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An Industrial History of Chocolate

A chocolate factor in Luton, 1913

What do you know about the history of chocolate processing? How chocolate is made can be a bit opaque, but luckily we have this page explaining it. But chocolate wasn’t always made this way! Read on to find out more about the industrial history of chocolate.

At Cocoa Runners, we’re all about small-batch chocolate and old-fashioned ways of doing things. But the way we experience chocolate has, undeniably, been formed by a series of industrial developments stretching back almost two centuries.

We want you to know how chocolate works, and that means understanding the history of the machines and inventions in chocolate processing that allow chocolate to be what we know it as today. That’s why we’ve produced this handy timeline of major industrial developments in chocolate production!

1828 – The Cocoa Press

Early chocolate was mostly consumed as hot chocolate. Ground cocoa beans were dissolved in hot milk or water, and enjoyed. The problem with this was that cocoa beans are very fatty, and fat does not dissolve. This cocoa fat, known as cocoa butter, got stuck in people’s beards and generally caused a lot of hassle.

Thankfully, in 1828, a major development in the history of chocolate processing helped solve this problem! A Dutch inventor and heir to a chocolate-making firm named Coenraad van Houten created a machine for pressing the fat from cocoa beans. This allowed for the separation of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. This paved the way for chocolate as we know it! Cocoa butter is the main ingredient in white chocolate, while cocoa solids are the key for milk and dark chocolate. Defatted cocoa solids are more stable and easier to work with than full-fat chocolate.

Centuries later, Van Houtens’ invention was scaled up to an industrial level for the mass-production of chocolate! Photo of workers operating hydraulic presses at the E&S CWS Luton Cocoa Works, c.1913.

1847 – The Chocolate Bar

In the mid 1800s, Van Houtens’s used the cocoa press to create a new ingenious invention that would change the industrial history of chocolate forever. After separating cocoa fat from cocoa solids, an English chocolatier named Joseph Fry had a counterintuitive idea. He melted both substances, and mixed a little bit of cocoa fat back into the cocoa solids. This allowed him to create a solid bar of chocolate, which could be eaten, rather than drunk. In 1847, Fry began selling these bars commercially, and they became a huge success! Chocolate (almost) as we know it was born!

An advertisement for Fry’s chocolate from 1912…chocolate bars had moved on a long way by then, but Fry’s remained a market leader in the UK.

1875 – Milk Chocolate

Milk chocolate is now the most popular type of chocolate, but it’s a relative latecomer in the history of chocolate processing. It was first created in 1875. It was the result of an unlikely partnership between Daniel Peter, a Swiss chocolatier, and his neighbour Henri Nestlé, a pharmacist.

In the 1870s, Henri Nestlé was known for quite a different invention. He was a successful manufacturer of an early form of baby formula. The process of condensing milk had been discovered in 1820. Nestlé had developed a version of the technique which he used to create powdered milk. This powder could be mixed with boiling water to create a nutritious feed for babies who could not be breastfed.

Meanwhile Nestlé’s neighbour Daniel Peter was attempting to create solid chocolate enriched with milk. Hot chocolate mixed with milk was already being sold commercially, and had been popular since the 17th century. But solid milk chocolate was an altogether trickier proposition. Chocolate does not react well to water, and it was impossible to combine liquid milk with cocoa solids and cocoa butter.

Luckily for Peter, Nestlé’s powdered milk proved to be the solution! The dehydrated milk could be easily mixed with cocoa butter and cocoa solids, creating solid milk chocolate for the first time!

1879 – Conching

In the late 19th century, a twist in the industrial history of chocolate came when an invention appeared which revolutionised way we make (and eat) chocolate. It was a machine called the conche, which grinds cocoa particles extra small. The rapid mixing and grinding of the machine also distributes the cocoa butter evenly throughout the newly liquified chocolate, ensuring consistency of silky texture in the solid bar. 

Conching helps give chocolate its characteristic melt and snap, and its creamy mouthfeel. However, if you conche for too long, the cocoa particles become too small and the cocoa butter takes over, giving a cloying mouthfeel. Equally, unconched chocolate remains popular in South and Central America. Taza, one of the chocolate makers we work with, specialise in unrefined stone-ground chocolate bars, made without conching. These bars have a grainy, gritty texture, a bit like eating tiffin – it’s different to the chocolate we’re used to, but equally delicious. 

The conche was invented in 1879 by Rodolphe Lindt. You might recognise that name, as Lindt is now a brand-name, with his contribution to the history of chocolate processing largely forgotten. Lindt built a chocolate empire from his invention, which still continues today. The story told about Lindt’s discovery of the conche is that it was a happy accident. Supposedly, Lindt made a mistake, and left his grinder on over the weekend. When he returned, he found that the chocolate had been ground extremely finely, and was less granular and more aromatic than usual. Whether or not the story is true, Lindt’s fine-grinding conche was a huge success, and made his fortune!

To see what a difference the conche made to chocolate, why not try some unconched chocolate, to get a feel for what chocolate was like before Lindt’s invention.

1890s – Industrialisation

It was only in the 1890s that all these older inventions came into their own, as the history of chocolate processing began was turbocharged by the scaling up of chocolate production. Before then, chocolate had mostly been made manually, with workers grinding cocoa on stone tables. Mechanisation was limited, and was mostly in the form of small hydraulic machines. Before the 1890s, industrialisation could be costly to business. The British company Fry’s had mechanised too fast too quickly in the early 1900s, and their business suffered as a result. In pre-industrial chocolate workshops, one labourer could make around 10kg of chocolate per day. By contrast, when mechanisation really kicked in in the 1890s, one worker could produce around 500kg of chocolate paste.

German engineers pioneered new machinery for making chocolate. It was this machinery that inspired the entrepreneur Milton Hershey to move away from the caramel business and begin making eating chocolate in the USA. (See the section on lipolysis to find out what happened next!) The industrialisation of chocolate-making and the proliferation of factories continued into the early 20th century. It was aided by the rise in chocolate confection, and ‘eating chocolate’ becoming a staple snack. Increasingly, chocolate became an affordable commodity product, and industrialisation was crucial in allowing this transformation.

1912 – The Maillard Reaction

One of the key processes in chocolate production is the roasting of cocoa beans. Cocoa beans have been roasted since prehistory. The writings of the Spanish conquistadors record that the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica knew that unroasted cocoa could make people sick, while roasted cocoa had health benefits. This is likely because roasting cocoa at high temperatures kills off harmful microorganisms which may have grown on the fermenting pods. Roasting is also important for reducing the water content of cocoa, and improving its taste (it helps reduce astringency and bitterness).

Since roasting cocoa is almost as old as cocoa itself, 1912 is a bit of an arbitrary date. We chose it because it’s the year that French chemist Louis Camille Maillard identified the reaction which takes place during cocoa roasting. The Maillard reaction had an immense, if indirect, impact on the history of chocolate processing. The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction involving amino acids and sugars which is responsible for the delicious, complex flavours of food cooked at high temperatures (from around 140 to 165°C). Understanding the Maillard reaction allows modern craft chocolate producers to carefully control the roasting of their beans, creating the perfect flavours.

1921 – Lecithins

In 1907, a German scientist named Dr. H. C. Buer filed a patent for lecithin made from vegetable seeds. Lecithin could already be made from eggs, but the invention of vegetable lecithin was a major step forward in the history of chocolate processing.

Lecithins are emulsifiers, which help to bind together fats and liquids. In chocolate, lecithins are used to bind together cocoa butter and cocoa solids, preventing the mixture from splitting. They help ensure it retain the smooth texture created by the conching process. It also reduces the chance of bloom occurring when chocolate is stored incorrectly.

The real game-changer for lecithins came in 1921, when Hermann Bollmann, a factory-owner from Hamburg, began making lecithins from soybeans. Soya lecithin was cheap and easily accessible, and its main commercial uses were for margarine and chocolate. In 1925, Bollmann brought his invention to Britain, where he marketed it for use specifically in chocolate. He was aiming to make a contribution to the industrial history of chocolate. Bollmann applied for (and was granted) a patent for ‘an improved process for producing soluble cocoa powders’, by mixing them with lecithins.

Lecithins are a complicated issue in craft chocolate. Mass-produced chocolate uses lecithin to reduce the amount of cocoa butter needed, making chocolate cheaper (and reducing the quality). Many craft chocolate producers avoid lecithins, but natural lecithins can still be useful for maintaining chocolate’s smooth, melting finish. They are also important for chocolate processed where it is grown, as the tropical climates which are good for growing cocoa are often too hot to easily process it without the help of lecithins.

Read more about lecithins in the science section of chocopedia!

1925 – Couverture

Belgium is a country whose name is synonymous with chocolate. But what did the Belgians do to deserve that reputation? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer lies in contributions that Belgian chocolatiers made to the industrial history of chocolate production in the early 20th century. In 1912, Jean Neuhaus invented a new genre of chocolate in the form of the Belgian praline, a smooth shaped shell filled with sweet confections, often involving nuts. 

The proliferation of Belgian chocolate truffles was made possible by another far more important invention. In 1925, Belgian chocolatier Octaaf Callebaut invented a mechanism for the storage and transport of couverture chocolate in liquid form.

Couverture is the term in the chocolate industry for a semi-finished chocolate product, created after the initial roasting and grinding, but before tempering and other processes. Couverture chocolate has a high percentage of cocoa solids and cocoa butter left in it, so is often seen as being ‘high quality’. (We believe the only truly high quality chocolate is craft chocolate, and you can find out why here.)

Easy access to liquid couverture chocolate transformed the history of chocolate processing, and changed the way the modern industry operates. Now, chocolatiers can take this ‘raw’ chocolate product and temper and mould it themselves. This saves chocolatiers from having to go through the laborious process of turning cocoa beans into chocolate. Callebaut’s invention allowed commercial chocolatiers to focus on other aspects of chocolate, such as creating interesting fillings. It also made it easier for other food manufacturers to use chocolate in their products, adding it to cakes, ice creams, cereals and biscuits. Couverture was so successful that, a hundred years on, Callebaut’s business is almost entirely dedicated to selling it.

Couverture’s Impact

Callebaut’s invention was ingenious, but it also paved the way for inferior quality chocolate products. It was chocolate’s equivalent of the invention of standardised, mechanised fast food and ready-meals. We might explain the difference between chocolate made using pre-prepared couverture and chocolate made from scratch by using the analogy of a roast chicken and chicken nuggets.Chocolate ‘makers’ (chocolatiers) who use couverture are doing something similar to staff in the kitchen of a fast-food chain.

A home cook might take the raw ingredient of a chicken and carefully prepare and cook it themselves. Similarly, the craft chocolate makers we work with at cocoa runners take cocoa beans and lovingly process them into chocolate, controlling each step. Chocolatiers and fast-food chains outsource this processing, reheating (or tempering) pre-prepared, industrially processed products. They never set eyes on the raw chicken, or the freshly-picked cocoa bean.

All that being said, couverture chocolate can be really useful. It’s helpful if you want to experiment with chocolate for yourself, or use it in home cooking or baking. However, most commercially available couverture is industrially produced, and its supply chains are decidedly murky. Luckily we at cocoa runners have a range of couverture products available, so you can cook with truly high quality chocolate!

1930s – Lipolysis

This contribution to the history of chocolate processing is one we really don’t condone, but it’s too interesting to ignore! If you’ve ever tried mass-produced American milk chocolate, you might have noticed that it has a slightly sour tang. Some have even compared this taste to vomit! Surprisingly, that’s because the compound which causes the taste, butyric acid, is also present in baby sick (and parmesan). 

Butyric acid is a by-product of decomposing dairy products. When milk spoils, it breaks down, and butyric acid is one of the chemicals produced. Butyric acid is responsible for the cheesy smell of off milk, and the sour stench of rancid butter. 

But what’s it doing in chocolate?

Butyric acid is present in most American chocolate because of an industrial innovation by the grandfather of Big Chocolate in America, MIlton S. Hershey. Hershey, the founder of Hershey’s chocolate, began making chocolate in a different way to his European peers. As we read about with Henri Nestlé and Daniel Peter, European milk chocolate was produced using condensed milk. 

Is happiness really to be found in a Hershey’s bar…?

Condensed milk didn’t work for Hershey; its shelf life wasn’t long enough. Instead, he decided to use fresh milk. But of course, fresh milk lasts even less long than condensed milk! To make his milk chocolate shelf-stable, Hershey had to do something new to stop the milk going off. Something never done before in the whole industrial history of chocolate processing. He created a process called the ‘Hershey Process’, of controlled lipolysis.

Lipolysis is the name for the chemical reaction that happens when milk spoils. Hershey essentially spoiled his milk deliberately, just enough that the off taste wouldn’t be too noticeable, and the milk would be protected from fermentation. This reaction gave off butyric acid, and is responsible for the sour taste of Hershey’s chocolate.

Hershey was able to pull off this ruse because Americans weren’t as used to chocolate as Europeans were. They simply didn’t know what chocolate was supposed to taste like! The vomit-like tang of Hershey’s chocolate became synonymous with milk chocolate in America. Nowadays, other American mass-market chocolate makers even add butyric acid, to mimic Hershey’s distinct flavour!

1936 – White Chocolate

White chocolate was made possible by the Van Houten cocoa press, which enabled the separation of cocoa solids used for dark chocolate from cocoa fat, the raw material for white chocolate.  For about a century, cocoa butter was a waste product. Some was sold on for pharmaceuticals and confectionary, but it was expensive and had too high a melting point to be really useful. Luckily, white chocolate came along and restored cocoa butter to its rightful place in the history of chocolate processing. Nowadays, white chocolate production is one of the main uses of cocoa butter.

While recipes for white chocolate can be found dating back to the 1870s, it really became its own category of chocolate in 1936, when Nestlé’s Milkybar hit the shelves. Nestlé’s white chocolate began life in 1929 as ‘Nestrovit’, a multivitamin product aimed at the children’s health market. However, the sweet, fatty confection caught on as a treat rather than a treatment! Since then, white chocolate has been popular but divisive, loved by some and hated by others. 

1950s – Bliss Point

In the middle of the 20th century, advances in food science paved the way for radical change in the history of chocolate processing. In the 1950s, an American scientist named Harold Moskowitz was doing research into nutrition for the American military. He was trying to work out how to convince soldiers to finish their pre-prepared meals. Moskowitz discovered that people have a natural sense of satiety, an ability to know when we’re full. He also found that humans crave variety; too much of the same flavours and textures gets boring.

Moskowitz discovered what he called the ‘bliss point’. This is a perfect combination of salt, fat, sugar and diverse textures which overrides our innate sense of satiety. Foods which operate at the bliss point make it difficult for us to know when we’re full. We just keep eating, beyond what’s good for us. Milk chocolate always teeters on the edge of the bliss point, with its combination of crunchy snap, silky smoothness, sweetness and fat. Food scientists working on the formulas for mass-produced chocolate exploit this, creating chocolate bars tailored to the bliss point. 

Mass-produced chocolate’s reach for the bliss point exemplifies the commodification of chocolate. From the mid 20th century onwards, chocolate became big business. Chocolate companies turned away from taste and quality towards efficiency and cheapness. New innovations followed, such as nib roasting, where beans are pre-cracked into nibs before they are roasted. Altogether, chocolate-making became a smooth and streamlined operation, prioritising cheapness and consumer appeal. 

In the process, the complexity of taste and flavour which we love about craft chocolate got lost.

In Conclusion…

As you can see, industrial innovations are always a mix of the good and the bad. Sometimes, what they offer is helpful. For example, the delicious smoothness of many craft chocolates couldn’t be produced without conching, and white chocolate couldn’t be enjoyed without the cocoa press. But often, there is also a flipside. While couverture opens up marvellous possibilities for cooking with chocolate, it also complicates supply chains, and has led to a situation where most chocolate ‘makers’ have no idea where their chocolate comes from at all! And some inventions – like the Hershey Process – are, in our opinion, plainly bad! 

The truth is that Big Chocolate will always find ways to skimp on quality and maximise profits. We would invite you to try craft chocolate, and see how industrial innovations can be used for good!

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