The first people believed to have cultivated cacao and used the beans were the Olmecs, one of the earliest of the Mesoamerican civilizations (1200 B.C.E. – 400 C.E.). Though we don’t know much about how the Olmecs used cacao, we do know that their descendants, the Aztecs and the Maya, loved cacao so much that they gave it important roles in their cultures.
Throughout the Mayan civilization, which flourished from 250 C.E. to 900 C.E., cacao beans were consumed by most of the population in the form of an unsweetened cocoa drink made from ground beans. This drink was bitter, frothy, and a bit oily – it wouldn’t taste very good to those of us accustomed to modern chocolate! The Maya were the first known society to create cocoa plantations in order to grow large quantities of the crop. Elite Mayans drank their chocolate from elaborate vessels, and chocolate also played a role in royal and religious events, including marriage ceremonies.
The Aztecs copied the unsweetened liquid cocoa drink from the Mayans, calling it xocolatl (pronouned “ho-co-la-tol”), meaning “bitter liquid”. Xocolatl was made from cacao beans (also known as cocoa beans), water and, sometimes, spicy peppers, vanilla, or other flavorings. Montezuma, the last king of the Aztecs, was known to drink as many as 50 pitchers of the drink a day!
The Aztecs told this legend about the origin of cocoa: Their god, Quetzacoatl, brought the cacao tree from paradise to earth, traveling on a beam of the Morning Star. He gave the tree as an offering to the people, and they learned how to roast and grind its beans into a paste. They believed that it brought wisdom and knowledge to those who drank it.
When the first Spanish soldiers came to the Mexico in the 1500s, they found the Aztecs drinking xocolatl and brought the drink back to Europe. Because Europeans found the liquid too bitter, they added vanilla and sugar. The Spanish guarded the secret of where this delicious drink came from, growing it on plantations in their colonies. Drinking hot chocolate became wildly popular in Europe. Chocolate as we know it came into existence after 1828, when Dutch chemist Conrad Van Houten invented the chocolate press. The chocolate press separates raw cocoa into cocoa butter and cocoa powder, making a much tastier finished product. The rest, as they say, is history!
Cocoa has grown from being a small domestic crop grown by the Olmecs in a relatively small region of Central America to a worldwide cash crop. Annual cocoa production is now around 3 million tons, grown by 5 – 6 million cocoa farmers on four continents (North America, South America, Africa and Asia). So, although the cacao tree is indigenous to Central America, it is now cultivated in many tropical regions, particularly in Western Africa.
Most cacao trees are tended on small family farms. Cacao is an understory crop, which means that it grows best in the shade of other trees. Cacao trees form an important part of the rainforest ecosystem, providing food and habitats for animals that live there.
The cacao trees begin to bear fruit when they are about 4 years old. A few times a year, cacao trees produce large football-shaped pods that contain seeds embedded in a fleshy pulp. These seeds, or cacao beans, are what we use to make chocolate.
Cocoa harvests occur twice a year. Ripe pods are harvested by hand, and workers use special tools with hooked blades to cut them down. The pods are cut open and the cacao beans extracted by hand from the pulp surrounding them. Piles of beans are covered with leaves and left to ferment for 3 to 9 days. During fermentation, enzymes in the beans release the cocoa flavor and turn the beans a rich brown color. The beans are then dried in the sun, packed into sacks, and shipped off for processing.
Cacoa beans travel a long way from tree to factory, in just few months. But the journey’s not over yet! The beans still have a few steps to go before they become everyone’s favorite treat – chocolate. The beans are first sorted and cleaned, removing any last pulpy bits. They then undergo the ever-important roasting process, which is the key to bringing out the chocolate flavor. The beans are roasted in rotating ovens for up to two hours. They are then transferred to the winnowing machine, which cracks and removes the brittle outer shells, leaving behind something known as nibs.
These nibs are made of 53% cocoa butter, a fatty substance, and 47% pure cocoa solids. The next step in the process is to separate these two materials. This is achieved by first grinding the nibs, thereby crushing them into a paste known as chocolate liquor. And no, it’s not alcoholic! This liquor is then pressed, squeezing out the fatty yellow stuff known as cocoa butter. What is left over is finely ground into cocoa powder.
We’ve finally arrived at the ingredients you’ll find in a Make Your Own Chocolate Kit. The last few steps – mixing the cocoa powder with cocoa butter, sugar, and other ingredients – are up to you. So the next time you pop a piece of chocolate in your mouth, contemplate all the work that’s gone into that one delicious bite!