Friday, February 6, 2015

Before Coffee became America’s Morning Drink….

Hot chocolate was a popular morning pick me up for many upper class households in the 18th century colonies. The Spanish were the first to bring cocoa from the New World to Europe but in the next few centuries it became a favorite hot beverage until invention made it possible to make an eating chocolate bar that would surpass the beverage. 

The cacao tree comes from the Amazon Basin. The Mesoamericans were using cacao seeds three thousand years before Europeans came to the Americas. The Olmec people honed the laborious process and passed the knowledge on to the Aztecs and the Mayans.1    Because the process was long and laborious only the elite drank what was called cachuatl. The drink was perceived as intoxicating and stimulating, it was regarded as being unsuitable for women and children. The scientific name given to the bean in the 19th century (Theobroma cacao) actually means “food of the gods.”2   The process begins with taking the cacao beans out of the pod and laying them on the rainforest floor to ferment and dry.  After the drying process the seeds have to be sorted to pick out stones, sticks and bugs. Next the beans need to be roasted and this makes all the difference for the taste of the chocolate. If they are not roasted enough the chocolate will taste raw and if roasted too much the chocolate will taste bitter. The technique is in knowing when the beans are ready, after they start “cracking” from release of moisture, they are almost ready. When they are done roasting they are ground into smaller pieces called nibs. The nibs are moved to a warmed metate (a grinding stone table with roller).  Hot coals placed under the metate help melt the cacao fat in the beans and the nibs turn into a chocolaty paste.3   The Aztecs would typically then add chili, vanilla and honey then drink the chocolate at room temperature.     


The first European interaction with cacao occurred during the fourth voyage of Columbus to the New World in 1502. He brought some back to Europe but they were ignored because of all the other wonderful things brought to the Spanish courts. In 1519, Hernando Cortes arrived at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City) and witnessed how chocolate was consumed in the royal court of Montezuma. The Spanish took the Aztec procedure of making chocolate and modified it to better suit their tastes. They added sugar which was coming from recently established plantations in the Caribbean.  When he brought the drink back to Spain the court of Charles I readily accepted the drink but only the aristocrats could afford the beans and the spices they added.  They removed the chili peppers, added flavors such as anise, cinnamon, nutmeg and orange peel and preferred to serve it hot.4 


As supplies of cacao and sugar increased chocolate drinking spread gradually throughout the European courts. In 1660 the Spanish Infanta Maria Teresa married the Sun King, Louis XIV and brought chocolate to France. 

The first English to encounter chocolate were pirates or privateers, commissioned by the English monarchy to prey on Spanish vessels. They didn’t know what they had found onboard the ships. In the 1500s English privateers burned a shipload of cacao seeds having no idea what the ugly little brown seeds were worth. It wasn’t until the middle of the 17th century that three exotic beverages were making their debut in London - coffee, tea and chocolate. All of these beverages were served with sugar. The British started growing sugar in Barbados in the 1640s and then came the exotic hot and sweet concoctions. As chocolate became more popular it would be ground in mills and sold pressed into “cakes”, lumps of grated powder and sugar, wrapped in paper. From this they would only have to add the shaved chocolate to hot water, include their favorite spices, froth it and serve.5  In England chocolate was widely availabe although still expensive.  Chocolate houses popped up in London at the same time as coffee houses although more exclusive.  These establishments were for the aristocrats and politicians, built in the best neighborhoods.  They were considered decadent places of rowdy behavior and shown this way in paintings.6  

In Colonial America, a little closer to the source of sugar and cacao beans, chocolate was being imported to Boston by 1682. New England mills were grinding cacao beans and selling chocolate in general stores, grocers and apothecaries.  Its perceived medicinal value made it useful for prescribing to the sick to aid in digestion, energize the body, cure hangovers, suppress coughs, promote weight gain for emaciated patients and stimulate the libido.  Ben Franklin recommended chocolate as a cure for small pox and Doctor Benjamin Rush did the same in his medical books.7   Chocolate could be transported in solid blocks without spoilage and was used as a ration for the military.  In 1755, Benjamin Franklin secured six pounds of chocolate per officer as a special supply for soldiers marching with General Braddock’s army near the beginning of the French and Indian War.  The British army also had rations of chocolate during the Revolutionary War.8

When the British government put taxes on tea and the colonists rebelled they didn’t easily give up their hot sweet beverages.  Instead of drinking British imported tea they would use coffee and more often chocolate for those who could afford the spices, sugar and cacao.  Tea was dethroned as the favorite drink and Thomas Jefferson thought chocolate would take its place.  Between 1768 and 1773 New England alone imported nearly two million pounds of cacao from the non-British West Indies.   A special pot was used to serve chocolate.  It was similar to a coffee pot only with a side handle and a hinged or removable finial to accommodate a molinet or stirring rod.  Early pots were made of copper then became porcelain and decorative with delicate chocolate cups and saucers.  These cups had one or two handles unlike tea cups which mostly did not have handles.  Hot Chocolate was drunk mostly at breakfast by fashionable society, George Washington is said to have had a few espresso sized cups of “coca tea” throughout the day (this was cacao beans steeped in hot water like tea, not as heavy as hot chocolate.)9

The tide turned against drinking chocolate when a few 19th century inventions made eating chocolate easier and cheaper.  In 1847 The Fry Brothers in England molded the first chocolate bar.  Slowly the introduction of tempering chocolate and separating the cocoa fat and adding cocoa butter to dry powder produced the creamy chocolate we know of now.  In 1879 in Switzerland, Rodolphe Lindt developed a machine that looked like a conch shell to process his chocolate.  It made the chocolate smoother and a recipe by Daniel Peter, also in Switzerland, incorporated condensed milk, cocoa powder, sugar and cocoa butter to make milk chocolate.10   By the 1920s eating milk chocolate surpassed drinking chocolate.



Chocolate in the 21st century has seen a return to some of the original techniques for enhancing its flavor, including the addition of traditional spices and exotic flavors.  Gourmet chocolate is an affordable indulgence that is rising in popularity.  Premium chocolate sales are in the billions and have grown at a rate of 67% in the last few years.11   There has also been a fascination with texture and degree of potency through artisanal chocolate bars and varied degrees of dark to white chocolate percentages. Chocolate “elixirs” (hot chocolate) are once again back in fashion and offered in cafés across the world. The history of chocolate is an on-going discovery of new way to enjoy a timeless treat.



1                      Snyder, Rodney. “History of Chocolate: Chocolate in the American Colonies.”

2                      Theobald, Mary Miley.  “A Cup of Hot Chocolate, S’good for What Ails Ya.”

3                      Jim Gay, Colonial Williamsburg interpreter.

4                      Snyder, Rodney.

5                      Theobald, Mary Miley. 

6                      Green, Matthew. “The surprising history of London’s lost chocolate houses.”

7                      Theobald, Mary Miley. 

8                      Snyder, Rodney.

9                      Regelski, Christina.  “The Revolution of American Drinking.”

10                   Snyder, Rodney.

11                   Rupani, Sonai.  “The Sweet Business of Gourmet Chocolate.”  Bloomberg Business,  

August 2007.

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