Chocolate has a rich history that can be traced back thousands of years to Mesoamerican cultures. The Mayans and the Aztecs are believed to be some of chocolate’s earliest consumers. Originally, chocolate was consumed as a bitter drink by the Aztecs, but cacao beans, which were harvested from the Theobroma tree, were also used as currency and in rituals by the Mayans. These ancient civilizations believed cacao beans were more valuable than gold, and chocolate played an important economic, political and spiritual role in their cultures.
Today, chocolate is mass produced and available to anyone, but it is still considered a special treat.
Would you like to know how chocolate was discovered and how it went from a bitter drink to the sweet, decadent treat we know today? Keep reading to learn more about all the things related to the history of chocolate.
What Is the Original Meaning of the Word "Chocolate"?
The terminology surrounding the word “chocolate” can be confusing. There’s “cacao,” which refers either to the Theobroma tree where cacao beans grow in pods or to the bean themselves that grow within those pods. The word “Theobroma” is Latin for "food of the gods.” And then there’s the word “chocolate”—it’s used to refer to the treat made from the cacao beans.
But where does the word chocolate come from? Etymologists believe the origins of the word "chocolate" can be traced to the Aztec word "xocoatl," which is a bitter drink made from cacao beans. “Xoco” means bitter, and “atl” means water—thus, “xocoatl” literally means bitter water.
The English word we use today comes from the Aztec language Nahuatl. Several millennia after the Aztecs created xocoatl—around 1580—the word “chocolate” began to appear in European and Mexican texts to refer to the bitter drink.
What Is the Birthplace of Chocolate?
Chocolate was born in Mesoamerica in what is now Central America and Mexico. The Mayans and Aztecs, who made the first chocolate drink, ruled empires that covered modern-day Mexico, Belize, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Even more specifically, some scientists consider a small village in the Ulúa Valley in Honduras to be the true birthplace of chocolate. The people in the Ulúa Valley created drinking cups and plates used exclusively for the consumption of xocoatl.
So how old is chocolate? Archaeologists have uncovered cacao residue in pottery used by the ancient Mayo-Chinchipe culture over 5,300 years ago in what is now the southeastern region of Ecuador. The ancient Olmec civilization—one of the first in Mexico—cultivated cacao beans as early as 1750 BC.
Who invented chocolate? You could say that the Aztecs did—they created the first chocolate suitable for consumption. For most of chocolate history, it was something to drink, not eat. Xocoatl was a thick, foamy drink made by grinding roasted cacao beans into a paste that the Aztecs mixed with water, vanilla, chili peppers and other spices.
How was chocolate invented, and how did it make its way around the world? In 1502, when Christopher Columbus landed in Honduras, the people there offered him a gift of cacao beans. During a 1519 expedition to the New World, Hernando Cortés expected to find gold, but instead he was offered cacao beans by the Aztecs. They extended a friendly invitation for him to drink xocoatl with them. This led to Cortés importing chocolate to Europe, where it was used as a medicine. Europeans found the chocolate drink too bitter at first, but after they added honey and cane sugar, it quickly gained in popularity throughout Spain.
By the 1600s, chocolate was a fashionable drink that was largely enjoyed only by rich Europeans. But in 1641, chocolate first arrived in the United States by way of a Spanish ship that docked in Florida. The chocolate we know today came about with the invention of the steam engine in the 1700s, which made mass production possible—and therefore, affordable chocolate—for everyone to purchase.
By 1773, cacao beans had become a major import for the American colonies and available to people of all classes. During the Revolutionary War and World War II, chocolate was given to soldiers as rations, and soldiers were sometimes even paid in chocolate for their service in the Revolutionary War—a throwback to the era when the Mayans used cacao beans for currency.
Who Invented Chocolate?
Now that you know a little about the history of chocolate, you may be wondering about the invention of chocolate like we eat today. The Industrial Revolution brought technological advances that created a rapid evolution in chocolate production techniques, and chocolate has morphed from an expensive drink available only for the rich into an inexpensive, solid treat available for the masses.
So when was chocolate invented? In 1828, Coenraad Van Houten, a chocolate inventor, created a hydraulic press to create a powdered chocolate with a low-fat content. Cacao beans were roasted and then placed into the chocolate press, where cocoa butter was squeezed out. A fine cocoa powder was left behind and mixed with liquids and poured into a mold, where it solidified into an edible bar of chocolate. With this invention, along with the alkalizing process of “dutching,” chocolate companies were able to develop their own chocolate products and offer them to the masses.
Who invented chocolate bars? Great Britain’s Joseph Fry has been credited with making the first modern chocolate bar. When was chocolate made by Fry? In 1847, he added cocoa butter and sugar to cocoa powder instead of water or milk—and voilà, the first solid, moldable chocolate bar was made.
Fry, the modern inventor of chocolate, supplied the British navy with his concoction, and he became the world’s largest manufacturer of chocolate. Those early chocolate bars were made of bittersweet chocolate, and in 1866, Fry began producing the Fry's Chocolate Cream bar.
By 1868, William Cadbury was marketing boxes of chocolate candies in England and receiving praise from Queen Victoria, who was certain chocolate contained life-enriching qualities. Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle introduced milk chocolate a few years later in Switzerland when they added condensed milk to solid chocolate.
Rudolphe Lindt invented the conch machine in 1879. This machine ensured the smooth consistency that chocolate is known for today.
A Chocolate Revolution
There is a new chocolate movement underway today. Recently, chocolate has seen a revolution marked by an increasing interest in high-quality, craft chocolates and ethical, sustainable cacao farming practices.
The reasons for the revolution center around several ethical and environmental concerns.
- Small cacao farmers do not receive a fair wage. Even though the demand for cacao is growing, farmers are still underpaid and impoverished. It’s estimated that 4.4 million tons of cacao are produced each year, and 90 percent of that cacao is produced in West Africa, Asia and Latin America by five million small farmers. The cacao supply chain is one of the biggest ethical concerns. The majority of cacao beans are sold as a commodity crop where farmers are paid the same regardless of quality. The bottom line—the root cause of cacao farmers’ poverty is that the amount farmers are paid does not cover the cost of the cacao they produce.
- Small cacao farmers are exploited. Exploitation ranges from pay as low as $1 a day to child laborers who work the cacao farms to deforestation to clear land and plant more cacao trees. Many cacao farmers lack a voice and participation in the farming and harvesting process.
- Fair-trade labels do not solve these ethical problems. Consumers often look for a fair-trade or sustainability certification on the chocolate they purchase. This label inspires trust because a fair-trade certification is supposed to ensure that the cacao beans are grown ethically and without using child or slave labor. Unfortunately, this label does not ensure these standards are being met. Numerous investigations into some West African fair-trade cacao farms have uncovered unethical practices in spite of these certifications. In addition, the cost of the certifications is out of reach of many of these small farmers.
In response to these ethical concerns, the craft chocolate movement began in the 1990s and really took off around 2005 to 2007. The methods used by craft chocolate makers are better for the farmers who grow and harvest the cacao beans because the supply chain is transparent and traceable.
And the craft chocolate movement counters the commodity system—cacao beans are sourced directly from the farmer in what is known as the direct trade system. These craft chocolate makers work directly with farmers so that they know where their cacao beans come from. And farmers benefit from this system as well—they get paid 50 to 300 percent more through the direct trade system than in the commodity system.
Craft makers often avoid putting sustainability certifications on their labels. Since the label does not ensure ethical practices are being followed, they do not want to include the label and inadvertently mislead consumers.
Craft chocolate makers often use cacao beans from one region—known as single-origin chocolate. The flavor and nuances of chocolate are affected by the environment—or terroir—in which the cacao beans are grown. The terroir consists of the soil composition, the amount of sunlight, the amount of rainfall, and other climate factors, and it directly impacts the flavor profile of chocolate. The best cacao beans—or terroir—are found in Venezuela, Brazil, Central America, the Ivory Coast, Madagascar and the Caribbean.
The chocolate craft industry continues to grow, with thousands of small-batch chocolate makers around the world joining the movement. Currently, there are almost 300 small-batch, bean-to-bar chocolate makers in the US alone.
This growth is fueled not just by ethical concerns but also an interest in healthy lifestyles. This interest has led to an increase in the consumption of sugar-free, organic and vegan chocolate. Craft chocolate makers have focused on reaching this market, which can have a difficult time finding appropriate chocolate options that fit their vegan lifestyle. Vegan chocolate contains only ingredients that do not come from animals, and vegan chocolate bars should include only chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, organic sugar and vanilla. To make their vegan chocolate treats easy to identify, some craft chocolate brands add the “Certified Vegan” logo.
At Cococlectic, we feature a different American small-batch bean-to-bar chocolate maker each month. These craft chocolate makers are passionate about producing chocolate from scratch using only three main ingredients: cacao beans, sugar and cocoa butter.
The chocolates at Cococlectic are vegan, non-GMO, fair-trade and ethically sourced. They do not contain any soy, gluten, dairy or nut, but they may be produced in a facility that handles these ingredients.
We sell only dark chocolate bars in our chocolate shop. One-time (dark bars only or mixed bars) gift boxes or corporate gift boxes are available with the purchase of the Office Box. Each chocolate box comes with 4 full-size dark chocolate bars that are made in the US.
Sign up for our chocolate-of-the-month subscription club and join us for a free virtual chocolate tasting with our featured chocolate maker of the month.