A Brief History of Cacao

Did you know chocolate wasn’t eaten as a bar until the late 1800s?  That’s right – prior to then cacao was primarily used in making drinks – first in an unsweetened beverage in the Americas and later with added sugar in the chocolate h0uses of Europe.

So, where did cacao come from?  How and why was it made into a drink, and how did it develop into the mass market chocolate bars that became so wildly popular?  And what contributed to the comparatively recent phenomenon of “single origin” chocolate?

It all started many thousands of years ago when a small “ca” seed met a larger “cao” seed and they fell in love.  The resulting “cacao” is the basis for all the chocolate we eat today.

Okay, we made that up.  Did we mention we’re not historians?  Obviously there’s no way to know exactly how and when the cacao tree actually began but scientists believe it evolved about 10 million years ago.  The first evidence of cacao use dates from approximately 5,300 years ago by the Mayo-Chinchipe civilization in Ecuador.  Traces of theobromine (a chemical compound in cacao) have been found in their pottery, suggesting cacao was first used in a drink.  This is a relatively recent discovery – up until 2018 it was believed that the earliest cacao use was about 4000 years ago by the pre-Olmec peoples of what is now Mexico.

It makes sense that a civilization in South America was the first to use cacao since cacao originated in the Amazon basin.  The reason this is known is because the upper Amazon basis contains the greatest diversity of cacao genetics.  There’s speculation that as the various cacao genomes traveled along the Amazon they developed into the distinct genetic varieties we find today.  And this genetic diversity is one of the reasons cacao beans have such wildly different flavors.  So, we have the Amazon to thank for much of the flavor diversity of our single origin cacao.

From its origins in the Amazon basin of South America cacao traveled to Southern Mexico (which is technically North America) where it was used first by the pre-Olmec peoples, then the Olmecs, the Mayans and the Aztecs.  But, how did it travel all that way?  Probably in several different ways.  It’s believed the beans were brought by boat from South America to the western coast of Mexico, into the area that is now Soconusco.  It’s also very likely that over a long period of time the beans moved naturally up from Northern South America through Central America and up into North America, carried by birds and other animals.

Evidence from pre-Olmec (4000 BC – 1500BC) and Olmec (1500 BC to 400 BC) pottery suggests these civilizations used cacao in a drink, and primarily for religious purposes.  How cacao was used in these times is often quickly glossed over in histories of cacao, mainly because neither of these civilizations had a written history.   It isn’t until the rise of the Mayan civilization, which did have a written history, that more is known about how cacao was prepared and used.

Mayan civilization spans thousands of years, beginning around 2000 BC.  Cacao was an integral part of their culture, and was used not only in religious ceremonies but also as a way to entertain, a way show off status and wealth, and as currency.

The drink that was made from cacao was known as “xocolatl,” which translates to “bitter water.”  It’s generally acknowledged that this name is likely where we got the word “chocolate.”

To prepare this drink the cacao beans were very briefly fermented and then dried, then (usually but not always) roasted on a hot plate over a fire.  The husk were removed and the beans were then ground into a paste using a “metate,” which consists of a curved stone baseplate and a stone roller.  The beans were crushed between the two to form a paste.  The paste was then added to water and other flavorings would be added depending on the taste of the maker – various flowers, pimienta gorda (allspice), vanilla, maize, chili powder, etc.


Cacao was also valued as an important commodity, religious and status symbol in the Aztec Empire, which began to flourish around 1345 CE.  The Mayans and the Aztecs had a robust trade, with cacao being highly valued.  The Aztecs continued the tradition of “xocolaltl,” adding their own flavorings and documenting its use in religious and other ceremonies.  The drink was prepared by pouring the hot mixture back and forth from vessel to vessel to create a froth, which was an important part of the presentation – the more froth the better.  Perhaps most famously, “xocolatl” was served frequently in the court of Montezuma, who ruled the Aztec Empire from 1502 (or 1503, depending on who you ask) to 1520.  This is the time when Europeans first stumbled upon cacao.

Hmm.  As interesting as this all is, it’s getting to be longer than we’d anticipated.  So, we’re picking up the pace a bit:

Where were we?  Ah, yes – the Europeans enter the picture.

Not surprisingly Christopher Colombus was the first European to come in contact with cacao beans (or, at least, the first to write about it).  The story is pretty much what you’d expect:  On August 15th, 1502 he robbed a Mayan trading ship near Honduras and took their cacao.  He knew the beans were important because, in his words, “They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price;  for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen.”

Although Columbus realized the beans were valued by the Mayans, he failed to realize that the potential cocoa market had fallen right into his lap.

The pivotal moment for cacao and Europeans was in 1519 when Hernan Cortes arrived in the Aztec Empire.  In the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan he saw xocolatl being served as a ceremonial beverage in court of the Montezuma.  He also saw how the Aztecs used cacao beans as currency.  Realizing this currency could literally be grown on trees he established a cacao plantation.

Cortes’ brutal treatment of Montezuma and the Aztecs is well documented, and the actions of the Spanish invaders is what began the downfall of the Aztec empire.  For a great history of what really happened between Montezuma and Cortes we recommend  “When Montezuma Met Cortes:  The True Story of the Meeting That Changed History.”

For the purpose of our brief cacao history, suffice it to say that Cortes is the first person to add sugar to the drink.  He then returned to Spain in 1528 with cacao beans and xocolatl making equipment, such as metates.  Once in Spain the name is changed to the easier to pronounce “Chocolate,” and cinnamon and nutmeg are added.  The drink becomes popular with the Spanish elite.

In the late 1500’s and early 1600’s the drink begins to spread more widely across Europe, and in the 1650’s it reaches England.  The first English chocolate house opens in 1657, and soon chocolate houses were almost as widespread and popular as coffeehouses.  The drinks were made from blocks of solid cocoa, which were probably imported from Spain.

Around 1700 the English, not surprisingly, add milk to the drink.  Then, in 1764 John Hannon and Dr. James Baker start importing cacao beans and producing chocolate for the very first time in the United States.  As luck would have it they built their chocolate factory just a few towns away from us, in Dorchester, MA.  The factory building still exists, although now it’s been converted to, as usual, condos.  Their factory made cakes of chocolate which were used for making chocolate drinks, and later made baking chocolate.


The 1800’s saw a number of innovations in chocolate, all of which contributed to the creation of the first ready-to-eat, mass market chocolate bars in the late 1800’s.

We’ll do this as briefly as we can.  You’ll see some familiar names along the way:

• In 1828 Casparus van Houton creates cocoa powder by separating cocoa butter from the cocoa solids.  This is important because it is one of the factors that allows mass-market, production-line creation of chocolate bars later on.

• Also in 1828 his son Coenraad invents “dutching,” or alkalizing.  Although this process removes most of the beneficial flavanols as well as the natural flavor of the beans, it also helps in the mass market production of chocolate bars in many ways, primarily by making the cacao less acidic.

• In 1847 J.S. Fry and Sons create the first chocolate bar suitable for mass production.  Cadbury followed soon after.  Keep in mind this was very different than the chocolate bars we know today.  It was coarse and bitter, primary because a very important process hadn’t been invented yet – conching.

• In 1875 Daniel Peter and Henry Nestle invent milk chocolate.  Cadbury and Fry’s soon begin making it as well.

• 1879 is the year the saw the invention that made the chocolate bar as we know it today possible.  This is when Rodolphe Lindt invents the conche.  Conching is specific to chocolate and can be done in numerous ways.  At it’s most basic, it’s the process of agitating the chocolate to fully enrobe the cacao solids in cocoa butter (making the bar feel more smooth in your mouth) and also aerating the chocolate so that certain volatiles, namely acids, evaporate off.

After the conche was invented chocolate companies began using it to make their chocolate bars.  In 1893 Milton Hershey comes across conche machines for the first time at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, and buys two of them on the spot.  Hershey’s chocolate is born.

For almost one hundred years this is the state of chocolate making.  Mass market producers like Cadbury, Nestle and Hershey purchase large amounts of cacao beans from West Africa at extremely low prices, and without any real emphasis on quality or flavor.  The reason quality and flavor aren’t important is because the beans are processed so heavily, and so many additives are used, that the quality and flavor of the beans don’t really matter.  They heavily process them, separating the cocoa butter from the cocoa solids and alkalizing the powder, then mixing it with additives like soy lecithin.   They then add lots of sugar, and in the case of milk chocolate, milk powder.  In some cases bars made in this way have a cacao content of as little as 11%.

Needless to say these mass market bars were more of a “processed chocolate food product,” than actual chocolate.  The flavor was monotone, reflecting the additives and not the flavor of the beans from which the chocolate was made.

When this all changed is arguable, but it could be said that the first chocolate company to focus on premium chocolate was Dagoba, in 2001.  Around 2006 (the same year Dagoba was bought by Hershey)  a number of small craft chocolate companies were founded, which began focusing on single origin chocolate – buying beans directly from small farmers and focusing on the unique flavors of the beans from different regions.

So, what brought about this focus on flavor and direct sourcing after over one hundred years of mass-market chocolate products?  One reason was a growing awareness of the inequities in the cacao supply chain.  Large chocolate manufacturers have a long history of underpaying for their cacao, locking farmers into a cycle of poverty and creating an environment in which forced labor and even slave labor can exist.  Small chocolate makers like ourselves saw an opportunity to compensate farmers fairly, and to raise awareness of the many issues with the cacao supply chain in the hope that by setting an example we could help effect positive changes on a  larger scale.

Another reason is that small farmers and cooperatives were beginning to increase the quality of their post-harvest processes, such as fermenting and drying.  These two processes are critical to flavor development, so this allowed the flavors in beans from specific regions to really shine through.

Since the mid-2000’s single origin craft chocolate has been gaining more and more recognition.  There are many reasons for this, with the unique and incredible flavors playing a large part.  Small farmers in not only North, Central and South America but also Africa and Southeast Asia are increasingly producing fine flavor cacao with the help of non-profits, NGOs and other organizations that are providing technical assistance to help with harvest and post-harvest techniques to raise the quality of the cacao they’re producing.  This high quality cacao commands a premium price from specialty chocolate makers and helps encourage other farmers to become involved.

So, contrary to a very common misperception craft chocolate isn’t a return to an “original” or “pure” way of making chocolate. Chocolate started as a drink, then evolved directly into a mass-market, additive-laden bar.  It wasn’t until fairly recently that there was a recognition that chocolate is a food, and not just a candy, with different types of beans having different flavors in the same way that wine grapes do.

Now that you know the basics of the history of cacao we encourage you to explore it in more detail.  There are many good books out there and we highly recommend starting with “Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate,” which details the rise of craft chocolate and reasons behind its growth.

Thanks for taking the time to read – we hope you learned some interesting facts about chocolate!