The history of chocolate - from the holy drink to the melt-in-the-mouth bar

Die Geschichte der Schokolade – Vom heiligen Getränk zur zartschmelzenden Tafel
A world without chocolate? For most of us, this is probably inconceivable: in Germany alone, the average per capita consumption of chocolate in 2019 was 9.2 kilograms . But chocolate as we know, love and consume it today has little to do with its original use. On the timeline of cocoa use, our way of enjoying chocolate makes up an insignificantly small segment. According to the respected Nature Magazine, the history of chocolate, or cocoa, goes back more than 5,500 years . Are you curious? In this article we summarize the history of chocolate for you.

South America - birthplace of chocolate

Even if Europeans are definitely the world champions in eating chocolate, the history of chocolate begins far away: in Central and South America. This is the home of the cocoa plant, from whose fruit, the cocoa pod, chocolate is made.
The first "chocolate connoisseurs" are the Olmec, who lived around 1,500 BC. BC populated the Gulf of Mexico region. This is indicated by the traces of theobromine, the stimulant contained in cocoa, which was found in vessels from this period. The chocolate of the Olmec had little to do with our beloved chocolate. Instead of delicious bars and sweet cocoa drinks, they most likely made a fermented cocoa liquor that was used in ceremonies.
The Olmec did not only harvest the cocoa for their ceremonial drink in the wilderness. Current studies assume that they had already acquired knowledge about the cultivation of cocoa and were the first 'cocoa farmers', so to speak.

The Maya, specialists in cocoa cultivation

The Olmec also passed on their cocoa knowledge to the Maya, who settled Central America at the same time and up to the Spanish Conquista. And the Maya, it must be emphasized, definitely took cocoa cultivation to a new level. They planted vast cocoa fields, which they even equipped with irrigation systems to maximize the harvest.
Because of the written records of the Maya culture, we know that they also used cocoa-based beverages in ritual ceremonies. Mayan cacao was often mixed with water, honey or chilli, served hot and tended to be thick and creamy in consistency. But the enjoyment of chocolate was not reserved for ceremonies only: in many Mayan families, cocoa was drunk with all meals. In addition, the Maya not only served chocolate as a drink, but also used it as a porridge or as a spice for various dishes.
And even then, cocoa was valued for its stimulating effect. The fruit of the cocoa tree was also said to have aphrodisiac properties. In general, it can be stated that cocoa was probably a kind of Mayan miracle cure. The fatty part of the bean, the cocoa butter, was used because of its disinfecting effect and for wounds and skin irritations, or simply to care for the skin. The Maya also used cocoa to treat diseases such as measles or childbirth pains.

The Aztecs - the first "chocolate addicts"?

After the Olmec and Maya, the later high culture of the Aztecs, who populated the Valley of Mexico from around 1300-1500 AD, was characterized by a pronounced passion for cocoa. Because they believed cocoa to be a gift from the gods, cocoa consumption became more exclusive and reserved for the upper classes. "Normalos" could only enjoy the stimulating drink at special celebrations such as weddings. Unlike before, however, the Aztecs drank the cocoa cold. They also used cocoa, similar to the Mayas, as a remedy and sacrificed it to their gods.
A stone effigy of the chocolate-loving Aztecs Cacao was even considered more valuable than gold by the Aztecs, and the brown beans rose to become a popular currency. For example, an avocado cost 1 to 3 cocoa beans and a rabbit 100 cocoa beans, which also corresponded to the daily wage of a porter. And because they considered cocoa so valuable, they guarded its warehouses and trade routes particularly closely.
The modern word 'chocolate' also almost certainly derives - directly or indirectly - from the language of the Aztecs . There are two theories: Some researchers assume that the Aztecs called cocoa chocolatl . The other branch is certain, however, that the name is based on an invention by the Spaniards, who combined the Aztec word cacahuatl, "bitter water", with the Mayan word chocol haa , "hot water", in the Spanish word chocolate .

Speaking of Spain

The Spaniards played a central role in the further course of the history of chocolate. In the 16th century, the southern European colonists brought chocolate back to Europe with them from their trips to America . Exactly who is disputed. Some name Christopher Columbus himself, others say it was the conqueror Hernán Cortés. It is certainly documented that chocolate was known in Spain by 1544 at the latest. That year, the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas brought a jar of chocolate from Guatemala and presented it to Prince Phillip of Spain.
Chocolate was quickly becoming the new 'in drink' among Spanish nobility. And already in 1585, Spain began to import large quantities of chocolate. The cocoa drink became more and more popular and from Spain the chocolate hype spread to the noble houses of Portugal and France and eventually throughout Europe .

Even if chocolate was initially only consumed as a viscous drink, very similar to the original method of preparation, people were already experimenting with new recipes back then. Even the first European cocoa drinkers added a lot of sugar to the drink due to the natural bitterness of the cocoa. In addition, spices such as vanilla or cinnamon found their way into the cocoa pots.
Italy finally stood out with its culinary experimentation. On the one hand, chocolate was added as a spice to all sorts of dishes such as soups or polenta - very similar to the Maya. A particularly interesting Italian recipe creation was liver dipped in chocolate, which was then fried. However, the processing of the cocoa beans changed only slightly until the 19th century and the beginning of industrialization. The grinding process for the beans in particular was labor-intensive and exhausting.

The Dark Side of the Rise of Chocolate

So, chocolate became more and more popular. In London alone there were almost 2,000 so-called chocolate houses in 1700. And in Germany, too, interest in the sweet delicacy increased. One of the first places to find chocolate in Germany was the Dutchman Jan Jantz von Huesden's coffee shop in Bremen, founded in 1673 . For a long time, however, chocolate remained an expensive luxury good due to the high cocoa prices, fueled by high import taxes on the beans.
But the demand for the fruit of the cacao plant, which still only grew in Central and South America, grew and grew. Because the European wars of conquest, imported diseases and forced labor decimated the indigenous population in America in a cruel way, local labor was scarce. In order to meet the steadily increasing demand for cocoa, numerous West African slaves were shipped to the cocoa-growing regions. In concrete terms, between 15 and 20 million slaves were torn from their home countries in 350 years to work for the colonial powers on the (cocoa) plantations of America .
So a sad fact in the history of chocolate is that the cultivation of cocoa was - and still is - characterized by exploitation of local people and resources and inhumane working conditions.
A picture showing slaves at work on a plantation
The industrialization of chocolate

The factory built by Prince Wilhelm von der Lippe near Hanover around 1760 is one of the first chocolate factories in Germany
. According to the possibilities at that time, the chocolate was still made there by hand. Of course, the later industrialization did not bypass the chocolate production and marks another milestone in the history of chocolate.
In 1819, French chocolate maker Pelletier and British company Joseph Fry combined steam engine technology with chocolate making . And thus laid the foundation for a number of decisive innovations in the manufacture of chocolate:
In 1828, Dutch chemist Conrad Van Houten made the production of inexpensive cocoa powder possible through his invention of the cocoa butter press . The previously viscous, heavy drinking chocolate becomes a lighter cocoa drink thanks to the heavily de-oiled cocoa powder. Almost 20 years later, in 1846, the invention of the technician Daupley, the monoblock plant, made it possible to produce chocolate of a uniform size for the first time.
The year 1847, with the place of birth England, is considered to be the hour of birth of modern chocolate bars . At that time, the British company Fry & Sons brought the first eating chocolate onto the market. Fry & Sons came up with the idea of ​​adding extra cocoa butter to the cocoa mass. The chocolate became creamier and could be poured into bars. It is interesting that the company boycotted cocoa from areas with slave-like working conditions on the plantations. In this they were clearly ahead of their time, even when considering today's sometimes inhumane working conditions on cocoa plantations for industrially produced chocolate.
The conching machine developed by Rodolphe Lindt in 1879 is also one of the most important inventions . Conching, in which the chocolate mass is stirred for a long time, increases the creaminess of the chocolate. And the practice of conching, often lasting hours or even days, is still used by many chocolate makers today

The first milk chocolate - a German or a Swiss invention?

Another important milestone in the history of chocolate is the invention of the first milk chocolate. But who exactly came up with the idea of ​​adding milk to chocolate is a matter of definition.
Because the German company Jordan and Timaeus from Dresden are competing with the Swiss Daniel Peter for the title of the inventor of the first milk chocolate . The German company is said to have brought the first milk chocolate onto the market as early as 1839. In their milk chocolate, they mixed cocoa and sugar with donkey milk. However, this chocolate was still a long way from what we know today as milk chocolate. The cocoa was ground much coarser and the chocolate was anything but creamy.
For this reason, the Swiss Daniel Peter is considered by many to be the inventor of milk chocolate . He mixed the milk powder developed by Henri Nestlé shortly beforehand into the cocoa mass and founded the process by which milk chocolate is still produced today.
Pieces of a bar of chocolate

The way to chocolate as we know it today

Gradually, with the new possibilities in chocolate production, the range of chocolates increased. The numerous new types of chocolate fanned out into four main categories:
There was the plain chocolate , with no other ingredients than cocoa and sugar. Chocolate flavored with additives like vanilla or cinnamon was called flavored chocolate . The so-called starchy chocolate , mixed with food starch such as sago, was a kind of power bar and was supposed to strengthen the body. And the medical-pharmaceutical chocolate should also serve physical well-being. It was only available in pharmacies, was mixed with medicinal substances such as iron or mercury and used to treat various ailments such as sore throats or syphilis.
At the time, some chocolate manufacturers tried to lower their chocolate prices by adding cheaper raw materials such as flour, starch or even chalk and earth. In response, the Association of German Chocolate Manufacturers was founded in 1877 . Its members committed themselves to the purity of their chocolate, which they drew attention to with the reference "Guaranteed pure cocoa and sugar" on their products.
Finally, during the Second World War, chocolate production concentrated almost exclusively on supplying the army. Chocolate was always carried as an emergency ration and tonic . The SCHO-KA-KOLA, a mixture of cocoa, coffee and kola nut developed for this purpose, is still sold today.
A tin of SCHO-KA-KOLA chocolate
In the 1960s, chocolate finally evolved into the direction we know and love today. The main target group shifted to children and chocolate bars were also offered for the first time. Accordingly, chocolate advertising was aimed at mothers and children, and chocolate advertising figures that are well-known to this day, such as the Ü-egg or the milk cow.

chocolate today

Where there used to be a lively variety of different chocolate companies, today a few global players dominate the worldwide chocolate market . Because many smaller chocolate companies could not keep up in the competitive chocolate market and thus disappeared. The chocolate that the remaining large international companies produce today has little to do with the value-added chocolate production of the native peoples of Central and South America . And most of the cocoa, the main ingredient in the mass product of industrial chocolate, no longer comes from its region of origin, but from West Africa. Unfortunately, as we have already mentioned, the growing conditions there are often far below any international standards. A sad record, isn't it?

Hope in the chocolate future?

Not quite. Because in recent years, more and more small companies have been founded that have dedicated themselves to the production of fine chocolate under fair and sustainable cultivation and production conditions . Instead of mass production and chocolate that always tastes the same, the new chocolate manufacturers rely on smaller production quotas and the ' bean-to-bar ' principle. The special features of the respective cocoa beans in the chocolate are emphasized, the cocoa is cultivated sustainably and the farmers are paid fair cocoa prices . These chocolate manufacturers often also try to support the local population in creative ways. An exciting example is KOA, which creates additional income for Ghanaian families with their cocoa fruit spritzer.
Are you interested in learning more about fair trade and fine chocolate? In this blog post we explain what you should look out for when looking for really fair chocolate. And of course all chocolates that we offer in our shop also meet the above quality criteria :)
Would you like to learn more about the history of chocolate? Then we recommend the book 'The true history of Chocolate' - here you will not only learn more about the true history, but also English chocolate vocabulary ;-)

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