The history of chocolate began over 3,000 years ago with the Olmec civilization in Mesoamerica. Before the Aztecs and the Mayans, the Olmecs were the first to formulate the process that we use today of transforming the hard, bitter cacao beans into something to be enjoyed. Their process of fermenting, drying, roasting, and grinding the beans was passed down to the Mayans, who continued the Olmec tradition of turning the ground beans into an unsweetened beverage. The Mayans believed that cacao (or Ka'kau' as it was originally called) was a gift to them from the gods, and the beans were so highly valued that they were used as currency to trade for goods. Those who could afford to would essentially drink their money by turning the roasted and ground beans into xocoatl, a hot chocolate beverage spiced with chili pepper, cinnamon, and vanilla, which was then poured back and forth between jars until a thick foam was achieved.
In the 1400s, the Aztec empire began to take over Mesoamerica, and because cacao trees didn't grow in their capital city of Tenochtitlan, they were only able to acquire cacao through trade. As the empire grew, the rulers began to require all the citizens to pay them taxes (referred to as tributes at the time) using cacao beans. The Aztecs believed that the god Quetzacoatl had brought cacao to them, but was then cast out of the land by the other gods for sharing it with a human. Because of this, drinking chocolate was reserved only for the nobility and warriors. It is said that the Aztec emporer Montezuma drank up to 50 goblets of chocolate a day. Unlike the Mayans, the Aztecs preferred to enjoy the beverage cold. For ritualistic purposes, achiote was added to turn the drink a blood red color.
Christopher Columbus encountered cacao during his voyage to the Americas in 1502, but because Colombus failed to see the value of the beans, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes was credited with bringing cacao to Europe. In 1519, Cortez and his crew arrived in Tenochtitlan, where he was assumed to be the returned god Quetzacoatl. Montezuma welcomed Cortez, and introduced him to their prized chocolate beverage. Unlike Colombus, he recognized the worth of the drink that was said to nourish the body and fight fatigue. Within three years, Cortez conquered Tenochtitlan and brought about the fall of the Aztec empire. Using sugar he found in the Caribbean, he began to experiment with turning the bitter Aztec drink into a sweet one that would appeal to Spanish tastes.
We’ll continue with the history of chocolate in our next post as we explore its spread across Europe and how the consumption of it changed along the way.