A Brief History Of Cacao: Where Does Chocolate Come From And How Is It Made?

July 7, 2021
A Brief History of Cacao: Where does Chocolate Come From And How Is It Made?


Origins of the word “chocolate” trace back to the Aztec Nahuatl word “xocoatl”, which referred to a bitter drink brewed from cacao beans. The Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, means “food of the gods”. Cacao trees are grown in hot, tropical regions approximately 10 degrees above and below the equator. This area is known as the “cacao belt”. Starting from a seed, Cacao trees take 5 years to begin producing cacao pod which is the product used to make chocolates. Once matured, each tree can produce roughly 20-30 pods a year and each pod contains 30-45 cacao beans.


Chocolate originated in Mesoamerica in the early civilizations of the Olmecs and Mayans. The Olmec, one of the earliest civilizations in Latin America, was the first to turn the cacao plant into chocolate. They drank their chocolate during rituals and used it as medicine. Centuries later, the Mayans praised it as the drink of the gods. Mayan chocolate was a revered brew made of roasted and ground cacao seeds mixed with chilies, water, and cornmeal. 

By the 15th century, the Aztecs used cocoa beans as currency and valued greater than gold. They believed that cacao was a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl, and drank it as a refreshing beverage, an aphrodisiac, and even to prepare for war. 


While individual responsibility for the introduction of this sweet treat to European civilizations is largely speculated, it is confirmed that when it reached Europe it initially arrived in Spain. By the late 1500s and early 1600s, it had spread across Europe beginning the period known as chocolate mania. In 1828 Coenraad Johannes van Houten, a Dutch chemist created the Dutch processing which was used to convert cacao into “Dutch cocoa” or cacao powder. This process increased the affordability of chocolates and also increased its accessibility for all.


Before the invention of “Dutch processing”, chocolate was a luxury only the wealthy could afford. The industrial revolution modernized the production of chocolates; improved efficiency and lowered production costs. The modern vision and taste of chocolate you envision today was born! 


The process to produce chocolate from a cacao pod begins with cacao beans scooped out of the pod. They are then fermented for 2 – 8 days depending on the type of bean and the level of flavor and aroma. After the fermentation process, the cacao beans are left to sun-dry which can take 1 – 2 weeks. During this drying process, the cacao bean’s color changes from reddish-brown to dark brown. Then the beans are cleaned and roasted. It is only after roasting that the distinctive, chocolate aroma becomes pronounced. 

Afterward, the shells are removed to produce cacao nibs which are then ground up to produce a raw paste called chocolate liquor. Next, it gets refined further through a process known as conching. This step is when manufacturers add sweeteners and the chocolate’s consistency smooths out. The final step is tempering which is what allows the chocolate to snap rather than crumble when broken. 


Different forms and flavors are produced by varying the quantities of the different ingredients. Other flavors can be obtained by varying the time and temperature when roasting the beans such as:

  • Milk chocolates
  • Dark chocolates
  • White chocolates
  • Ruby chocolates
  • Raw chocolates
  • Compound chocolates
  • Modeling chocolates

The three common types of chocolates are dark, milk, and white. Dark chocolate is the most bitter of the three with less addition of ingredients other than cacao. Milk chocolate is the most popular and contains about 10-50% of cocoa. White chocolate is made entirely without cocoa bits. Just like the different types of chocolates, there is a variety of cacao trees that alter the flavor of the finished product. Furthermore, depending on when cacao pods are harvested the shells can vary in color from yellow, green, and red. 


Amongst the different types of chocolates, dark chocolate has a high concentration of cacao content which is rich in fibers, iron, magnesium, copper, and a few other minerals. Studies have shown that dark chocolate can help improve blood flow which lowers blood pressure and may also have an impact on reducing heart disease.


Since its early discovery, chocolate has impacted and shaped our society in many ways. From being used for medicinal purposes or bringing a sweetened delight to others, it continues to influence various aspects of many cultures throughout the world. However, as chocolate’s popularity has grown so has the demand. Modern-day production of chocolates comes at a cost. As many cacao farmers struggle to make ends meet, some turn to low-wage or slave labor (sometimes acquired by child trafficking) to stay competitive. This has prompted grassroots efforts for large companies to reconsider how they get their cocoa supply. It’s also resulted in appeals for more “fair trade” chocolate which is created ethically and sustainably. 

The next time you take a bite of your preferred sweet and aromatic delicious chocolate, take a moment to savor the sweet taste of chocolate’s history. What is your favorite type of chocolate? Did you enjoy this article? Feel free to leave us a comment below!


    1. Hello Jacob!

      Thanks for reading! That is a great question! We will write this down for a future blog to answer that question.

      Have a great day!
      Soma Tech Intl

  1. How much chili pepper is in Mayan chocolate I have been looking for a while but haven’t found any thing

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