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Feb 16, 2019

4000 Years and Counting: A History of Drinking Chocolate

Amie Bailey is the General Manager of our soon-to-open 16th Street Factory, and she just started with us in January, 2019. She is a food blogger, a pastry chef, a hyper-organized person, and a fan of chocolate in all of its drinkable (and non-drinkable) forms.

Dandelion Chocolate hot chocolate and cacao podsFor most of my childhood, the process of making hot chocolate started by opening a packet. I, for one, have always loved that aroma coming from the little foil envelope that can only be described as “sweet.”

These days I’m more likely to be enjoying a Mission Hot Chocolate at our Valencia cafe, or whisking up our Hot Chocolate Mix at home, and as a result I’ve been digging into the history of drinking chocolate. While bars of chocolate and confections are available around the world, historically we as humans have preferred drinking our chocolate over biting into a bar.

Let’s go back about 4000 years to 3300 BCE to prehistoric South America, in what is now known as Ecuador. In October of 2018, archeologists from UC Berkeley uncovered ceramic pots from the Mayo-Chincipe people with traces of cacao residue on them, making chocolate one of the oldest beverages known to humanity.

The Maya continued the tradition of drinking chocolate and passed it along generation after generation. It took many centuries for the Maya (and then the Aztec) people to develop the techniques for making chocolate into a beverage worthy of the devotion we pay it even today. Highly prized, chocolate was a reward, a sacrifice, a currency, and sometimes exclusive to royalty and the military (Montezuma II reportedly drank 50 golden goblets of hot chocolate per day).

It’s tempting to think that chocolate was only for the wealthy in ancient lands, but in ancient South and Central America, chocolate was truly a group activity. It’s a lot of work to grow, harvest, ferment, roast, and grind chocolate into a paste and then convert it into a drink. Our melangers refine our chocolate for four to five days after we roast and winnow the beans (depending on the origin), and they run on electricity! Imagine doing that by hand! Consequently, and up until very recently in history, chocolate has been hard to come by. While maybe not *everyone* got 50 cups per day in Mesoamerica, it’s likely that everyone got a taste of it.

Chocolate was also a decidedly different experience back then. None of these cultures grew and processed sugar, and honey was harvested in the wild and by chance. Chocolate wasn’t just “not sweet”; it was pretty bitter – more akin to coffee than what we think of hot chocolate. It was also mixed with a variety of spices, vanilla, ground corn, or almonds.

None of these cultures were traditional herding cultures either, so the chocolate was made with water rather than milk. The texture came from pouring it from cup to cup to create foam. Today, Mexican Hot Chocolate is made with a molinillo, and the foam is considered particularly desirable.

Cruising right up to 1500 AD, the Spanish invade and conquer these cultures in a brutal fashion, taking not just their gold, but their cacao (and the skills they developed to make it into chocolate) as well. Cortez presented cacao for the first time in Europe, and from there drinking chocolate found favor and fame throughout the continent. Sometime in the 17th century Europeans began to eschew adding spicy chili pepper to their drink in favor of sugar, which was expensive but available.  

The pirate botanist (what a job title!) William Hughes published a book in 1672 titled The American Physitian that devoted an entire chapter to “The Cacao Nut Tree” and the ways in which it could be prepared for drinking, going so far as to call it “The American Nectar.”

In the 18th century, we see chocolate houses rising right alongside London’s famed coffee houses as places to gather, gamble, and carouse. At this time and in these places, chocolate had reached its most opulent form to date, with sugar being bountiful and using dairy instead of water to make the beverage. Many of these places still exist in London today and you can see them, or at least the outside. White’s is one of the best known. This is where Prince Charles had his bachelor party, and it does not admit any woman other than The Queen of England. You can also view The Cocoa Tree on Pall Mall in St. James’s London which is now The Royal Automobile Club.

17th century British chocolate house

17th century British chocolate house

From there, mass availability followed lock step with the industrial revolution. It wasn’t THE first thing to be made in a factory, but it was really close. In 1828, Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten invented the process of extracting the cocoa butter from chocolate leaving a cake that is pulverized into powder. With this invention we enter the era of Hot Cocoa (made from cocoa powder) taking the lead over Hot Chocolate (made from the paste of cocoa nibs) and making the drink widely available (unless you were a very, very lucky child) and what we all grew up with.

With small-batch and bean-to-bar chocolate gaining a wider and wider audience, I think we live in one of the best times for enjoying Theobroma cacao, the scientific name for chocolate, meaning “food of the gods” in ancient Greek. From enjoying single-origin chocolate bars to drinking a spicy Mission Hot Chocolate at our cafés, I hope you’ll join us at our shops or online to explore.

Learn more about the history of chocolate.


Science Magazine Online: World’s Oldest Chocolate Was Made 5300 Years Ago – In a South American Rainforest

Smithsonian Magazine Online, What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate

Gastro Obscura, The Rambunctious, Elitist Chocolate Houses of 18th-Century London

Cooking In the Archives

Chocolate Class, Enlightenment-Era Chocolate/Coffee Houses

Pleasant Vices Video on Making Mayan Style Hot Chocolate in the 18th Century Manner

Hot Chocolate, William Hughes’s ‘American Nectar



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