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The Ultimate History of Cacao

The Ultimate History of Cacao


Have you ever wondered about the history of chocolate and how it ends up in the chocolate bars that you enjoy? In fact, chocolate has an fascinating history tracing back thousands of years to ancient civilizations in South America. Chocolate even had a prominent role in the founding of America. In this post, we survey the amazing history of chocolate from ancient to modern times, explain how chocolate is grown and made and discuss the more modern advances in chocolate making.

Where Does Chocolate Come From?

Chocolate is derived from what is known as ‘cacao’. Cacao (pronounced “Ka-Kow”) generally refers to the beans of cacao trees before the beans have been processed. Cacao is distinct from chocolate, which refers to a finished product made from cacao beans. Lastly, ‘cocoa’ generally refers to cacao beans after they have been processed and are in powdered form.

You have probably had chocolate bars which indicate the concentration of cacao on the label. For example, a chocolate bar label indicating “60% cacao” means that 60% of the chocolate bar is made from cacao. The higher the concentration of cacao, the deeper the chocolate flavour.

How is Cacao Grown?

Cacao comes from the beans of cacao trees. Cacao trees are only found in special geographic areas. In particular, cacao trees only grow in hot, rainy tropical areas within a limited range of the equator. Cacao trees tend to thrive in areas that receive rain on an almost daily basis and have hot temperatures year-round. This makes Mexico, South American, parts of Africa, and Indonesia some of the best places to grow cacao.

Cacao trees grow in the understory of tropical rainforests, meaning that they grow in the shadow of much taller trees. Because of that, cacao trees are protected from the hot sun while still obtaining the necessary moisture from the warm, humid air.

Cacao trees begin producing fruit, called cacao pods, after approximately three years of growth. Each cacao pod is the size and shape of a small football and generally yellow and green in color. Unlike other fruit trees, cacao pods grow directly on the trunk of cacao trees and on their lower branches. As a result, cacao pods can be easily harvested by hand, which generally occurs several times per year.

Cacao farmers typically harvest cacao by carefully slicing open ripe cacao pods using a machete, which is a large knife. This exposes the cacao beans, which can then be removed from the cacao pods by the farmers. Each cacao pod contains approximately 30 to 50 cacao beans. It takes approximately 400 cacao beans in order to produce one pound of chocolate, which means approximately 10 cacao pods are required for one pound of chocolate.

The cacao beans are surrounded by a sweet white substance known as cacao pulp. Once the cacao beans and pulp are removed from the cacao pods, the cacao beans and pulp are placed on banana leaves or in open boxes so that they can dry over the course of the next several days. This process is known as fermentation (also known as “sweating”), and is the stage at which the familiar chocolate flavour begins developing in beans.

Once the fermentation process is complete, the fermented beans are left to thoroughly dry in the sun before they are transported to manufacturing facilities for the next stage in the process.

How Cacao is Used to Make Chocolate

The process of making chocolate from cacao beans has remained relatively constant for centuries. In brief, the process involves four stages: roasting, winnowing, milling and molding.

The roasting process commences after the cacao beans pass through the fermentation process described above. The roasting process involves heating the cacao beans in an oven for several hours. This process allows the cacao beans to reach their optimal flavor. This process also ensures that any microbes or bacteria contained on the cacao beans during the fermentation process are eliminated.

Once the roasted cacao beans are cooled, the winnowing process begins. While there are more modern ways to perform this step, winnowing traditionally involved placing the cacao beans in baskets and tossing the cacao beans into the air repeatedly. This movement would loosen and remove the thin shells which surround the cacao bean, exposing what are known as the cacao nibs. The cacao shells are also known as cacao husks. As described below, cacao husks have been used for centuries to make an excellent and delicious chocolate tea.

After the winnowing process, the cacao nibs are typically ground down into a paste. This traditionally occurred with the use of a hot stone called a metate. The chocolate maker would hold another stone, called the mano, and use it to grind the nibs against the metate. Alternatively, chocolate makers would use a mortar and pestle to grind down the cacao nibs. As the cacao nibs melted on the hot metate, the chocolate maker would add spices, with the combination being further ground into a paste. Today, the grinding process typically occurs with the help of specialized and sophisticated machines.

In the last step of the process, the chocolate paste produced on the metate would be scraped off and placed into chocolate molds, where the paste would be cooled and solidify. Traditionally, the solidified chocolate would then be sold to chocolate houses, where the chocolate would be grated and placed into a hot liquid (water or milk) contained in a special chocolate pot. Historically, the chocolate house would then use a special wooden stick called a molinillo to stir and dissolve the grated chocolate until it became smooth and frothy. The chocolate drink and its froth would then be poured into a special cup and served to the patrons of the chocolate house. As described in the history of cacao discussed below, cacao has evolved from being served in liquid form to being enjoyed as a solid treat or dessert.

The History of Cacao

Ancient History of Cacao

The history of cacao stretches back thousands of years to various ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. The earliest known use of cacao traces back to the Amazon Basin in an area which is now known as Ecuador. The aboriginal tribes in the area ate the sweet pulp that surrounds cacao beans within the cacao pods. It is believed that these aboriginal tribes fermented the pulp in order to create an alcoholic drink which was used for ceremonial and therapeutic purposes.

The first people believed to have consumed cacao beans was the ancient Olmec civilization, which inhabited in what is now known as southern Mexico. Because cacao beans are very bitter on their own, the Olmec did not eat them the way we eat nuts or other kinds of beans. Instead, the Olmec civilization fermented, dried and then used stones to ground the cacao beans into a chocolate paste. They then combined the paste with water and special spices to create a rich chocolate drink.

The ancient Olmec civilization was followed by the ancient Mayan civilization, which was located in what is now known as Guatemala, Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula. They were in turn followed by the ancient Toltec and Aztec civilizations of central Mexico. All of these civilizations made a special drink from the cacao bean which was highly prized in their societies. The Aztecs called the drink “xocolatl” (pronounced sho-kho-lah-tuhl), which means “bitter water” and provides the origin for the word chocolate. The cacao drink was used in religious and ceremonial rituals as well as in medicine.

Cacao was so important and prominent in these ancient civilizations that it also became a form of ancient currency and central to the economy. In an Aztec market, one cacao bean could be used to buy a tomato, 100 cacao beans could be used to buy a chicken, and 10,000 cacao beans could be used to buy a copper weapon. In fact, the great wealth of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II (also known as Montezuma) was derived from his great stores of cacao beans.

These ancient civilizations so valued cacao beans that they called the cacao tree Theobroma cacao, which means “food of the gods”. Cacao beans were so highly coveted that some individuals in ancient times would attempt to make counterfeit cacao beans. We know this because archaeologists have found beans in which the cacao content has been removed and replaced with clay, wax or some other filler.

Discovery of Cacao by the Spanish

Cacao was unknown to Europeans and other civilizations until Christopher Columbus discovered cacao beans in the New World. During his fourth voyage to America in 1502, he encountered an aboriginal Mayan merchant whose boat was filed with what Columbus first believed to be almonds.Columbus ultimately took the beans back to Spain, but, not knowing how the beans were used, nothing came of the discovery at the time.

Several years later, in 1519, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes sailed from Spain to the Aztec capital of Tenochititlan to meet the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma II (also known as Montezuma). The emperor believed Cortes to be a god and greeted him with a frothy and strong ceremonial drink made from cacao beans and seasoned with local spices, including chili peppers, vanilla and annatto. Cortes reported disliking the drink, calling it bitter and nearly undrinkable. However, Cortes eventually came to enjoy the drink and continued to consume it as he explored the American and as he eventually conquered the Aztecs.

In 1528, after Cortes conquered the Aztecs, Cortez returned to Spain. He and his explorers brought stories of the Aztec’s cacao drink, although it does not appear that they brought any cacao beans with them. Years later, in 1544, Dominican friars escorted Mayan nobles to the court of Prince Philip of Spain, who brought with them gifts of cacao for the Spanish royalty. The drink they made from it was bitter and unfamiliar to the Spanish, as it contained a variety of spices unique to the New World.

In 1585, the first commercial shipment of cacao beans arrived in Spain from the New World. In order to make the cacao drink more appealing to European taste buds, the Europeans added familiar spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and anise in replacement of the chili peppers and other New World spices used by the Aztecs. The Europeans also sweetened the drink with sugar, and it quickly became a favourite amongst Spanish royalty.

For the next several decades, cacao was a well-kept secret of the Spanish royalty. During this period, the Spanish court and aristocracy consumed cacao themselves rather than introduce it to other European countries and export it. As a result, the rest of Europe did not become aware of cacao for some time. During this period, Spain founded various cacao plantations throughout the territories it held in the Caribbean.

Cacao Spreads Throughout Europe

As time passed and the supply of cacao in Spain and the Caribbean grew, the cacao drink spread to other European countries. It entered France in a prominent manner in 1625, when it made an appearance at the wedding of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, daughter to King Philip III. In that same year, Francesco Carletti, who was an Italian tradesperson and writer, visited Central America and saw first hand how cacao was made. He wrote of his findings, which helped the discovery of cacao spread throughout Italy. Cacao became so popular in Italy that in 1591 Pope Gregory XIII, the head of the Catholic Church in Rome, declared that Catholics could drink chocolate during the holy season of Lent without breaking their fast.

In the early 1600s, the Dutch took control of the island of Curacao, which is an island located in South America off of Venezuela. As a result of this conquest, the Dutch began importing cacao beans back to Holland. This ultimately had the effect of making Amsterdam a leading port in the cacao industry, which is one of the reasons why the Dutch are known for chocolate. The United Kingdom similarly developed a presence in the cacao industry after taking control of Jamaica in the 1650s. Shortly thereafter, cacao became increasingly common throughout Europe.

During the period from 1650 to 1657, cacao was served to the public in what were then known as “chocolate houses”, which were similar to today’s coffee shops. However, given the expense involved in producing and importing cacao beans to Europe, chocolate houses catered to the wealthy. At that time, cacao was an expensive and time-consuming drink to make, which only the wealthy could afford. In 1659, the first French chocolate shop opened in Paris.

Cacao Spreads to America

Cacao was introduced to North America in 1641, when a Spanish ship carrying cacao beans from Puerto Rico to Spain was forced to take refugee in a port in Florida due to bad weather. It is not known what happened to this shipment of cacao, although presumably it was consumed by American colonists in Florida.

The first recorded commercial sale of chocolate in America occurred nearly 30 years later in Boston, Massachusetts. In particular, two women opened a tavern styled as a chocolate house for the purpose of selling chocolate to their customers. It is believed that their chocolate was imported from England, although it likely came as a powder mixed with sugar and pressed into cakes about the size and firmness of a hockey puck.

It is believed that chocolate production began in the American colonies in 1682, which is when the first shipment of cacao beans arrived in Boston from Jamaica. By purchasing cacao directly from Jamaica, the American colonists were able to avoid the costs of high taxes and import duties associated with purchasing cacao through England. As a result, the cacao drink became more affordable in America and became readily available in chocolate houses and coffee shops throughout the American colonies on the East Coast. Accordingly, what was once attainable only to royalty and wealthy aristocrats in Europe became available to all in America.

Chocolate also began expanding through the American colonies in the South. In particular, explorers, missionaries and settlers carried cacao and chocolate as they moved north from Mexico, which was then called “New Spain”. During this period, chocolate was formed into ground, pressed cakes, which made them more portable and less vulnerable to spoiling during travel over long distances.

Cacao and the Founding of America

Did you know that cacao played a central role in the founding of America?

As discussed above, in the late 1600s chocolate became an affordable drink accessible in the American colonies as a result of the importation of cacao beans to the American colonies directly from Jamaica and other locations in the Caribbean rather than indirectly through England, where they would have been subject to various taxes and import duties. During this period, the situation was very different in Europe, where chocolate was still an expensive drink and only available to royalty and the wealthy elite.

In fact, in 1785, Thomas Jefferson, who was then serving as the US ambassador to France and who later became President of the United States, wrote a letter to John Adams, who later also became President of the United States. In that letter, Jefferson extolled the virtues of cacao and expressed his view that it would soon rise in prominence to rival coffee and tea. As Jefferson wrote, “the superiority of chocolate both for health and nourishment will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain”. As it turned out, both men lived to see the rise of chocolate in America.

In addition to cacao being an inexpensive, nourishing and delicious drink, American colonists had another reason to prefer cacao over tea and coffee: patriotism. In the 1760s, in an effort to help fund its war against France in the American colonies, England imposed several new taxes on many goods that the American colonists routinely imported from England, including tea, which was then a favourite beverage of the American colonists. This greatly angered the American colonies and made the act of drinking cacao a patriotic act of defiance and solidarity with fellow Americans against England.

As a result, many of America’s early leaders consumed cacao. In fact, the first President of the United States, George Washington, and his wife, the first First Lady of the United States, Martha Washington, were very fond of chocolate and often drank it for breakfast.

In addition, Martha Washington was particularly fond of making chocolate tea using cacao husks. She would steep the cacao husks in boiling water, in the same manner as if she were using a tea bag. This made a thinner but delicious chocolate drink which was easier on her stomach than the traditional chocolate drink, which tended to be much heavier and oilier. Cacao tea has a delicious chocolate flavor and a natural sweetness despite containing no sugar, carbohydrates or fat. Cacao husk tea is also gluten and dairy free. As a result, cacao tea provides an excellent replacement for regular tea and coffee and offers a great alternative to satisfying chocolate cravings.

In addition, Thomas Jefferson had a silver pitcher made that was styled after a Roman artifact called an askos which as traditionally used to pour wine. Jefferson and his family used the silver pitcher to pour chocolate drink at his home in Virginia. Clearly, cacao had become a very important part of early American life.

Cacao in the Modern Era

In the centuries that followed, cacao became less prominent as a drink and more prominent as a solid dessert or treat. This was due to various innovations that improved the quality of chocolate and paved the way for today’s modern chocolate making processes.

First, in 1828 the Dutch chemist Coenraad van Houten Sr. discovered how to separate fat from cacao beans in a procedure known as pressing. In particular, the procedure involves grinding cacao beans into a liquid, and then pressing out the liquid’s fat, which is a yellowish substance known as cacao butter (also referred to as cocoa butter). Once the cacao butter is removed, the substance left is a form of dry chocolate which can then be ground and pulverized into cacao powder (also known as cocoa). Chocolate makers can then mix the cacao powder and cacao butter in different proportions, along with sugar, in order to adjust the flavour and texture of the final chocolate product. This discovery led to a revolution in chocolate making.

The first modern chocolate bar was produced in 1847 by the English chocolate company known as J.S. Fry and Sons. They blended cacao powder, cacao butter and sugar into a paste, poured the mixture into a mold, and then let it cool and solidify. The result was the first chocolate candy bar, which became immediately popular. However, the chocolate was still rather gritty, unlike the smooth and silky chocolate that we enjoy today.

The chocolate making process was further refined in 1879, when Swiss chocolatier Rodolphe Lindt invented a machine that blended for several days the ingredients used to make chocolate. The process became known as conching, because the machine resembled a conch shell. The process had the effect of further grinding and breaking up the particle size of the ingredients, while also mixing and combining them thoroughly. The process also helped eliminate the grit and acidity of the cacao. The result was a chocolate with a smooth and silky texture.

The most recent improvement in the chocolate making process was the discovery of tempering. While the science behind tempering is not yet fully understood by scientists, it was discovered that raising and lowering the temperature of chocolate repeatedly would produce a chocolate bar with a shiny, glossy surface that has a satisfying “snap” when broken in pieces. Without tempering, chocolate bars are liable to have a dull texture and be soft and crumbly. It is believed by scientists that the process of raising and lowering the temperature of chocolate has the effect of aligning chocolate crystals in a special pattern, which changes its appearance and texture.


As summarized in this article, cacao has played a instrumental role in world history, starting in ancient times and through to the modern era. To learn more about the history of the perceived health benefits of cacao and recent scientific studies regarding the health benefits of cacao, please see our article about the health benefits of cacao.