The story of the cocoa bean began over 2000 years ago in equatorial Central America, where it began as and remained an unsweetened beverage for centuries. Mayan Indians carved pictures of cocoa pods into the stone walls of their temples. Mayan writings refer to cocoa as “food of the gods,” enjoyed by royalty and shared at sacred ceremonies.
Like the earlier Mayans, the Aztecs drank an unsweetened beverage they called “chocolatl” (meaning warm liquid) at special ceremonies. Cocoa beans were so valuable that they were used as currency. According to historical records, four cocoa beans could buy you a rabbit.
Christopher Columbus brought a handful of the dark, almond-shaped beans back to Spain from his last journey to the Caribbean islands in 1502.
In 1519, Cortes realized the economic potential for cocoa beans. He experimented with chocolatl, adding cane sugar for Spanish tastes. He also established additional “cacao” plantings in the Caribbean region before returning to Spain. Then, the first cocoa processing plant was established in Spain in 1580.
In 1847, an English company revolutionized chocolate consumption by creating the first solid chocolate bar made by combining melted cocoa butter with sugar and cocoa powder. Another development occurred in 1876 in Vevey, Switzerland, when Daniel Peter devised a way of adding milk to chocolate, thereby creating today’s popular milk chocolate.
In the United States, chocolate production grew at a faster pace than anywhere else in the world. In 1765 in pre-revolutionary New England, the first chocolate factory was established in the US. During World War II. The government recognized chocolate’s role in the group spirit of the Allied Armed Forces, to the extent that it allocated valuable shipping space for the importation of cocoa beans.
Today, the U.S. Army’s ready-to-eat meals contain chocolate candies and chocolate bars. Chocolate also goes regularly into space on shuttle missions with the astronauts.
Currently, the simplicity of dark vs milk vs white chocolate is over. Like with wines or coffee, the main trends nowadays in the chocolate bean industry are percent, origin, and “varietal.”
According to a recent article in the Boston Globe, these new trends are moving toward ''origin chocolates," using beans from a specific country. It’s also moving away from combining varieties of cocoa beans and using a single type of bean.
Artisan chocolate flavor, similar to wine grapes or coffee beans, is impacted by the beans that go into it because they pick up distinct characteristics from their ''terroir" – or the environment in which they grow. Trinidad, Grenada, and Venezuela are now key areas for cocoa bean cultivation.
So next time you give a chocolate gift or a box of chocolate, remember that the beans make the flavor!
Next Article: A Brief History of Chocolate