Evidence of cacao consumption – the seeds that are, ideally, the main ingredient in chocolate – date back as far as 1900 B.C., and throughout Mayan and Aztec civilization in Mexico and Central America, people would grind the beans of the Theobroma cacao tree to make a bitter-tasting drink.
This early form of chocolate was diluted with water and flavored with spices like vanilla, cinnamon and chile pepper. Native to the Amazon region, chocolate symbolized life and fertility to the Mayans, who also attributed medicinal and aphrodisiac properties to cacao beans. Aztec ruler Montezuma dubbed chocolate “a divine drink,” and so important were cacao pods to the Aztecs, they traded them as a form of currency.
Europeans first discovered the football-shaped pods when Christopher Columbus spied them in 1502, during his final voyage to the Americas. More than 80 years later, explorer Hernando Cortes transported the first shipment of cacao beans to Europe. Chocolate quickly became a favorite drink among Europe’s nobility – the only ones who could afford this luxury – who made the bitter brew more palatable by adding cane sugar.
As the demand for chocolate grew, cacao was more widely cultivated, and ultimately more affordable. A happy series of discoveries paved the way for mass-produced chocolate. That began with the patenting of a hydraulic press to remove the natural cocoa butter from roasted cacao beans in 1828 by Dutch chocolate maker Conrad van Houten.
Then, the first commercial recipe for milk chocolate was invented by Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé in Switzerland in 1875.
And while low-quality milk and dark chocolate – comprised of more sugar, hydrogenated oils and milk solids than actual cacao – would make up the vast majority of American consumption for more than a century, companies in Europe quietly and steadily improved the quality of chocolate.
French chocolate maker Bonnat is credited with making the first single-origin dark chocolate bars in 1984, and a year later another French company, Valrhona, began manufacturing single-origin chocolate for commercial use. Many of the artisanal chocolate bars you’ll find today still – sometimes controversially – use Valrhona chocolate.
Sometime in the 90s, American’s really started to enter the artisanal chocolate movement, and in the few years, independent American chocolate companies and single-origin bars with high cacao content have become increasingly popular on store shelves across the country.
Today, the average American consumes somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 pounds a year of the silky confection with a name that translates appropriately as “food of the gods.”