste into a rich, smooth blend. Around 1900, an “enrobing” machine replaced the task of hand dipping all of the chocolates. In 1895, Jean Neuhaus began wrapping nuts with chocolate. In 1912, he perfected the technique of molded chocolates, or pralines ( preh leens ) by adding fillings inside a chocolate shell. In Belgium, pralines filled with creams, ganaches, and marzipans were so successful that a new box had to be created. In 1926, the Draps family opened a chocolate company in Brussels, Belgium. Joseph Draps would go on to develop the brand and name it “Godiva”. Belgium was a Spanish territory and therefore had access to cocoa beans and the recipe for making chocolate. Belgium also had a colony in the Congo where they grew cocoa trees and therefore, always had access to the beans. This helped make Belgium one of the major chocolate making centers of the world.

WWI, WWII, And Out Into Space

It was war that spread the appreciation of chocolate around the world: During WWI, Queen Victoria sent chocolate as gifts to her troops for Christmas. By 1930, chocolate bars were and still are part of every soldier’s rations. Today, the military believes in chocolate’s ability to energize, so chocolate can be found in the Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) used by the U.S. Army. Chocolate has even gone into space with the astronauts!

Chocolate, The Gift of the Gods That Keeps on Giving

Chocolate plays a role in our society in some often surprising ways:

-Theobromine, a chemical found in chocolate, is used to treat high blood pressure.

-Cocoa butter is used in cosmetics, ointments, and even as a coating for pills.

-Cocoa shells are used as fertilizer and cattle feed.

And, of course, chocolate is an integral part of our celebrations—from chocolate dreidels at Chanukah to molded chocolates for Saint Nicholas Day in Belgium. In Mexico, where chocolate was born, chicken mole, a dish made with unsweetened chocolate, is a traditional offering during the somber Day of the Dead festival. Chocolate continues to be one of the most popular ways to celebrate important occasions and express feelings of love and caring. It is no wonder that chocolate is the third most exported food worldwide after sugar and coffee. From ancient civilizations to outer space, chocolate has made our lives better, richer and sweeter.