Raking to Dry Cocoa Beans Venezuela. Photo by Chris Kilham

A Brief History of Cocoa

Common Name


Botanical Name

Theobroma Cocao


Theobroma Cocao
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Ripe Cocoa Pod Opened

Cocoa, the food of the gods and the electuary of lovers, has captivated humanity with its exotic flavor and sensuous mouth feel. Well done, bravo! Cocoa is the heroic delight, the preferred food of children and poets alike. The world would be a poorer place if not for heavenly cocoa!

Thousands of years ago, dense equatorial rainforest covered much more of the South American continent than today. Verdant forest and running rivers made up the landscape of the territory known as Amazonia, and forest covered much of the corridor of land we now call Central America. In this vibrantly alive landscape, wild cacao flourished. The exact origin of cacao remains shrouded in mystery and hard to pin down, due to the vastness of this wild and bio-diverse landscape. Wild species of cacao, with their fruit pods clustered on forest trees, provided food for birds and animals. The pods were either collected when they fell to the ground, or were gathered from trees, opened by claws or beaks, and the white, fruity insides eaten for their sweet and nourishing mucilage. The large “beans” inside the pods were eaten too, and many were later excreted by the creatures who ate them, sprouting in new soil and making new trees. In this way, the cacao trees were further disseminated as fertilized seeds made their way into new soil and the populations of cacao grew and spread.

According to the best estimates of archaeologists, either the ancient Olmec, or the Maya, whose civilization flourished from the Yucatan Peninsula to the Pacific coast of Guatemala, are believed to have cultivated the cacao tree for the very first time around 1000 B.C. This occurred during what is referred to as the Pre-Classic Period of Mesoamerican history, which spanned from approximately 2000 B.C. to 250 A.D. The oldest evidence of cocoa consumption is residue in a ceramic pot recovered from a Mayan site at Rio Azul in the northeastern part of Guatemala. According to anthropologists, this confirms the use of cacao by the Olmec.

According to legend, cacao cultivation was initiated by the Mayan demigod king Hun-Apu, or Hunahpu. Hunahpu was one of the two Mayan Twins, brother to Xbalanque. The two play heavily in early Mayan mythology. In constant strife with other gods of the period, they were eventually burned to death and their remains thrown into a river, where they transformed themselves into catfish and lived on happily for a long time. The significance of this is that cacao is considered divine in origin, and this establishes its importance in the world of the Maya. The Maya so highly valued cacao, they used cocoa beans as currency, and to pay taxes. Like many events which occurred a long time ago, the specifics of cacao’s rise to popularity remain largely veiled by the mists of time. But we do know this much, that from the very onset of its use, cacao was assigned high status.

In the Mayan and Aztec cultures, cocoa and its preparation featured prominently. The typical preparation of cocoa involved harvesting the beans from their pods, fermenting the beans, roasting them, and grinding them into a paste. The paste was mixed with water, to which was often added corn, chile peppers, and other spices. Vigorously mixed with a grooved beating utensil known as a molinet, cocoa was transformed into a frothy beverage. Since sugar was not yet a known food item, cocoa was consumed unsweetened. Drunk on occasion by most people, cocoa was a more regular beverage of the more privileged, including priests, rulers, soldiers and other members of high social rank. Cocoa was typically prepared in, and drunk from, a gourd.

Seafaring Explorers and Cocoa

The intrepid seafaring legend Christopher Columbus and his crew were actually the first non-natives to encounter cacao. In 1502 Columbus was aboard the Santa Maria, moored off the island of Guanaja on the coast of Honduras, when he was visited by an Aztec chief in splendid raiments, bearing gifts. Among the cloth, copper objects and wooden weapons presented to Columbus were cocoa beans, which neither he nor his crew recognized. The Aztec chief offered to exchange some of the cocoa beans for goods aboard the ship, and this perplexed Columbus and crew. To demonstrate the value of cocoa, the chief had some cocoa beverage prepared by his servants. The Aztec called the drink cacahuatl, which literally means “bitter water.” Columbus found the beverage bitter, spicy, and not altogether pleasant, and was not especially impressed. Though the Aztecs appeared to place high value on cocoa beans, Columbus and crew did not. The Genoan sailor subsequently described cocoa beans as “almonds, which are called cacao and serve as coins in New Spain.” Columbus reputedly brought some beans back to the Spanish royal court along with numerous other treasures. But neither Columbus nor any of his crew members appreciated the significance of cocoa, or grasped its high place in Mesoamerican society. As a result, cocoa received only fleeting attention in the Spanish court. The real discovery of the value of cacao was left to a subsequent and infinitely more shrewd explorer.

In 1519, the ambitious 34 year old explorer Hernan Cortez landed at Tabasco on Mexico’s Gulf Of Campeche. He and his crew marched on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, where they were greeted by the Aztec ruler Montezuma. To ensure that his crew came along on the march and did not desert, Cortez had his vessels burned. Upon the arrival of Cortez and crew, Montezuma mistook Cortez for the legendary king-turned-deity Quetzalcoatl, also known as the “feathered serpent,” and presented Cortez with a large load of cocoa beans from a vast cacao plantation. Montezuma greeted Cortez this way: “Because of the faith we have in our beliefs, we are certain that you are the men our ancestors spoke of, who were to come from where the sun rises. You will have at your disposal everything you need, because here you are at home in your native country.” This terrible error in identity, and the unwarranted lavish generosity afforded Cortex by the Aztec ruler, would prove disastrous. For Cortez would play a key role in the conquest of Mexico, and the destruction of the vast Aztec empire. In welcoming Cortez, Montezuma unwittingly embraced his own doom and the demise of his people.

The Aztecs regarded cocoa as a sacred plant, and they valued cocoa beans as currency. Girolamo Benzoni, in his “History of the New World noted “They call the fruit cacauate and use it for money. The tree on which it grows is not very tall, and only thrives in hot, shady places, as even minimal exposure to the sun kills it.” In a subsequent entry, the author remarked “Sometimes when passing through a village, I would come across an Indian who would offer me a drink of chocolate. I would refuse it, the Indian would be most astonished by my refusal, then laugh, and go on his way. In the long run, finding myself often in places where there was not a drop of wine, I learned to do as the others, so that I would not be drinking only water all the time. Its taste is not all bitter, it nourishes and refreshes the body, and is not intoxicating.”

“This name chocolate is an Indian name, and is compounded from Atte, as some say or as others, Alte, which in the Mexican language signifieth water & from the sound which the water (wherein is put the chocolate) makes, as Choco, Choco, Choco, when it is stirred in a cup by an instrument called a Molinet, or Milinillo, until it bubble and rise into a froath.” – Thomas Gage

Unlike Columbus, Cortez readily estimated the great value of the cocoa bean. In fact, he and his crew were fascinated by native cocoa drinking customs. Chronicler Bernial Diaz de Castillo observed that royalty drank cocoa from vessels of gold, and that ground cocoa was kept by the wealthy in gold containers. This spoke volumes about the high value the Mexicans placed on this bean. The Aztec made a drink of finely ground cocoa beans, mixed in water and beaten to a froth with a wooden molinet. People of high rank drank cocoa in large quantities. The great emperor Monetzuma reputedly consumed as many as fifty goblets of the drink daily. The Aztecs spiced their cocoa with native vanilla and chile peppers, and some added honey to the mix. The Spaniards took up cocoa drinking as well, finding in cocoa a refreshing, satisfying and inspiring beverage.

“This drink was imbibed in a single draft for the miraculous refreshment and satisfaction of the bodily state, to which it gives strength, nourishment and energy to such a degree that those who are accustomed to drinking it can no longer remain stronger without it, even if they eat other nutritious substances. And they also appear to lose weight if they do not have this drink.” – Francesco Carletti

When Hernan Cortez returned to Spain from the New World in 1528, he spoke with enthusiasm of a widely consumed food made from the fruit seeds of a tree. Cortez and his conquistadores described great plantations of Theobroma cacao throughout Mexico. He reported “On the lands of one farm two thousand trees have been planted; the fruits are similar to almonds and are sold in a powdered state.” In Cortez, chocolate found the perfect advocate. His account of cocoa, its popularity and value, greatly piqued the interest of the Spanish. Cortez also grasped the value of cocoa for military purposes, noting that “One beaker keeps a soldier fresh for the whole day.” Cortez was cocoa’s first and most important trans-continental messenger and advocate.

“These seeds which are called almonds or cacao are ground and made into powder, and other small seeds are ground, and this powder is put into certain basins with a point, and then they put water on it and mix it with a spoon. And after having mixed it well, they change it from one basin to another, so that a foam is raised which they put in a vessel made for the purpose. And when they wish to drink it, they mix it with certain small spoons of gold or silver or wood, and drink it, and drinking it one must open one’s mouth, because being foam one must give it room to subside, and go down bit by bit. This drink is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else.” – Anonymous Conqueror

Cocoa Hits Europe

In 1544, a delegation of Mayan nobles visited the court of Spain’s Prince Philip. Among the many treasures they bore were cocoa beans. In 1585, the first eagerly awaited commercial shipment of cacao beans arrived in Seville, borne on the shoulders of Spanish sailors returning from Veracruz. With a mighty and triumphant shout, cocoa crossed the great Atlantic ocean and planted its flag in Spain. Its campaign to capture the palates of Europeans had begun in earnest. The Spaniards took up cocoa drinking with enthusiasm, and set a new course for the consumption of this beverage by adding boiling water to the bean paste and making a hot drink. Flavored variously with ginger, cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg, the hot cocoa beverage captured the palates and the imaginations of the Spanish.

Cocoa soon made its way from Mexico to Spain not just in the form of dried cocoa beans, but also in pressed tablets or slabs. Today this is still a typical method of cocoa preparation. Cocoa beans are fermented for about four days, they are dried in the sun, and then they are roasted so the thin shell that surrounds them can be easily removed. The inside cocoa “nibs” are ground finely for a long time, until they form a pliable mass. The finely ground beans are typically mixed with vanilla, cinnamon and vanilla. This preparation is rolled into balls, or pressed into tablets or slabs, and can be stored for later use. Today you can find such preparations made fresh throughout South America, and you can also buy them in markets.

The Europeans added an additional seminal element to the prized Aztec drink that would change the face of cocoa forever. Sugar sweetened the bitter beverage, making it immediately pleasing to the European palate. Unlike the Aztec, the Spanish drank their cocoa hot, not cold. Cocoa, consumed as a sweet, hot beverage, became a symbol of status in the court at Madrid. From there, cocoa strode like a finely attired dandy into Spanish society, and was received with warmth and enthusiasm. Realizing the great commercial value of this delightful drink, the Spanish began cacao plantations in their overseas colonies. Great fortune, they realized, lay in pleasure.

Though Mexico was the original source of commercial cacao, Spanish explorers subsequently discovered large forests of wild forastero cacao in the Guayaquil coast of southern Ecuador. Today Guayaquil is a major trading port, and is considered the economic capitol of Ecuador. By clearing other vegetation away from the cacao trees, the Spanish gained a fast and easy source of commercial cacao, made even cheaper by slave labor. Compared with Mexico’s fine criollo cocoa beans, the Ecuadorian forastero beans were less flavorful. But the forastero trees were prolific. The Jesuits too found large stands of wild forastero cacao growing along the banks of the Amazon and its tributaries. And so it came to pass that cocoa beans from Mesoamerica and South America made their way by various means to an increasingly chocolate-hungry Europe.

Cocoa encountered a religious hurdle in 1591, over the thorny question of whether or not the consumption of the beverage broke the Lenten fast. Lent, the period of the liturgical year leading up to Easter, is a period of prayer, penitence, alms-giving and self-denial. The Jesuits, who traded in chocolate, took a clearly practical position, contending that the ambrosial and economically profitable drink most certainly did not break the fast. By contrast, the hard-nosed Dominicans, also known as the Black Friars, took up an opposing view that such a sensual delight did not conform to the rigors of penitence and denial. With the Jesuits and the Dominicans in dispute over the role that luxurious cocoa might or might not play in the Lenten fast, the matter was taken to a higher power. And so the issue was brought before Pope Gregory XIII, who declared that drinking cocoa did not break the Lenten fast. Score one for the Jesuits and for the commerce of cocoa. Just as with coffee previously, cocoa advanced with papal approval. Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with a bowl of cocoa going on before. Cocoa followed conventional trade routes by land and sea, charming those who tasted its exotic flavor.

Cocoa took handy advantage of the institution of matrimony with the 1615 marriage of Hapsburg-Spanish princess Anna of Austria to King Louis XIII de Remy Martin of France. As one of many wedding gifts Anna presented a casket of cocoa to Louis. The pampered princess also brought with her a maid to prepare her daily cocoa drink exactly the way she liked it. Anna not only brought cocoa with her to France, but she brought recipes for its preparation as well. By virtue of this fortuitous conjugation, cocoa slipped across cultural blood lines and international borders, and became the favored drink of the French court. In that fashionable court, cocoa was received with pomp and ceremony. One French aristocrat a Madame D’Aulnoy, visited the Spanish court, and sent home reports in letters of a new national drink, cocoa. According to her accounts, ladies of high social standing would be served sweets and cups of the new drink. “Each porcelain cup stood on an agate saucer with a gold border, each with a matching sugar bowl. There was iced chocolate, warm chocolate, and some with eggs and milk. There are even women who can drink six cups in succession.” The powerful Chief Minister of the French court Cardinal Richelieu held cocoa in high esteem, and according to a diary entry made by his elder brother, Richelieu took a regular drink of cocoa to aid his enlarged spleen.

A short while later, cocoa made a border crossing from France to Italy. The sweet, sensuous flavor and feel of the beverage appealed greatly to the Italians, whose sensibilities of luxury were similar to those of the Spanish. Cocoa fit the romance language nations like a soft hand in a tailored velvet glove. A drink of cocoa, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and water became a staple.

Though many people attributed salutary effects to cocoa, the first publication espousing its health benefits was published in France. In 1687 A Mr De Blegny, a physician in the court of Louis XIV, published the work Du The’, Du Caffe, et Du Chocolat Pour La Preservation & pour la guerifon des Maladies (Tea, Coffee and Chocolate for preservation and to cure illness). This volume would presage works of the future. Today many books, thousands of articles, and equally many scientific papers have described the health benefits of cocoa. Today, the scientific floodgates of cocoa research are open wide, and rarely a week goes by without the publication of a new, positive health finding related to cocoa.

In the 17th and 18th century, neither Mexico nor Ecuador was the primary supplier of cocoa beans to Europe. Instead Venezuela, with its highly prized “Caracas” criollo was number one. Spanish and Dutch traders sailed ships laden with Venezuelan criollo to eager European markets. At the same time, the scenic West Indies became home to sprawling cacao plantations. Martinique, Guadalupe, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Trinidad all became important suppliers of cocoa beans. In Trinidad, the cross-pollination of criollo and forastero varieties led to the development of “Trinitario” cacao.

Continuing its steady move around the world, cocoa sailed the short distance across the English Channel, and in 1657, the first of many English cocoa houses opened, on Bishopsgate Street in London. Numerous others quickly sprang up. Among the most notable were The Cocoa Tree and White’s. Much later in 1824 Quaker John Cadbury opened a coffee and tea shop in Birmingham, where he also sold hot cocoa. Cadbury would go on to become one of the world’s great chocolate dynasties.

Cocoa and Industry

In the 1700’s, various mechanical inventions changed the fundamentals of the cocoa industry. In 1732, a Frenchman named Dubuisson invented a charcoal-fired table that allowed large quantities of cocoa to be ground more easily. In 1778, a more advanced hydraulic grinding machine developed by a Monsieur Doret came into use in the eventually famous Compagnie Francaise des Chocolats et Thes Pelletier & Cie. By 1780, steam-driven machines changed cocoa production even further, allowing even larger quantities to be processed more quickly than ever before. A formerly labor-intensive process performed entirely by hand in small quantities became a matter of mass production. As a result of a sharp reduction in labor costs, cocoa prices tumbled and the drink became economically accessible to the average person. No longer a savored privilege of just the elite, cocoa could be consumed by most people. This gave rise not only to greater use of cocoa in homes, and to the opening of many cocoa emporiums throughout Europe.

“Chocolate of fine and good quality is prepared by crushing the roasted and hulled beans between rollers, then mixing them with sugar, vanilla, or occasionally with other spices, and allowing this mixture to cool. The chocolate beverage is prepared in various ways: it is simply boiled with water, with some sugar added to it. But it is also consumed with the unavoidable milk, with a lot of sugar, or with eggs. Since chocolate is actually a thin paste or soup, and its infusion is not prepared from cacao seeds or leaves as in the case of tea or coffee, it is more appropriate for chocolate than for the two other beverages to be taken with toast, cookies, and all kinds of other things.” - Baron Ernst von Bibra

Cocoa, while busy spreading itself throughout Europe, jumped the ocean in reverse, when cocoa beans from the West Indies landed in Dorchester, Massachusetts. There John Hanan established the first North American chocolate factory. It was a prescient event. For over time chocolate would sweep the continent, capturing the palates of Americans from coast to coast. The United States would become the largest of the cocoa consuming nations, eating nearly 38% of annual cocoa production.

In 1819, Francois-Louis Cailler built the first Swiss chocolate factory, in Vevey. The Swiss would further advance chocolate’s fortunes with innovation. In 1875 partners Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle turned out the world’s first milk chocolate. The Swiss enjoyed exclusive manufacturing of milk chocolate until the British firm Cadbury developed its process for the same product in 1904. But it was Rudolph Lindt who discovered perhaps the greatest secret of chocolate making to date - conching. As a result of mixing chocolate for several days and adding more cocoa butter, the confection melted in the mouth. This transformed chocolate manufacturing everywhere, and today all manufactured chocolate is conched.

In 1889, Jean Tobler, a former confectionery trader, founded the Tobler factory in Berne, with his sons. Their famous Toblerone bar was made in the shape of the Swiss Alps, and contained chocolate with a nougat of almonds and honey. Today Tobler chocolates are distributed all over the world, and can be found in most airport gift shops and food stores.

In 1907 the Italian Perugina chocolate factory was founded by Giovanni Buitoni and family. Perugina made the first chocolate “kisses,” wrapped in love missives.

Even as chocolate was stimulating invention and industry in Europe, cacao trees were springing up in every tropical location. The Portuguese planted cacao in Sao Tome’ and fernando Po, in Africa. The plantations would spread on that continent to the Gold Coast, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. The British planted cacao in Ceylon, while the Dutch did likewise in Java and Sumatra. Plantations spread across the Pacific to New Guinea, the New Hebrides, Samoa and the Philippines.

While several European companies were rising stars in the chocolate field, two US-based chocolate companies would become titans in the world of cacao. Hershey’s Chocolate was founded in 1895 by Milton Hershey, and their eventual arch-rival Mars Co was founded by Frank Mars in 1922. Both companies would become huge, and both would generate not only mountains of chocolate products, but staggering wealth as well. Not surprisingly, the rivalry between Hershey’s and Mars boils on to this day. At almost double the retail sales of Hershey’s, Mars is the big gorilla in the world of cocoa. Both companies are leaders in cocoa research. Each has delved deeply into the compounds in cocoa, their biological activity, and their health benefits. It is Mars, though, that has done the most thorough job of patenting findings related to cocoa. Their patents on methods of cocoa processing and the sale of cocoa products for health benefits are vast, broad and restrictive, and it is only a matter of time before there is a major legal showdown between Mars and entities who believe that their patent goes too far.

Today cocoa is consumed widely throughout Europe and the Americas, and to a lesser extent in other parts of the world. Large commercial cacao plantations operate in the Ivory Coast, Brazil, Ghana, Malaysia, Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ecuador, Columbia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Papua New Guinea. Annual cocoa bean yield is at about three-and-a-half million tons per year, as of 2010. The US, Germany, France, the UK, and Russia are the largest consuming areas for cocoa, in that order. Small cocoa plantations can be found in just about every other tropical location large or small. Cocoa, the food of the gods and the electuary of lovers, has captivated humanity with its exotic flavor and sensuous mouth feel. Well done, bravo! Cocoa is the heroic delight, the preferred food of children and poets alike. The world would be a poorer place if not for heavenly cocoa!

See also Cocoa, Food of The Gods, our Cocoa Hub Page.