The History of Hot Chocolate
In the history of humanity, few commodities have had such an allure as chocolate...
However, chocolate is a very unusual crop. It's one of the only plants that people learned to drink before they learned how to eat it. In fact it took several thousand years to discover how to turn chocolate into a food.
Cacao beans are rather unpalatable and taste nothing like the chocolate we all know and love, it took over three thousand years worth of tinkering and innovation before we arrive at something that would be recognised as chocolate.
The first known people to consume cacao lived in what is now Mexico around 3750 years ago. The plants were not farmed and instead the people gathered either the beans or the leaves and fermented them into an alcoholic beverage.
The Olmec Civilisation became the first to actively farm the beans and attached a powerful religious significance to them.
Emergence of the Maya and Rise of the Aztecs
Around 2500 years ago, the great city states of the Maya began to rise from the jungles of South America. Their version of drinking chocolate was different from their predecessors as it was non alcoholic and didn't involve using the plants' leaves.
Instead they ground the beans down into a fine paste before mixing them with water. The drink was then poured repeatedly between two cups to make it frothy. As sugar had not arrived at this time, spices such as chili peppers were added to give it flavour. This drink was consumed by people from all social classes.
The drink began to inch closer to our idea of hot chocolate when the Aztecs burst onto the scene. Previously, the Maya had served the drink cold, but when the Aztecs began their wars of expansion, they used it as their secret weapon. Conquered lands were forced to pay tribute in cacao beans so enormous farms were built to fuel the Aztec war effort. Their soldiers were given a daily ration of cacao, crushed into a pellet that could easily be converted into a drink to keep the army on the move. The Aztecs were also the first civilisation to serve the drink hot.
The Spanish are Coming!
In 1521, the New World was rocked to its core as the Aztec Empire was destroyed by the invading Spanish. The conquerors came for gold, but instead found cacao. The Aztec's once great infrastructure for growing cacao now fell into Spanish hands and soon 'xocōlātl' or 'chocolate' began to pour into Europe.
After chocolate landed in Europe, the innovations came at a much faster pace. Chocolate was an acquired taste due to it being extremely bitter, however, that began to change when sugar was added. Sugar was long established as a popular treat among Europe's elite and its marriage to chocolate was inevitable. The new sweetened taste also removed the need for such strong spices as chili.
In the late 1600's milk was used to replace water and finally a drink that we would recognise as hot chocolate was born.
In the 1800's, an effort was made to simplify the process of making hot chocolate and create a powdered form for the drink. However, this had a stunning side effect; the process allowed the chocolate to be eaten! This new product was unusual as people were accustomed to chocolate only being a drink, but as time went on, 'eating chocolate' became the dominant form.
A rapid series of discoveries transformed the crude eating chocolate into the luxury item of today; giving chocolate the distinction of being possibly the only luxury product you can eat and drink.