History of Chocolate by Jonathan Grahm Gourmet Chocolatier Los Angeles Compartes Chocolate Health Blog

History of Chocolate by Jonathan Grahm


Chocolate comes from the fermented, roasted, and ground beans of the cacao or cocoa tree. The word "Chocolate" comes from the Nahualt language of the Aztecs. The Nahualt word xocolatl means bitter water. The pre-Columbian peoples of the Americans drank chocolate mixed with vanilla, chile pepper, and achiote. Europeans sweetened it by adding sugar and milk and removing the chile pepper. They later created a process to make solid chocolate creating the modern chocolate bar. Although cocoa is originally from the Americas, today Western Africa produces almost two-thirds of the world´s cocoa, with Côte d´Ivoire growing almost half of it. Today, it is one of the most popular and recognizable flavors in the world.

A Short History of Chocolate

Chocolate is made from the seed of the cacao tree, a tree native to lowland areas of South America. Cacao was used as far back in history as 1100 BC. Although historical evidence shows the Mayans used the cacao bean prior to this, most of the popular credit is given to the Aztec civilizations. Cacao played an important role in the Aztec society, serving both as a drink and as currency. Columbus originally observed the natives scrambling to pick up the seeds when they spilled without realizing their value to them. The drink “xocolatl” or “bitter water” was consumed by the Aztec elite society. According to legend the Aztec ruler Montezuma consumed up to fifty cups of chocolate a day. Perhaps the myth of chocolate was born when Europeans first observed Montezuma drinking xocolatl prior to visiting his concubine.

Although Columbus actually was the first to bring cacao back to Spain, it wasn’t until Cortez returned to Spain with cacao beans that Europeans first started consuming it. Unlike the people of South America, Europeans found the drink bitter and sweetened it with sugar. Within 100 years the secrets of cacao had spread throughout Europe and chocolate was a favorite in the royal courts of Europe. 

In 1828 the Dutch chemist Van Houten invented a press to extract the cocoa butter from the roasted ground beans leading to the invention of the chocolate bar. When Daniel Peters developed a technique to incorporate condensed milk into the chocolate and was able to maintain a stable product milk chocolate was born. At around the same time in the United States, Milton Hershey used fresh whole milk.

History is sprinkled with anecdotes relating to chocolate and its various uses. In addition to Montezuma’s use of cacao as an aphrodisiac, the great Italian lover Cassanova allegedly used chocolate for the same reason. Reportedly he actually preferred chocolate to champagne. At one stage, chocolate was marketed as a medicine both in the United States and in Europe.