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How fermenting beer lead our ancestors to discover chocolate

a.i. generated image of beer and cocoa

How did beer, teosinte, and chicha, lead to bread, corn, and chocolate?.

One of the great unexplained mysteries of chocolate is how humans worked out just how to make nutritious and delicious drinking chocolate out of unappetising, astringent, and bitter cacao seeds.

Over the past few decades archaeologists, paleobotanists, and anthropologists have posited an intriguing theory. They suggest that drinking chocolate was discovered as a by-product, or accidental follow-up, to our delight in drinking cocoa pulp, and in particular, our fascination for fermented cocoa pulp; ‘cocoa chicha’, a light beer that is still drunk all over South and Central America.

And this fits well with a broader suggestion that fermented alcohol, made from grapes and grains, gave rise to the first agricultural revolutions all over the world, thereby putting us on the path to civilization.

Fermentation of Fruits and Grains as the Basis of Civilization?

Once upon a time, historians believed that ‘civilization’ started when humans upgraded from living as nomadic hunter-gatherers to becoming sedentary farmers who learned to grow plants, farm grains, domesticate animals, make bread, build towns, etc. …who then went on to discover the delights of beer, wine, chicha and other alcoholic beverages.

Over the last few decades this view has been challenged. For example, a number of archaeologists have suggested that Göbekli Tepe in Turkey (described by UNESCO as one of the first manifestations of human-made monumental architecture” and dating back to around 9000 BC) was a temple where nomadic peoples would gather to celebrate with beer and various alcoholic porridges. They then further suggest that as a by-product of figuring out how to brew this beer, palaeolithic hunter-gatherers started farming and baking bread. Or as Edward Slingerland neatly summarises it “beer [came] before bread …[and] Neolithic, alcohol-fueled raves gave rise to civilization“!

A similar set of hypotheses are now being advanced for how Mesoamerican civilizations figured out how to cultivate maize (aka corn) from teosinte. Mayan, Aztec, and Inca civilisations all enjoyed various alcoholic drinks, including a beer brewed from teosinte. For a long period, scientists thought that teosinte was a separate plant to maize, but this view has now been corrected. In parallel, scientists have also shown not just how Mayan civilization worked out how to make beer from teosinte but that in their efforts to improve crop yields, they selectively bred bigger-eared teosinte, which evolved into maize; accidentally creating the bedrock of the modern diet: Corn.

Cocoa Pulp, Chicha/Beer, and Chocolate

The same trajectory from ‘delighting in booze’ may explain the discovery of drinking chocolate.

It may well be that the drinking chocolate celebrated by the Aztecs and Olmecs, and then brought back to Europe in the late 16th Century, also emerged as a by-product of (alcoholic) fermented cocoa pulp (‘cocoa chicha’). That is to say, the palaeolithic inhabitants of Mesoamerica first made chicha from cocoa pulp when they worked out that it easily fermented into a light alcoholic beverage. And then, as a by-product of this fermentation, the Olmecs (and maybe their predecessors) discovered that this fermentation also turned the incredibly bitter and astringent cacao seeds into nutritious and flavourful cocoa beans.

ne intriguing argument for this run of events is from an analysis of pottery fragments from Puerto Escondido, in the lower Ulúa Valley in northern Honduras, which date back to 500-1100 BC. When John Henderson and Rosemary Joyce analysed these pottery shards in the early 2000s they discovered that many contained residue of theobromine; the telltale sign of cocoa fermentation. The earliest pots, which date back to 1100 BC, have necks that would have made pouring any liquid to generate the desired ‘cocoa froth’ exceedingly difficult (the Aztecs treasured above all the froth from drinking chocolate; Montezuma consumed the FROTH of fifty cups of chocolate; he didn’t drink them). However, the later pots, dating from 900 BC, have longer necks that could have easily created cocoa foam and they also contain traces of spices and peppers which we know were used by the Mayans and Aztecs to add flavour to their cocoa drinks (the earlier pottery shards just contain theobromine). In other words, drinking chocolate came AFTER fermented cocoa pulp.

Earlier long-necked pots would have been used for beer/chicha making from 1100 BC.
Pots with shorter, wider necks were used for making the frothed chocolate drink after 900 BC.

📷: PNAS/National Academy of Sciences.

Since this work was published in the early 2000s, archaeologists and paleobotanists have discovered even earlier examples of pottery with traces of theobromine that date back to 3500 BC in Santa Ana La Florida in Ecuador. However, it’s not yet clear whether the people living there, named as the Chinchipe Maya, were brewing cocoa pulp ‘chicha beer’ or crafting ‘drinking chocolate’ (or both). So we can’t definitively assert that the earliest known consumers of fermented cocoa pods, the Chinchipe Maya, started off by first drinking fermented cocoa pulp. But it certainly provides a credible explanation for how Mesoamericans worked out that fermentation, followed by drying, winnowing, grinding, and the addition of spices, vanilla, and some water, could make a nutritious filling drink from incredibly bitter, astringent cacao seeds.

You can try cacao pulp yourself! Straight out of a cocoa pod, the sweet, nutritious, and flavoursome pulp can be used to make all sorts of curious drinkable concoctions!

Other Arguments for Alcohols’ Roles in ‘Civilizing’ Mankind

Although many of us delight in beer, wine, and other alcohols, the dangers of alcohol are also well documented. This has led scientists to try and understand the evolutionary benefits of fermenting grains and fruits into alcohol.

The ‘standard’ argument that beer is safer to drink than unpurified water is now looked at with some scepticism as it’s generally easier to boil water than ferment beer, chicha etc. Although when travelling to certain parts of the world, bottles of beer may well be a better option than water (and ice) that are new to you and your digestive system.

Back in the early 2000s, Robert Dudley posited an alternative theory for our love affair with alcohol under the arresting title of “The Drunken Monkey”. Dudley suggests that both humans and monkeys use the smell of ethanol (i.e. alcohol) to find ripe and fermenting fruit, which was otherwise often hard to find (possibly including cocoa). And once they’d found this valuable fruit, our sour taste receptors help us distinguish between ‘good fermentation’ and ‘bad bacterial rotting’ to pick out the alcoholic fermented fruits. Dudley also notes; “ethanol consumed during the course of frugivory may act as an appetite stimulant“, that is to say, we want to eat more after consuming alcohol, and getting ‘the munchies’ around fruit can clearly be a good thing.

cocao beans and pulp fermenting

Researcher Edward Slingerland, mentioned above, also adds this:

“…intoxication [through alcohol] helps solve a number of distinctively human challenges: Enhancing creativity, alleviating stress, building trust, and pulling off the miracle of getting fiercely tribal primates to cooperate with strangers. Our desire to get drunk, along with the individual and social benefits provided by drunkenness, played a crucial role in sparking the rise of the first large-scale societies. We would not have civilization without intoxication“.

Slingerland’s basic argument is that alcohol, at low levels, helps humans overcome some of the disadvantages of our prefrontal cortex; that bit of our brain responsible for “grown up, pragmatic, rational thinking“. The prefrontal cortex is the slowest part of humans to develop (taking around 20 years from birth). And while the prefrontal cortex clearly helps us step back, pause, ponder, and reflect in an adult-like way, the prefrontal cortex also makes us more inhibited and cautious. This ‘stepping back’ can discourage cooperation and challenge creativity; indeed, many societies, and even companies, use alcohol to get around these problems. For example, Microsoft, in the early 2000s, coined the so-called “Ballmer Peak”, named after the ex-CEO of Microsoft, who discovered that coders are at their most “creative” when their “blood alcohol level is at between  0.129% and 0.138%. And according to Slingerland, Google also has special Scotch whisky bars for coders who are stuck and need something more than caffeine to solve a problem.

Alcohol also encourages bonding and severely inhibits lying (the latter requires too much concentration for most people when inebriated). Hence its powerful role in building bonds and trust.


Slingerland, and almost every other scientist in this area, goes to great lengths to stress that these benefits come from drinking alcohol in moderation, and with other people. They note that the beers and chichas of Göbekli Tepe and Puerto Escondido were very low by today’s standards. And they are careful to warn of the dangers of alcoholism and excessive inebriation, especially from strong spirits, and from drinking alone.

Resources and further reading:

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What is Ceremonial Cacao?

ai generated image of a cartoon cacao ceremony

You might not YET have heard of ‘ceremonial cacao’. But you probably soon will, especially if you are into yoga, meditation or mindfulness.

All over the world, yoga retreats, mindfulness centres, and sober raves are incorporating ceremonial cacao into their activities. All sorts of benefits are being claimed and all sorts of new rituals being practised.

So where did this trend emerge from? What is a ‘cacao ceremony‘, and what is ‘ceremonial cacao‘?

We’ve dug around in the history, habits, and claims of ceremonial cacao, and we’ve been intrigued, amazed and bemused. There’s a lot to like, and to celebrate, within this trend, BUT there is also a lot to be sceptical about, and some important caveats.

Join us as we untangle and define ‘ceremonial cacao’ as a product, advise where you can find ‘the good stuff’, and avoid some of the more outrageous claims. And we recommend specific bars, powders, and buttons that you can use in your next cacao ceremony.

Old World Ceremonial Cacao

The civilisations destroyed by the conquistadors; the Aztecs, Incas, Mayans, were extraordinary.

The Mayan calendar dates back at least 2,000 years and is so accurate that their calendar correction is 10,000th of a day more exact than the standard calendar the world uses today. Despite not using the wheel, Inca runners could transport fresh fish from the seas hundreds of miles inland to their imperial courts within a day. The Mayans built extraordinary cities with stepped pyramids, on the same scale as those in Egypt, that are being discovered to this day.

ruins of mayan buildings in belize

These civilizations made extensive use of cacao. Cacao was so treasured, and of such high value, that it was used as a unit of currency; indeed this is what Columbus mistook them for when he first came across these “almond shaped” beans on his fourth voyage. And cacao beans continued to be used as currency up until the early 19th century. All sorts of ceremonies, from weddings to giving birth, from ritual sacrifices through to moving house, involved cacao. And the Catholic Church co-opted cacao and drinking chocolate into many of its festivals and feasts.

Cacao was believed to have medicinal properties; everything from boosting sexual stamina to settling the stomach. Two key historical documents of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, The Florentine Codex (1590) and The Badianus Manuscript (1552) contain numerous references to “customary uses” and ceremonies involving cacao to address illnesses as diverse as: “angina, constipation, dental problems (tartar removal), dysentery, dyspepsia/indigestion, fatigue, gout, the heart (overheated), haemorrhoids and lactation difficulties” (intriguingly cacao was NOT seen as a solution to the likes of “beriberi, pellagra, rickets or scurvy”).

But the conquistadors’ destruction of Aztec and Incan aristocracies, enslavement of locals, the disaster of smallpox, and all the other horrors; makes piecing together how cacao was venerated in rituals, or prescribed as a medicine, far from easy!

illustration of blinded characters trying to identify an elephant

Small fragments of written documents have survived. And some indigenous tribes have managed to continue some of their ceremonies, rituals, and traditions. But piecing it all together is reminiscent of the parable of the blind men each being allowed to touch one part of the elephant and coming away with completely different impressions, rather than seeing the whole elephant. And in the case of ceremonial cacao, we are talking about LOTS of elephants: Different tribes, even in the same geographies, had very different traditions.

There are some ceremonies (for example the Japanese tea ceremony) where a centuries old tradition is clearly documented and, still studiously followed today. With ceremonial cacao, we just don’t have a full understanding, but we do have a bunch of intriguing customs that are now loosely grouped under the term ‘ceremonial cacao’.

Modern Day Ceremonial Cacao in Latin America

Just as the Americas’ indigenous peoples celebrated cacao and drank chocolate in many ways, the same is true today. Their descendants still use, and venerate, cacao in many ceremonies for very different purposes across Central and South America, from Mexico to Guatemala, Colombia to Panama. Anthropologists continue to document uses of cacao in ceremonies that vary from celebrating the birth of a child, marking the new year, venerating the rainforest and addressing a host of physical, psychological and metaphysical issues.

In the early 2000s, several intrepid travellers became intrigued by these traditions and ceremonies, in particular by those being celebrated by various Mayan peoples in Guatemala and Belize. Many of these cacao ceremonies are presided over by elders who have been continuing multi-generational ritual and traditions. These elders use cacao medicinally, and in ceremonies to help move people on from spiritual blockages to improve their physical and psychological well-being. And they venerate the key role cacao plays in preserving the rainforest.

Projects like the Mayan Wisdom Project and self-styled chocolate shamans like Keith Wilson have begun sharing these ceremonies, ideas and practices with global, non-indigenous audiences. Arguably the Mayan calendar played a key role here as 2012 marked the start of a fifth long term cycle where outsiders can be told more about Mayan customs.

Modern Day Ceremonial Cacao in The West

Studying, and preserving, these ceremonies is clearly to be lauded. But the use of terms like “chocolate shamans”, “inner magic”, “cacao spirit”, has raised some eyebrows.

And anthropologists have criticized some of the ‘ceremonies’ held by these ‘shamans’ as being VERY far from removed from the current ceremonies practiced by the descendants of the Inca, Maya, Aztecs, etc. today, and from the practices at the time of the Spanish conquest.

Indeed, some of cacao ceremonies are, to be blunt, quite “mad” (whatever you read, chocolate is NOT a natural psychedelic) and sometimes even “bad” (beware the unscrupulous sellers of ceremonial cacao who are vague about the source of their cacao).

But to continue the metaphors; we should be careful not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”.

There is a lot about ceremonial cacao which is A GOOD THING. Drinking high quality chocolate at a sober rave, meditation circle, yoga retreat etc. has lots and lots of benefits.

And ceremonial cacao often overlaps with craft chocolate in its sourcing, crafting, ethics and ambitions. For example; Pablo of Forever Cacao stresses the importance that ceremonial cacao “respect the plant, know the growers and thank them” … and you can use the occasion to “unwind physically and metaphysically to relax”.

What is Ceremonial Cacao, as a Product?

This is a tricky question to answer, and not helped by some of the ‘fluffy’ terms used by ceremonial cacao to describe what they use.

In most cases, ceremonial cacao comes in the form of solid blocks which are then mixed with water (and sometimes other sweeteners, herbs, spices, and chilis) to produce a drink used in self-styled ‘cacao ceremonies’.

Try some of our powders and buttons for your next cacao ceremony:

Unlike, say, speciality coffee, there is no standard definition or ‘Q grading’ for ceremonial cacao. It’s more like matcha, where companies will market their products with labels like “culinary”, “every day” and “ceremonial”. To the cynical, “ceremonial-grade matcha” is a marketing term; it’s a way to have consumers pay a bit more. (And in the case of chocolate, the VAT rates will be different as products sold for “cooking” can avoid a VAT surcharge).

Nonetheless, there are some commonly accepted best practices as to what constitutes  ceremonial cacao. Broadly speaking these are consistent with craft chocolate overall… and to be lauded:

  1. The source of the cocoa beans should be transparent; and the growers/producers paid with long term, sustainable contracts. Unsurprisingly, many of the farms producing ceremonial cacao are the same as those used by craft chocolate makers. Indeed, Pablo Spaul of Forever Cacao, who works directly with the Ashaninka in Peru, sells both craft chocolate and ceremonial cacao.
  2. The cacao shouldn’t have additives; no emulsifiers, preservatives and even no sugar. This is good… even if many of us appreciate a little sugar to reduce the astringency and bitterness of the 100% cocoa, and to bring out some of the beans’ flavour.
  3. The cacao should be “traditionally processed”. Again, this is also better for flavour; avoiding industrial processes which are more about cheapness and efficiency (e.g. adding emulsifiers to speed up machinery, washing the cocoa mass in an alkaline solution, roasting nibs not full beans).

The third condition; “traditionally processed” is arguably the biggest difference between what is sold as ‘ceremonial cacao’ and more common 100% craft chocolate bars, 100% craft cooking chocolate, or even non-alkalinised craft cocoa powder. Practitioners of ceremonial cacao prefer to avoid even conching and tempering their chocolate. They may even skip roasting their chocolate (some craft chocolate makers do this too, such as Raaka).

What isn’t fine, and falls into the “bad” and arguably “mad” categories, are claims by that ceremonial cacaos being “raw” and/or “minimally processed” means they’re “healthier” or “magical”. Read more HERE about ‘raw chocolate’,  but bottom line; there is NO EVIDENCE that not roast, or minimally fermenting, or avoiding conching or tempering, makes chocolate healthier (or magical). If anything, the opposite may be true; roasting chocolate helps kill many of the bad bacteria found in cocoa.

infographic comparing ceremonial cacao and mass-produced chocolate
Ceremonial cacao is a LOT better than mass produced chocolate. But it’s really not that different to craft chocolate 100% bars.

The Good in Ceremonial Cacao

Friend of Cocoa Runners, Pablo Spaul, is one of the great advocates and superstars of ceremonial cacao here in the UK. And without wishing to embarrass him; he is a fantastic ambassador of why ceremonial cacao, and craft chocolate, can be so great. His approach is to focus on what’s really important in chocolate and so much more. When it comes to ceremonial cocoa, there are some really good things worth sharing:

Sharing and Savouring

Without doubt this is one of the good aspects of ceremonial cacao; and why it’s becoming a part of so many meditation and mindfulness events. Drinking ceremonial cacao is now central to everything from ‘sober raves’ to morning yoga classes. Sharing some drinking chocolate is a great way to connect and unwind. Reflecting and giving thanks for the farmers’ work which has gone into your chocolate is also a great way to use ‘mindfulness’. You are also encouraged to savour not scoff; something we care about a lot in craft chocolate.


There is also a tonne of interesting research about the way that ceremonies and rituals improve how we enjoy and benefit from what we consume. But there have been a whole host of studies, for example here are the results of one by the Association of Psychological Science in the US that made extensive use of chocolate showing:

  1. Establishing simple rituals (such as how you unwrap, and then wrap back up a bar of chocolate) can be statistically shown to “enhance the delight in trying a bar of chocolate”.
  2. Slowing down and delaying gratification (i.e. savouring not scoffing) when eating vegetables also enhances the experience and “increases delight” (this study used carrots, but the same is predicted for chocolate).
  3. Personally taking part in the ritual and ceremony, as opposed to watching someone else carry out the key parts of the rituals and ceremony is also important.
  4. Explaining more about the product consumed, also vastly increased people’s enjoyment.


Ceremonial cacao’s stress on knowing, and respecting, the source of the cacao is also clearly a good thing in avoiding all the problems of child labour, deforestation, unfair working practices, desertification, environmental degradation that are sadly so omnipresent in mass produced confectionery. Again, Pablo’s relationship with the Ashaninka of Peru is a fantastic example of this.

Beware some of the more “mad” claims and bad practices:

There are a number of claims that are made for ceremonial cacao that need to be treated with some scepticism.

Many of these “crazy claims” are similar to the health claims made by raw chocolate; and they are equally specious. Whenever you see a website or leaflet about ceremonial cacao going on about the many scientific compounds that make up chocolate (like polyphenols, catechins, phenylethylamine, theobromine, tryptamine, or tryptophan) and then makes claims that seem AMAZING, please be really, really sceptical.

There have been lots of studies (almost all underwritten by ‘big chocolate’) into the health benefits of chocolate. Sadly, many involve too few people to be valid, and their conclusions all too often match the ambitions of their big chocolate sponsors. So whilst there is no doubt that all high percentage, well made chocolate contains lots of wonderful chemicals, many of the claims stretch credulity.

The ‘bioavailability‘ of many of the wonderful chemicals in chocolate is unfortunately very low; that is to say, it’s hard for your body to absorb them; most just pass through your gut. So even though chocolate contains lots of polyphenols; a great antioxidant; you just can’t get enough of them for a significant impact. Similarly, chocolate has the “love drug” phenylethylamine, but sadly it doesn’t work as an aphrodisiac. And even though theobromine, the main stimulant in chocolate, can help lower blood pressure whilst increasing your heart rate, you’d be hard stretched to persuade your doctor to prescribe it to you!

Having said this, there are LOTS of benefits from consuming proper ceremonial cacao (or craft chocolate). They’re a great source of manganese and iron (so great for vegans). And they have a good role in help managing our mealtime appetites. But these benefits aren’t unique to ceremonial cacao: Craft chocolate has them too.

zoe science and nutrition podcase image

Cocoa Runners’ Spencer Hyman talks chocolate’s health effects.

For more detailed discussion on the REAL health implications of chocolate, check out this episode of the ZOE podcast.

zoe science and nutrition podcase image

The Truly Bonkers

Listen to a few of the many podcasts or articles extolling the wonders of ceremonial cacao and sooner or later you’ll come across claims that ceremonial cacao can have psychedelic effects, similar to ayahuasca.

These are bonkers! These claims are normally based on misunderstandings about anandamide, an endogenous cannabinoid that can be found in cocoa. Anandamide is a chemical that our bodies make which mimics the effect of THC, the active ingredient in cannabis. It works by binding to particular receptors in the brain, and anandamide can also bind to them.

However, just consuming chocolate won’t give you a cannabis-like high. As with other chemicals, anandamide in chocolate is not very bioavailable, and isn’t processed in the same way as THC from cannabis. Anandamide in the brain works because the body produces it itself: The word ‘endogenous’ means it’s internally produced. What’s in chocolate is actually an external analogue to anandamide.

So while you may feel super happy and even “high” after a sober rave or meditation session with ceremonial cacao this is not because of any pharmacological aspects of the chocolate. It’s psychological.

…and The Downright Naughty

One of the key tenets of both craft chocolate and ceremonial cacao is working directly, and over the long term, with the bean growers. At Cocoa Runners we sell over 1000 bars and we know not just where all the bars are made, but we also insist on knowing the source of the beans, and sharing this as much as we can. Many ceremonial cacao suppliers and practitioners are equally transparent (again, like Pablo).


But just as there is greenwashing and false marketing in mass produced confectionery (see the recent Channel 4 Dispatches debunking of Cadbury), the same is also sadly evident with ceremonial cacao. 

Try digging into Legacy Cacao’s self declared “fair profit” company for any information on what they pay, or even who they are paying. And their claim that: “Today, there is only one guardian of the original, ancient recipe. This Mayan Priestess has exclusively chosen Legacy Cacao for this sacred calling. It is our privilege to deliver this legacy of love in its purest form from seed to sip”, doesn’t inspire much confidence in their chocolate crafting!

Cultural and Environmental Appropriation

Accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’ are also a major concern. While the likes of the Mayan Wisdom Project are working to share indigenous knowledge, some other companies have been accused of being less careful, and of appropriating indigenous beliefs and practices, adulterating them, rather than authentically seeking to understand and communicate them.

Careless ceremonial cacao sellers are also accused of endangering other plants. For example, many also sell ‘palo santo’. Palo Santo is critically endangered and harvesting it in Peru is illegal. In Ecuador they’re reforesting it. ‘White sage’ is also a problem: Found in northwest Mexico, overharvesting by spiritualists unconnected to indigenous peoples has made it critically endangered.

So check what additives and adulterations, or even just other herbs, are being promoted alongside ceremonial cacao. And just as with craft chocolate in general, make sure you are fully aware of the supply chain that’s delivering the beans in your ceremonial cacao. Push back and ask questions.

A Celebration

Cacao’s history dates back over five millennia. And Carl Linnaeus’ description of the cocoa tree as Theobroma cacao (or “fruit of the gods”) in 1753 hits the nail on the head. We are incredibly lucky to be able to enjoy this fruit of the gods. When the environment is respected, farmers are treated fairly and the cocoa bean crafted to optimise its flavour, the results are truly magical. And it’s great that many practitioners of ceremonial cacao are seeking to harness this philosophy and incorporate it into their sober raves, meditations, yoga retreats and the like.

It’s also great that e.g., Mayan spiritual leaders are being respected for their customs, and that we are learning more about the ways they venerate their environments. There is a tonne we can learn from this.

The same guidelines for purchasing craft chocolate should be used for ceremonial cacao. You should still always check the label, ensure you know exactly what ingredients and steps have been followed and where the beans come from. And whilst you should delight in savouring the ceremony and chocolate, you may also want to be wary about any ‘magical’ claims.

Ceremonial cacao is a great enhancement to any retreat, mindfulness activity or sober rave. And ceremonial cacao is a great reminder that adding some self conscious rituals as to how you savour your chocolate may further enhance your craft chocolate celebrations.

Some suggestions:

If you want to honour the history of Mayan cacao why not try a bar crafted with Lachua beans? These beans were grown by the Q’eqchi’; a Mayan tribe whose ancestors were the first people we know who brought chocolate to Europe in 1544, and whose traditional ceremonies continue to venerate cacao’s environmental importance.

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Who REALLY first brought chocolate to Europe?

cocoa pods on branch

The history of chocolate is; appropriately; rich, complex, and definitely not clear. Everything from how chocolate was consumed and celebrated, to how it first made it to Europe, is shrouded in confusion. For example; although Columbus certainly came across cocoa beans, he doesn’t appear to have realised it could be made into chocolate, and it’s a myth that he was the first to bring it back to Europe.

Much of chocolate’s history with cocoa is also dark and depressing: The conquest of the “New World” and eventual ‘take off’ of chocolate in the “Old World” involves everything from plagues to slavery, and deforestation to desertification.

However, there are some brighter spots; for example, we can now enjoy craft chocolate bars from Lachua, Guatemala, which can trace a lineage back to the first people who brought chocolate to Europe; some Kechi tribal leaders way back in 1544. For more on this history and some of these award winning Lachua bars, please see below and HERE.

New Foods from the New World

The discovery of the “New World” revolutionised food in the “Old World”. Before Columbus, Europe didn’t know about potatoes, tomatoes, chillies, turkeys, corn, maize, vanilla, tobacco, peanuts or; of course; chocolate.

Columbus brought back many of these new foods with him to impress Ferdinand and Isabella, the sponsors of his expeditions. In particular, he was proud of what he called “chili peppers”, as he used these chilis to argue that he had discovered a lucrative new route to the Indies for black pepper. This confusion still persists even though peppers and chilis are very different plants, and the ‘heat’ from piperine (peppers) is very different to the heat from chilis (capsaicin). (For more on this, and some great bars made with both different peppers and different chilis, please see HERE).  

While European (and Asian) desire for chilis took off quickly; it took far longer  for many of these new foods to percolate through into “Old World” diets. For example potatoes didn’t really take off for over two centuries. And even chocolate took a few generations.

Indeed, in the case of cacao and chocolate, it took some time before anyone brought them back to Europe. We know that Columbus and his son came across cocoa beans on his fourth voyage and were amazed at the importance that the Mayans treated these “almond like beans”. But there is no evidence that he witnessed how the Mayans drank chocolate, nor is there any evidence that he brought any cocoa beans, or chocolate, back with him to Europe.

There is also no evidence that Hernán Cortés sent any chocolate back to Europe; although he did describe it in various letters he sent back. This is even more surprising given the fact that his chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo was enamoured with chocolate; gushing over Montezuma consumption of “the froth of fifty cups of chocolate” before visiting his wives. (Indeed, this tale of superhuman stamina may well have been the start of chocolate’s association with aphrodisiacs).

When did chocolate first reach “The Old World”?

The first clearly documented evidence we have of cocoa beans and chocolate being presented to a European court is 1544. Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas brought a delegation of Kekchi (or Q’eqchi) leaders to the court of the future Philip II of Spain, who gave the future monarch a series of gifts including 2000 quetzal feathers, chillies, sarsaparilla and both cocoa beans and chocolate for drinking. Perhaps because the drinking chocolate was served cold (and therefore associated with all sorts of health issues), perhaps because it wasn’t mixed with spices and sweeteners, or perhaps because Philip just didn’t like chocolate, this event was not a ‘eureka moment’ for chocolate in Europe.

It took another generation for Europeans to import cocoa beans in any volume from the New World. And chocolate’s success in the late 1500s appears largely down to its promotion as a great, and tasty, source of nutrition on fast days in Catholic Europe. In medieval and early modern Catholic Europe, over 100 days of the year were ‘fasting days’: All Wednesdays, all Fridays and most saints’ days, plus Lent. On these fasting days, any animal based product; meat, cheese, butter, etc.; was to be avoided. Hot chocolate was therefore promoted as a nutritious and delicious option, especially by the Jesuits, and they even secured papal endorsement for this practise (along with fish on Fridays).

How did cocoa and chocolate fare in the post-conquest “New World”?

Whilst drinking chocolate started a rapid ascent in Europe (and later in the USA and Caribbean), the history of chocolate consumption and cultivation in the conquered “New World” was not nearly as rosy.

One disastrous consequence of the “discovery” of the “New World” was the introduction of various diseases, in particular smallpox, which devastated the populations of the Aztec and Inca Empires, wiping out over 70% of the population in modern day Guatemala and Belize. For more on this tragedy, please see HERE.

Indeed, this is why in the 17th and 18th Centuries cocoa cultivation moved to Ecuador and Venezuela, and away from its traditional heartlands of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize; the combination of smallpox and brutal conquest meant that there weren’t enough people to farm cocoa in areas once famed for their cocoa production.

Ceremonies, Festivals, and Chocolate

These social and political upheavals radically changed not just the way chocolate was farmed, but also how it was consumed and used in celebrations. The Aztec ruling classes, who had consumed cocoa as a core part of their aristocratic lifestyles, were destroyed and many of their chocolate rituals were also abandoned. Given that some of these ceremonies involved human sacrifice, with victims’ hearts cut out with knives dipped in ‘ceremonial cocoa’, some of these ceremonies may not have been sorely missed. But as the indigenous peoples and tribes were brutalised and enslaved, many of their rituals and ceremonies celebrating cacao, the rainforest and their traditional ways of life were destroyed and lost.

In a few cases, some celebrations involving chocolate seem to have survived, and indeed some new rituals have emerged. For example the Ch’orti’ Maya people, based in Eastern Guatemala and Western Honduras, were able to continue to farm cacao despite extensive hardships. And it appears that they managed to preserve some uses of cocoa in religious ceremonies. In pre-Columbian Mayan society, chocolate was a key part of everyday life, woven into the fabric of society. It is still an everyday drink in indigenous Maya culture, and is used in ceremonies to mark milestones in life: The Yucatec Maya use chocolate in coming-of-age rituals to usher girls into adulthood, while the Kekchi Maya in Belize scatter cocoa beans during ceremonies to bless new houses. In the Ch’orti’ culture, where agriculture is still extremely important, chocolate is used in various rain ceremonies, where ritual meals of turkeys and chilate (a gruel made out of cocoa and maize) are consumed.

Amongst the neighbouring Ladino peoples, whose culture combines aspects of their Spanish and indigenous heritage, the Catholic Church co-opted traditional native practices of using chocolate. Hot and cold chocolate drinks made with roasted cocoa beans, cinnamon and sugar are used to celebrate Christmas, the New Year and Easter. (Note: In traditional religious practice, chocolate drinking varied depending on the time of year, according to the Mayan calendar. This switching between hot and cold chocolate drinks caused all sorts of confusion with the European ideas of ‘humours’ and health). Numerous rituals involving cocoa beans and communally sharing chocolate were (and are) also used to celebrate everything from moving house to getting married and even to help mothers recuperate after giving birth.

A Hopeful Story: Lachua Cocoa from the Q’eqchi’ and Mopan Maya

Las Casas had brought the Q’eqchi’ to the court of Philip of Spain in 1544 to counter the idea of forcefully conquering the indigenous peoples, and to show the benefits of “peaceful” cooperation. Sadly, las Casas’ approach was soon abandoned, and the Q’eqchi’ were enslaved to the Spanish colonists, along with many other indigenous peoples. Their lives became fuel for the colonial machine.

Nevertheless, some of the Q’eqchi’ peoples survived. They were displaced from their homelands, and are now one of the most widely distributed of all the Maya peoples. In spite of this, and of the continued blights of poverty, enslavement persecution, environmental destruction and land loss, they managed to preserve elements of their traditional culture. And for their own personal consumption they continued to grow, and celebrate, cocoa.

In the 1980s, Hershey’s tried to grow cocoa in Belize with the Mopan Maya, neighbours to the Q’eqchi. Hershey suddenly pulled out, badly letting the Mopan down. Fortunately some craft chocolate pioneers including Uncommon Cacao’s Emily, Taza’s Alex Whitmore and Choco del Sol’s Patrick Walter, teamed up with Maya Mountain to step in and plug some of this gap, providing long term contracts for the cacao that also pay a living wage and preserve the environment (for more on this please see our article, and award winning bars, on Maya Mountain HERE).

Recently, Uncommon Cacao have extended this initiative over the Belize border into Guatemala to distribute cocoa grown by the Q’echi’ living around Lake Lachua. Back in 1976, Laguna Lachuá was designated a national park and in 2006 it was designated ‘Ramsar site’ (i.e. a wetland of extreme importance). Since 2014, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), FUNDALACHUA, and FundaSistemas, have worked with a series of local communities to plant, grow, harvest and ferment over 245 acres of cocoa trees. These beans have been distributed by Uncommon Cacao to makers around the world including Fjåk, Land, Bare Bones, Boho, Standout, Pump Street, Utopick and Sirene.

So try any of these bars below to ‘complete the circle’ from 1544 to today.

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Divinely Delicious: Chocolate and Religion

Chocolate has always been associated with religion. Religious beliefs direct how people use chocolate, from Aztec blood rituals to Catholic fasts, Easter eggs to Hanukkah gelt, and the Quakers who commercialised chocolate in Britain. Even the name of chocolate itself, Theobroma cacao, roughly translates to ‘food of the gods’! Find out more about how food and faith intertwine in this deep dive into chocolate’s divine history.

Chocolate’s Beginnings: A Ritual Drink

The earliest links between chocolate and religion are pretty gruesome. Excavating sites related to the Olmec civilisation, archaeologists discovered traces of cocoa in burial pits alongside the remains of human sacrifice victims. This suggests that cocoa played some role in Olmec religious rituals.

In Mayan religion, cocoa played a foundational role. The Mayan creation story recounts that humans were created from a mixture of the blood of the gods and cocoa pods. Cocoa was part of the fabled myth of humanity’s birth. The cocoa tree was also associated with death in Mayan spirituality. The Mayans buried cocoa alongside their dead, to help them on their journey in the underworld. The cocoa tree acted a bit like the ‘world tree’ in Norse mythology. In Mayan codices it is depicted as an axis growing through and connecting all the realms. Its roots are in the underworld, its trunk in this world, and its leaves in the heavens. 

In the Aztec world, cocoa was valuable and was connected to sacrifice. It was drunk as part of religious rituals, but it was also used in sacrifices as a substitute for blood. Chocolate was mixed with berries to give it a red colour, allowing it to stand in symbolically for blood. Cocoa had spiritual and ritual power. It’s even said that the Aztecs prepared drinks made from chocolate mixed with blood washed from a sacrificial knife. These were given to sacrificial victims to bind them, almost magically, to their fate.

(Left, an Aztec ritual involving drinking chocolate, pictured in the white vessel.)

Chocolate & Catholicism

With the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, chocolate spread to Europe. It first became popular with missionaries in the New World, who used it to treat minor illnesses and keep their strength up. These Catholic priests played a key role in bringing chocolate over to Europe. The first record of chocolate’s arrival in the Old World is in 1644, when Dominican friars brought over a group of Mayan nobles. They were presented to the Spanish court, and brought gifts to Prince Philip of Spain, including chocolate!

Once it got to Spain, chocolate was quickly taken up by religious communities. Monks drank chocolate before religious services, to fortify them and give them energy. Benedictine monks were also involved in the import of chocolate into Spain from the New World. A quote from the Benedictines of the time was: ‘Do not drink the cocoa, anyone but friar, sir or brave soldier.’ Chocolate was reserved for the nobility, the military – and religious leaders. Records also tell us that  in 1585 a Japanese ambassador to Philip II of Spain was very impressed when he visited a convent of Poor Clares of Veronica. The nuns gave him chocolate they had prepared themselves! (Spanish and Italian Poor Clares, as well as Cistercian nuns in Francce, still make and sell chocolate confections today to support themselves.)

Chocolate & Catholicism II: Feast & Fast

The biggest role chocolate played in Catholic life was as a source of energy during fasts. Fasting was a common practice in the 16th and 17th-century Catholic church. The religious calendar contained over 100 days of fasting! Nobody could decide, though, whether it was lawful to consume chocolate while fasting. It was hard to tell if this filling beverage should count as a food or a drink. 

In 1636, Antonio de León Pinelo, a Spanish colonial historian, dedicated a whole book to the subject, titled Whether Chocolate Breaks Ecclesiastical Fast: A Moral Question. Pinelo didn’t reach a conclusion: opinions were just too divided! The religious order of the Carmelite friars banned chocolate as an immoral luxury that was incompatible with a life of holy poverty. On the other hand, a letter sent in 1683 reveals that Franciscan friars drank chocolate even on fast days! The argument got so hot that in 1666 Pope Alexander VII had to step in. Apparently, he was given some chocolate to drink, and disliked it. He declared in disgust, ‘liquidum non frangit jejunum’ (liquids do not break the fast). This was taken as a Papal decree, and it’s still lawful for Catholics to drink hot cocoa during periods of fast.

Nowadays, Catholics enjoy chocolate as part of religious celebrations, especially at Easter and during advent. And in 2014, Pope Francis was given a statue of himself made entirely from chocolate, which weighed a whopping 1.5 tonnes!

Chocolate & Judaism

Chocolate enjoyed decades of popularity in Catholic Spain before it spread to the rest of Europe. There were two main ways in which it spread around Europe. Amongst the nobility, chocolate spread through marriages and diplomatic gift-giving. Chocolate was given as a wedding gift when the French King Louis XIV married a Spanish princess, for example. Amongst the emerging middle classes, and outside of courts, chocolate spread due to religious strife.

Catholic Spain was a hotbed of antisemitism and religious persecution. In 1415, after years of pogroms and forced conversions, the Catholic monarchs of Spain passed the Alhambra Decree, ordering the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. This led to a mass migration of Jewish people from Spain to the rest of Europe. Some of those who fled were chocolate makers. Several of these Jewish chocolatiers settled in Bayonne, introducing Spanish-style drinking chocolate to southern France. Bayonne is still known for its chocolate! 

During the religious festival of Hanukkah, children are often given chocolate coins with the image of a menorah stamped onto their foil wrappers, as a festive treat! These coins are called Hanukkah gelt, and have been popular since at least the 1920s.

Chocolate in Britain: a Quaker Business

In Britain, the religion most associated with chocolate making was Quakerism. Many of the entrepreneurs responsible for the success of commercial chocolate in Britain were Quakers. Cadbury, Rowntree, and Fry’s chocolate companies were all founded by Quakers.

Quakers got into chocolate for religious reasons. In the 19th century, many Christians considered alcohol to be a social evil. Quakers were at the forefront of the temperance movement, moved by their consciences to seek alternatives to alcohol. Chocolate, then universally consumed as a beverage, seemed like a wholesome, viable option. 

To begin with, these Quakers infused their businesses with their values. Rowntree invested in public libraries in York, and studied poverty in the city. In 1902, they founded the village of New Earswick for low-income families, and pioneered the new field of adult education. Even now, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation continues to advocate for social justice and campaign for an end to poverty. Cadbury famously built a village for their workers in Bournville, in the Selly Oak area of Birmingham in 1915.

However, as Quaker Jon Martins has noted, ‘Quaker ethics are now historical footnotes for these vast corporations’. Even in 1915, when Cadbury were building Bournville, they were benefiting from slave labour from plantations in Africa. (This was discovered, leading to a boycott which forced Cadbury to find new cocoa suppliers.) For those interested in ethical chocolate, craft chocolate is the best solution. Not only does it taste ten times more delicious than mass-produced chocolate, it also has transparent supply chains. Craft chocolate allows us to consume chocolate sustainably and ethically, upholding British chocolate’s founding Quaker principles far better than those old firms do today!

(Image: Visit Of King And Queen To Bournville, 16th May 1919, painting by F. Gregory Brown.)

Chocolate in World Religions

Unlike the other Abrahamic religions, Islam has never really developed chocolate culture. Islamic countries in the 16th and 17th centuries tended to enjoy coffee rather than chocolate. (Although British chocolate houses likely owe their origins to Turkish coffee house culture.) In recent years, the increasingly complex ingredients lists of mass-produced chocolate have made it difficult for Muslim consumers to know whether their chocolate is halal (permitted under strict religious dietary laws). This is easier with craft chocolate, whose ingredients lists tend to be simple and easy to understand. (Read our handy guide on how to read labels for more info!)

However, a Muslim boy is reportedly responsible for one peculiar anecdote about chocolate and religion: a chocolate-based ritual in Kerala, India. In 2009, the boy offered up a Munch brand chocolate bar to a Hindu deity named Balamurugan, son of the god Shiva. The trend of offering Munch bars caught on, and devotees of the god now routinely bring their own bodyweight in chocolate to Balamurugan. The deity has such a taste for chocolate that he has acquired the nickname Munch Murugan!

Some Thai Buddhist monks have also taken a leaf out of the book of 16th century Catholic friars. When fasting, they allow themselves to consume chocolate. Chocolate is allowed because it is used as medicine, and because if it is allowed to melt on the tongue it can be counted as an oil, rather than a food.

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Chocolate: A Cure for All Ills?

chocolate as medicine

Nowadays, we might think of chocolate as unhealthy, a contributor to the obesity crisis. However, what you might not know is that chocolate has a key place in the history of medicine.

In the past few decades, many health claims have swirled around chocolate. Unfortunately, lots of these are just too good to be true, as we found out when we chatted to Professor Tim Spector, an expert on these issues. The idea that chocolate might have health benefits isn’t new. In fact, for as long as chocolate has existed, people have believed in its medicinal benefits. Read on to find out more about the crucial role of chocolate in the history of medicine!

Medical Chocolate in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

Although cocoa probably originated in the Amazon rainforest, the earliest records we have of its use come from central America, in modern-day Mexico and Ecuador. Frothed, spiced chocolate was a royally-approved drink in Aztec and Mayan culture, and played a central role in their societies. Chocolate was used in religious rituals, wedding ceremonies, royal feasts – and medicine. Yes, that’s right, chocolate’s place in the history of medicine starts not in Europe, but amongst indigenous people in the Americas.

We know that Mayan medicine involved chocolate. This means that chocolate has probably been part of the history of medicine for around 4000 years! The Mayan understanding of illness was deeply connected to the natural world. Healers would perform chants invoking the spirits of animals and types of tree. For skin problems, fever and seizures, these chants were combined with a medicinal drink. This drink contained chocolate mixed with peppers, honey and tobacco juice. (We probably wouldn’t recommend this combination, taste-wise…)

Chocolate as Aztec Medicine: The Florentine Codex

Most of our records about chocolate’s use in early medical history come from the medieval and early modern Aztec Empire. The Aztecs used chocolate to treat stomach problems and indigestion. They also mixed it with tree bark to cure infections, and with maize to relieve fever. We know much of this from the 1590 Florentine codex. This was a book about Aztec society written by a Franciscan friar named Bernardino de Sahagún, with illustrations by local Aztec artists. The book is bilingual, with text in both Spanish and Nahuatl, the Aztec language. The Florentine codex is one of the earliest books we have from the New World which includes information on history, medicine and chocolate!

Part of the Florentine codex records Aztec medical practice, and includes multiple recipes for pharmaceuticals made using chocolate. One cure for a cough includes a kind of tea made from opossum tail, followed up by a herbal drink made from chocolate mixed with pepper, vanilla, and sacred flowers. The Aztecs often used chocolate like Mary Poppins’ ‘spoonful of sugar’, mixing remedies into chocolate to help mask unpleasant flavours.

First Contact: Chocolate as Medicine in the New World

Europeans first encountered chocolate during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. During the early years of contact, they were struck by the local use of chocolate as a medicine.

In the second half of the 16th century, Friar Agustin Davila Padilla, a Spanish priest, wrote about a chocolate treatment administered to one of his missionary colleagues. This missionary suffered from kidney disease. To cure him, local doctors ‘ordered him to use a drink that in the Indies they call chocolate. It is a little bit of hot water in which they dissolve something like almonds that they call cacaos, and it is made with some spices and sugar’. According to Padilla’s account, the medicine worked! Then and there, chocolate entered into European medical history. In particular, the late 16th-century Spaniards were impressed by chocolate’s nutritious and fattening properties. It was good for restoring those who had lost weight and strength due to illness.

The History of Medicine in Europe: Chocolate and the Humours

You might remember the medieval humours from school, if you ever studied the history of medicine. Chocolate came into contact with the humours in the 16th and 17th century, and proved a bit problematic. For those who don’t remember their lessons, here’s a reminder.

In Early Modern Europe, medicine was based on the humoural system of the ancient Roman physician Galen. This categories different illnesses as wet, cold, hot and dry. The system was based on balance, so hot dry illnesses such as fever would be treated with cold wet medicines and foods. In Galenic practice, food and medicine were inseparable.

When chocolate came along, it scrambled the system. In bean form it was cold and wet, as powder, cold and dry. As a drink, it was hot and wet because it was fatty, but it was astringent, and often spiced with chilli and pepper which made it dry. Chocolate was impossible to categorise! Some scholars argue that chocolate, along with coffee and tea, were the last nail in the Galenic coffin, confusing the system and paving the way for its replacement. So you might argue that chocolate had a pivotal role in advancing medical history towards more modern theories than the outdated humoral system!

The Chocolate Cure in 17th-century Europe

During the 17th century, news of chocolate’s medicinal powers spread to continental Europe. Antonio Colmenero de Ledesmo wrote an immensely popular treatise on chocolate, published in 1631. His book records one of the earliest recipes for drinking chocolate, but it also contributed to the history of medicine. He noted that chocolate was good for aiding childbirth, helping digestion and curing gut diseases. It was also useful for treating jaundice, TB and ‘the green sicknesse’ (anaemia). Moreover, Ledesmo helpfully noted that chocolate ‘cleaneth the teeth and sweetneth the breath’. We’re not too sure on that one! 

In 1672, William Hughes, an American physician, described chocolate as ‘very nourishing’. He wrote:

‘Chocolate is good against all coughs, shortness of breath, opening and making the roughness of the artery smooth … it strengthens the vitals and is good against fevers, catarrhs, asthmas, and consumptions of all sorts.’

William hughes, 1672

Chocolate’s supposed health benefits led to it becoming a popular choice for well-to-do gentlemen who frequented coffee shops, as it was believed to be more nutritious and wholesome than tea or coffee. It was also enjoyed by their female relatives who drank it at home. Letters from the French aristocrat Madame de Sévigné, reveal that she wrote to her unwell daughter advising her to get a chocolate pot and take drinking chocolate for its restorative effects.

In the 17th-century version of what we might now call ‘wellness culture’, chocolate ranked alongside the sulphurous hot waters at spas such as bath, and the effects of seaside air in stylish resorts: it was a treatment, but it was also a treat!

picture of a chocolate house in london

Benjamin Franklin Recommends it! Medicinal Chocolate in the 18th & 19th Centuries

In the 18th century, one of the early proponents of medical chocolate in American history was, perhaps surprisingly, Benjamin Franklin. The American founding father was a big fan of chocolate. When he started out as a bookseller, he claimed that he sold lots of books ‘too tedious to mention’ and also ‘very good chocolate’. One of Franklin’s money-making schemes was Poor Richard’s Almanack, an almanac which included weather, astrological facts and axioms. In 1761, Franklin’s almanac explained the benefits of chocolate for treating smallpox!

As the years wore on, chocolate continued to be used to treat all manner of diseases and played a major role in the history of medicine’s modernisation. In 1796, it was claimed that chocolate could delay the growth of white hair, in an early example of myths about chocolate’s magical anti-aging properties! The following year, Erasmus Darwin, a physician who was the grandfather of Charles Darwin, treated himself for gout using chocolate.

Chocolate in Victorian Medicine

During the 19th century, medicinal chocolate was used to treat syphilis, cholera, and measles outbreaks. (We doubt it did much good.) 

Chocolate was seriously considered by medical professionals. In 1846, the pharmacologist Auguste Saint-Arroman published an English translation of his treatise Coffee, Tea and Chocolate: Their Influence upon the Health, the Intellect, and the Moral Nature of Man. Arroman thought chocolate was useful in many situations, but cautioned that it could have negative effects. This potent drink was, he believed, dangerous for the young. He also described a medicine called ferruginous chocolate, apparently used to treat anaemia, or, as he described it:

‘[a medicine that is] beneficial to women who are out of order, or have the green sickness, is prepared by adding to the paste of chocolate iron in the state of filings, oxide or carbonate.’

Auguste Saint-Arroman, Coffee, Tea and Chocolate: Their Influence upon the Health, the Intellect, and the Moral Nature of Man, 1846

Of all the treatments considered so far, this probably did work! Chocolate is a rich vegetable source of iron, and the iron filings would have helped! Some historians suggest that other treatments using chocolate may have worked because the chocolate was boiled, making it a sterile drink. Chocolate was therefore safer than water, which was often polluted, or alcoholic alternatives.

If you want to try a Victorian medical recipe yourself, look no further than ‘medicinal gluten chocolate’. This recipe was patented in England in 1855. It was made from equal parts cocoa and sugar, plus half that amount of gluten. The ‘gluten’ in question was bread reduced to a fine powder. Edible, but not particularly healthful, with that much sugar involved!

Cocoa: It’s Still in Our Medicines!

Nowadays, chocolate doesn’t turn up much in medicine, though it can still be found as a flavouring in supplements and diet replacement drinks. However, cocoa beans remain a common ingredient in pharmaceuticals! Cocoa solids (the chocolatey bit of cocoa) is mainly used for food. However, cocoa butter (the fat from the cocoa bean) is a cheap fat commonly used in ointments. So check the ingredients next time you reach for your topical creams! Chocolate is also still used in indigenous medicine, and it continues to attract health claims, though these are often dubious! Why not find out more about them in the health section of chocopedia?

Debunking Chocolate Health Claims with Dr Tim Spector

There are a lot of scientific claims about chocolate! So we teamed up with Dr Tim Spector to ‘review’ these claims. Similar to the way we encourage you to check the ingredients on a chocolate bar’s label for its ingredients, and the details of the farm where the beans are sourced, we STRONGLY suggest you review chocolate-related health claims and how many people were studied, who funded the work and your own potential ‘cognitive bias’…

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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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Chocolate for Father’s Day by Fathers, Daughters and Sons

selection box of father and son/daughter chocolate teams

Celebrated for over 100 years (at least in the US), and in various permutations (such as as St. Joseph’s day) for even longer in other parts of the world, Fathers’ Day hasn’t really ‘taken off’ in quite the same way as other events, like Mothers’ Day.

We are trying to fix this with a Fathers’ Day craft chocolate gift from five different teams of fathers, daughters and (one) son/grandson comprising:

This box is priced at £24.95 (a saving of over 15%) and for more details please see below. We’ve also a range of other great Fathers’ Day presents including pairings with wine, whisky and more, plus some great tasting courses.

And if you’d like to know a little more about the origins, and different forms of celebrations, surrounding Fathers’ Day please read on.

The History of Fathers’ Day

In Italy, Spain, Portugal or Bolivia Fathers’ Day is celebrated slightly earlier than elsewhere, on the Feast of St. Joseph on March 19th.

But unlike Mothers’ Day, which at least in Europe is rooted in another religious tradition (the idea of returning to your “mothering” church), St. Joseph’s Day doesn’t appear to have given rise to the modern tradition of Fathers’ Day.

In most other countries Fathers’ day is celebrated on the third Sunday of June (for some reason Austria, Ecuador and Belgium celebrate on the second Sunday; if you know why, please do comment below!). And the origins of Fathers’ Day are attributed to two initiatives started in the USA. The first occurred in Fairmont, West Virginia, July 5th 1908 when Grace Clayton suggested to the minister of the local Methodist Church that they hold services to celebrate fathers after a deadly mine explosion killed 361 men. The alternative backstory to Fathers’ Day occurred a year later 1910 in Spokane, Washington State. This story credits Sonora Smart Dodd for the idea; with her inspiration being a Mothers’ Day sermon, where she decided that fathers; like her own father,  William Smart, a veteran of the Civil War, who after the death of his wife raised six children with “hard work and love” on a small farm; should also be thanked and have a special day.

The idea received considerable political support. And it was also promoted by various retailers and gifting companies. However it wasn’t until 1966 that President Lyndon Johnson designated the third Sunday in June as “Fathers’ Day”. And it was only in 1972 that President Richard Nixon, recognised Fathers’ Day as an official holiday.

It’s not clear when Fathers’ Day started to be celebrated here in the UK. Anecdotally, it’s hard to find anyone celebrating it much earlier than the 1980s. Today however is a different story. In 2021 retail spending on Fathers’ Day was estimated to be £951 million pounds, up from £743 million in 2017.

However, this is dwarfed by the $20 billion that is estimated to be spent in the US. And the US spent a further $32 billion on Mothers’ Day versus £1.6 Billion in the UK.

Speculation on Why Fathers’ Day Lags Behind Mothers’ Day

It’s interesting to speculate as to why Fathers’ Day ‘lags behind’ Mothers’ Day; and a host of explanations can be put forward:

  1. Mothers’ Day has a far longer history. Since Medieval times, the church has celebrated ‘Mothering Sunday’ far more than St. Joseph’s Day (aka Fathers’ Day). And in the US, Mothers’ Day was made an official holiday back in 2014 versus 1972. So Mother’s Day has a richer set of traditions to call on.
  2. Fathers’ Day was also almost derailed back in the 1920s and 30s when various attempts were made to scrap Mothers’ and Fathers’ days in favour of a single holiday, “Parents’ Day”. Indeed for about a decade, every Mothers’ Day, pro-Parents’ Day groups rallied in New York City’s Central Park arguing “that both parents should be loved and respected together” (Robert Spere, radio performer). Retailers however were horrified. And they came up with all sorts of smart advertisements to promote Fathers’ Day as a “second Christmas” for men, and in particular pushed the idea of honouring the US’ “fighting fathers” during World War 2.
  3. There haven’t been any great presents for Fathers’ Day. Mothers’ Day has a wealth of great present ideas associated with it; cards, flowers, lunches out, etc. Socks, gardening tools, woolly hats and the like arguably don’t resonate for Fathers’ Day in quite the same way. However now we have a perfect present: This Fathers’ Day please gift some great craft chocolate that tastes better, is better for them, better for the farmers and better for the planet. And it’s crafted by a father and daughter/son team so it provides a great backstory and link.
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Mexico: The cradle of chocolate?

cuna de piedra team

The name of one of our makers, Cuna de Piedra, translates as “cradle of the stone”; a play on Mexico’s description of itself as “cuna de cacao”(cradle of cacao). This play on words gives us pause to celebrate and explore Mexico’s contribution to the world of cocoa and chocolate (as well as do a little debunking and etymological sleuthing on the origin of the word ‘chocolate’).

Cuna de Piedra

Enrique Perez and Vicky Gonzales started their dream of Cuna de Piedra after a phone call in March 2019. Both loved chocolate, and both were looking for a product that would raise Mexico’s standing as a country with fine food (Enrique is a food consultant) and high-quality design and workmanship (Vicky is a designer and brand strategist).

Within six months in November 2019, they were able to launch their company and first bars. They work with a sister company, Revival Cacao, to source their beans. The two companies work together with farms and co-operatives in both Comalcalco, Tabasco and Soconusco, Chiapas. And it’s fantastic to see the quality of bars and beans they are achieving as they help the farmers upgrade their harvesting, fermentation and drying approaches.

As is to be expected, given Vicky’s background as a designer, their packaging does a fantastic job of explaining Cuna’s purpose and ambitions (indeed, barely a week goes by without a new design magazine featuring their bars). In particular as you unwrap the bars, look out for their motto that is playfully spelt out across the letters of the bars that translates as:

Mexico, Cradle of Cacao, from Bean to Bar

A rebirth for chocolate in Mexico?

Cuna de Piedra and their sister company, Revival Cacao, are part of a renaissance of chocolate, and in particular, heirloom cacao and craft chocolate, in Mexico.

And it’s not a moment too soon. Despite Mexico’s long history with chocolate and cocoa, the last few decades have been hard for cocoa farmers and chocolate in Mexico. At the turn of the 21st century, Mexico was growing over 50k tonnes of cocoa a year. This halved by the early 2010s, meaning that Mexico was a net importer of cocoa and chocolate. In part this was the result of Mexico being devastated by various cocoa blights; in particular frosty pod. But it also reflects Mexico’s move to commodity crops such as palm oil and maize, with attendant deforestation and destruction of cocoa trees.

Despite these challenges, various craft chocolate makers; Bonnat, Ritual, Krak, Goodnow and Original Beans to name but a few; have discovered the potential of the amazing beans available in Mexico (see below for some examples).

And at the same time, craft chocolate making is now starting to take off itself in Mexico. Ana Rita Garcia Lascurrain helped kickstart this by setting up her chocolate museum and then crafting her own bars (Mucho). And it’s great to see Cuna de Piedra joining these ranks.

Mexico and the History of Chocolate

Read any history book written before the 1990s and Mexico will appear as the “cradle of chocolate”, crediting the Olmecs with being the first people to cultivate and consume cocoa and chocolate over thousands of years ago.

Recent archaeological work has now pushed cocoa’s fermentation and consumption (as a drink) back a few thousand years earlier to modern-day Ecuador and Peru, where the Theobroma cacao tree can first be traced. So Mexico has lost its claim to be the first place cultivating and drinking chocolate.

Any which way, the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs were HUGE fans of chocolate. At certain periods cocoa was reserved for royalty, warriors and high priests. And one of the first descriptions of Montezuma, the last Aztec Emperor, made by the Spaniards, was their awe of his consuming “the froth of fifty cups of drinking chocolate every night” before he would visit his wives (thereby kickstarting many of the myths of chocolate as an aphrodisiac).

So important was cocoa that the cocoa bean was used as a unit of currency. And indeed this tradition continued in El Salvador up until the mid-19th century, and the Spanish, following Columbus’ lead, would use cocoa beans, instead of metal coins, for small purchases for much of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Etymological Claims from Mexico for Chocolate

Mexico also lays claim, via the Nahuatl language, to have given us the word “chocolate” from their word “chocolatl” (with atl being the Nahuatl word for water). However, this is now challenged by various historians on the grounds that the word “chocolatl” does not appear in Nahuatl until the mid-18th century, and may well have been “borrowed back” from the Spanish who at this point started to write and refer to chocolate in letters and recipes.

Instead, some historians argue that “chocolate” as a word derives from “chicolatl”, with the “chicol” referring to the special wooden stick used to beat and prepare chocolate. Other historians propose that the Mayan word “chocol” (which means hot), combined with “atl” (water) is the basis for our word chocolate.

Any which way, we owe Mexico a massive debt for their contribution to the world of chocolate. And it’s fantastic to have Cuna De Piedra represent the country in our chocolate library.

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Deadly Diseases

cocoa pod with frosty pod rot disease

Most wine aficionados are aware that in the 19th century European wine was almost destroyed by phylloxera. And anyone partial to bananas is aware that disease destroyed our favourite banana of the 1950s and 1960s (the Gran Michel) and the same may well occur with today’s favourite banana; the Cavendish.

But few people are aware that chocolate too has suffered from diseases as disastrous as phylloxera with gruesome names like ‘swollen shoots’, ‘vascular streak dieback’, ‘witches’ broom’ and ‘frosty pod rot’. And as cacao spread around the world it’s also been afflicted by pests like cocoa tree mirids in Africa (Salhbergella singularis and Distantiella theobroma) or cocoa pod borer (Conopomorpha cramerella) in Southeast Asia. Indeed chocolate may well have been the first crop targeted by bioterrorism back in the 1990s.

And Europe’s insatiable desire for drinking chocolate in the 17th and 18th centuries, combined with disease, led to cocoa cultivation shifting from Mexico, Honduras and Belize to Venezuela, Ecuador and the Caribbean. Disease, and the near extermination of the indigenous Mayans, Aztecs and other peoples, also lead to the abuses and horrors of the Atlantic slave trade and use of slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean for cacao cultivation.

Ironically the (partial) conquest of other diseases, in particular malaria, also explains how cocoa spread to Africa, and again became entwined with slavery.

Today chocolate still struggles with ongoing issues of labour abuses, including slavery. And chocolate confectionery, via excessive sugar, is leading to a host of disastrous 21st diseases for young and old alike. The obesity epidemic, soaring rates of diabetes, heart diseases and many other ‘modern’ diseases can directly be attributed to chocolate confectionery products that are over 50% sugar.

At the same time, it’s not all a story of doom, gloom and disaster. Chocolate can also show some glimmers of hope. Learning to savour craft chocolate provides one means to avoid sugar related diseases. And the diversity of cocoa varietals treasured by craft chocolate provides one of the best defences to cocoa’s next phylloxera.

Read on for more, and see below for some bars that track the way disease has driven chocolate’s journey around the world.

Disease, Slavery, and the Emergence of Drinking Chocolate in Europe

It took Europeans over a century to realise the delights of drinking chocolate from when Cortez and the conquistadors first witnessed Montezuma’s drinking-chocolate-fuelled exploits with his wives as they ransacked Mexico from 1519 (note: Columbus came across chocolate a decade earlier, but thought it was primarily a unit of currency).

By the time appreciation for chocolate had taken hold (i.e. the mid to late 1600s), many of the locations in Mesoamerica (Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, etc.) where cocoa had been drunk and cultivated had seen jaw dropping population declines. Smallpox and a host of other European diseases ravaged Mesoamerica; in some cases wiping out 60% plus of the population in the decades following Columbus (Guatemala shrank from over 2 million people to under 500,000 in 30 years, El Salvador from 500,000 to under 70,000 in the same time period).

As a consequence, the descendants of the conquistadors turned to South America, in particular Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela, for their cocoa needs. The descendants of the conquistadors needed far more cacao. So they developed a radically different approach, a plantation like system known as the ‘encomienda’, to cultivate cacao in Brazil and Venezuela. And the bedrock to the encomienda system was slavery of not just the few remaining indigenous peoples but also slaves from the Atlantic slave trade.

Ironically, what ended the encomienda system (including its use of slavery) in Venezuela was disease. This time the disease was one that impacted the cacao tree, called at the time ‘alhorra’ and now thought to have been either ‘ceratocystis eilt’ or ‘black pod rot’. Either way the disease was recorded by contemporaries to leave cacao groves “without a single fruit-bearing plant”. And as a consequence, new pastures and lands were sought.

Note: Mexico still produces some amazing chocolates, see Cacao Prieto and Mucho; and amazing cocoa is grown there (see here for some bars from Original Beans, Bonnat, Ritual, Krak and a dozen more makers). And, see below, it has an encouraging diversity of cocoa varieties which provides one means to fight these diseases. As do Brazil and Venezuela, again, see below for more bars from Franchesci, Åkesson’s etc.

Cacao Diseases and the Dissemination of Cocoa to the Caribbean, Asia and Africa

Faced with these cacao blights and diseases in South America and the increasing popularity of drinking chocolate, colonial powers, especially Spain, the UK, and the Netherlands, successfully transplanted cacao trees throughout the Caribbean and Asia, and then Africa.

The Caribbean

Although there are records of cacao being grown in Trinidad as early as the 1525, it wasn’t until the late 1670s that cacao trees, brought over from Venezuela, were cultivated as a commercial crop. As in Venezuela, Trinidad also suffered from various cacao blights and diseases until new cacao varietals were cross bred and cacao farming flourished. In honour of this achievement Trinidad lent its name to a family of these disease resistant beans, ‘Trinitario’. Cacao was also cultivated on other nearby islands, including Tobago, Grenada and Jamaica. And by the 1820s, the Caribbean (and in particular Trinidad and Tobago) was the third largest exporter of cacao; helped ironically by a series of other blights and diseases that damaged cacao cultivation in Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador, before Trinidad’s cacao was again devastated in the 1920s.


At the same time as cacao was introduced to Trinidad, the Spanish also introduced chocolate to the Philippines. And soon after the Dutch, in an effort to wrest control over the cacao trade, also introduced cacao to some of their Indonesian colonies (most notably Java and Sulawesi).


Cacao cultivation in Africa really took off in the second half of the 19th century. Initially cacao was cultivated on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, which by the late 1870s were accounting for over 20% of global cacao crops, and over 50% of Cadbury’s cacao needs. Sadly this cultivation was again based off slavery (for more see here).

What drove cacao to these African countries was again partly the appearance of devastating cacao diseases. Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Costa Rica and the other South American cacao growing powerhouses all suffered from a series of blights and diseases, going by dramatic names including frosty pod and witches’ broom.

Disease, or rather the (partial) conquest of one endemic African disease, also made cacao cultivation possible. Until the late 19th century the white colonial powers had been unable to colonise more than the coast of Africa as their armies and administrators had no resistance to malaria (during the 17th and 18th centuries it is estimated that over 60% of Europeans visiting the hinterlands of Africa died within a year). However, the discovery of quinine made the colonisation of Africa possible and so in the late 19th century various ‘white nations’ conquered Ghana (Great Britain), Cameroon (Germany), Cote D’Ivoire (France), etc.

Bioterrorism in 1990s Brazil

In the 1990s cacao farmers in Brazil were facing a calamity so severe that they were hanging themselves and drinking rat poison to kill themselves. Yet a decade earlier Brazil was the world’s third largest grower of cacao, and it made farmers rich (although the plight of the workers was wretched). But in the early 1990s, Moniliophthora perniciosa (aka witches’ broom) was discovered in Bahia, Brazil.

Witches’ broom isn’t native to Bahia, Brazil. Like cacao itself it originated in the Amazonian rainforest. But in the Amazon, it cannot quickly spread as wild cacao trees are well separated from one another. But when witches’ broom reaches dense plantations of cocoa trees, the impact is disastrous; Trinidad and Venezuela lost 80% plus of their cacao trees in outbreaks from the 1920s to the 1940s (Venezuelan cacao then also was hammered by frosty pod and ceratocystis to add to its problems).

From the first instances of witches’ broom in Bahia in the 1990s, suspicions were raised of a deliberate infestation. The first trees to be impacted in many estates were in the middle, not the outskirts, of plantations; and as an eyewitness reported: “I found two cocoa trees with dry witches’ broom tied onto them in the middle of their trunks” (José Roberto Benjamin, a farm owner in Camacan, quoted in The Knot).

And then in 2006 an even more extraordinary claim was published. Luiz Franco Timoteo claimed that he, and other left wing activists,  in an effort to draw attention to the dire conditions of the cacao workers in Bahia, deliberately introduced witches’ broom, with the help of workers from CEPLAC; the Brazilian equivalent of DEFRA (UK) or the FDA (US), as CEPLAC “could go anywhere” (which explains how the disease spread in such an extraordinary way).

CEPLAC vigorously contests these assertions. And it clearly did make extraordinary efforts to destroy the disease; including fumigating cacao farms with Agent Orange. And other conspiracy theories have also been circulated (including the idea that Ghana or the Cote D’Ivoire indulged in agro-warfare).

The origin of witches’ broom in Bahia is still unsolved. But the dangers of bioterrorism, and threats posed by cacao diseases to mass, monoculture agricultural approaches to cacao, is clear.

Why does this matter? Chocolate and Disease: The Present Day

So the good news is that Bahia, Brazil is slowly recovering, and whilst cacao production is nowhere near its earlier levels, it is enabling some farmers and many makers to craft great bars (see here for some from Åkesson’s own operations there).

In part this is because scientists have discovered wild cacao varietals deep in the Amazonian rainforest that can resist witches’ broom (indeed one, called Scavina-6, was identified as early as 1940s in the Peruvian rainforest). And CRISPR is now also being used to try and avoid some frightening new diseases threatening African and Asian cocoa farmers. At the same time these clones have major issues; for more see here on CCN-51.

Without wishing to sound melodramatic, commodity cacao and mass produced chocolate are an existential threat through their reliance on agricultural monocultures, their use of slash and burn agriculture combined with their requirement for loads of fertilizers, pesticides, etc. We need to learn from the disasters foretold by the Gran Michel, and now Cavendish, banana. We need to promote more cacao varietals and delight in chocolate’s myriad of flavours to protect genetic diversity. And we need to protect the rainforest, not destroy it with slash and burn monocrop agricultural commodity cacao and mass produced chocolate where flavour and taste is all added in the factory.

The end product of this commoditised cacao; mass produced chocolate confectionery; is also causing a whole series of other human diseases ranging from early onset type 2 diabetes, heart and liver issues, obesity, cancers, etc. Pretty packaging, smart marketing, evocative slogans (even those claiming to “eradicate child slavery”) should not divert from the fact that most supermarket chocolate bars are over 50% sugar (including Tony’s). As a flavour enhancer sugar is awesome. But it’s also highly addictive and unhealthy.

So if you want to help eradicate the diseases to (and from) cacao and save our planet please savour craft chocolate.

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Anything But Plain: Vanilla

If ever an adjective was unfairly associated with a spice, it’s the word “plain” becoming synonymous with “vanilla”. In fact, vanilla’s history is anything but plain. What it contributes to many foods is, again, anything but plain (think milk chocolate, ice cream, cakes, and even curries). And the differences between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ vanilla flavours are not at all “plain and simple”.

So we think it’s worth doing a deep dive into vanilla (which might take more than one article to achieve!). We will try to answer if it is a good or bad sign when you see the likes of vanilla, vanilla extract, natural vanilla flavouring, artificial vanillin, etc. on the ingredients list of your chocolate bar. Spoiler alert: it’s complicated! 

And if you want to know the links between pre-Aztec princesses, piracy, rare bees, drug smuggling, synthetic biology, coal, plastics, and orchids, look no further than vanilla! Or just skip below for some amazing craft chocolate bars spiced with vanilla.

The Origin Story:

As a fruit of the orchid Vanilla planifolia, vanilla grows on vines hundreds of feet tall. The plant has traditionally relied on special bees or occasionally hummingbirds to cross-pollinate its pods. Arguably, this orchid is unique among its 25,000 other varieties. Not only is it a beautiful plant, but it is agriculturally valuable as an ingredient and flavouring agent. 

Its first recorded use was with the Aztecs, who used vanilla as a bartering tool during their conquest of the kingdom of Totonicapam in the 15th Century. Once they had acquired vanilla, the Aztecs combined it with cocoa to make a drink called chocolatl or chicolatl, though the origin of this term is still up for debate

However, it may be that vanilla was used as an incense or perfume before the Aztec’s culinary creation. Although, unlike cocoa (which leaves traces of theobromine), the chemical fingerprints of vanilla are impossible to trace. 

Nonetheless, there are some wonderful legends for vanilla’s origin story; especially among the Totonac (Jaguar) people of Mexico. Their ‘Romeo and Juliet’ forbidden love story involves a prince and a princess who were killed by their respective families and high priests. The Totonacs came to believe that the blood of the lovers grew into the vine and flowers of what we know as the vanilla plant. It became a sacred gift to their gods. 

The Promise of Mass Production?

Vanilla really took off when it was introduced to Europe. Initially, it was consumed “Spanish style” (or rather “Aztec style”) in drinking chocolate and proved hugely popular.

Vanilla’s popularity was then turbocharged by Hugh Morgan, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s apothecaries (think pharmacist with a few other side interests). Morgan started to experiment with vanilla, mixing it with a variety of other consumables such as tobacco, pastries, perfumes, and (of course) alcohol. On the other side of the pond, Thomas Jefferson added it to ice cream in the US (one of his recipes is stored in the Library of Congress). 

With the development of these uses of vanilla, demand boomed. Supply struggled to keep up. Even though the vanilla orchid could be grown outside Latin America, it pollinated in only a few places outside of Mexico (so no vanilla pods emerged). 

Eventually in 1838, horticulturalist Charles Morren identified the problem: you need either special bees (Melipona or Euglossine) or hummingbirds to cross-pollinate (and therefore grow) vanilla pods.

It then took another five years, and the smarts of a 12-year-old enslaved boy called Edmond Albius living on Réunion (a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean), to work out a means of ‘hand pollinating’ vanilla pods. Even though this process is painstakingly slow and difficult, it rapidly became (and remains) the predominant way to grow vanilla. And since then, Réunion and Madagascar have become leading exporters of grown vanilla.

Vanilla in Chocolate

As explored above, the use of cocoa and vanilla in collaboration first appears to have emerged in ancient Aztec hot-chocolate-like concoctions. In a more modern context, vanilla found its way into chocolate as a strategy to counteract the bitterness of the often low-quality beans which were being used in the production of early 20th-century chocolate. 

This use of vanilla as a means of masking poor-quality chocolate is not exclusively a thing of the past. Many mass producers of chocolate continue to use vanilla, along with a generous spoonful of sugar, as a means of disguising their low-quality chocolate. 

Consequently, in the case of bean-to-bar craft chocolate, the use of vanilla can be frowned upon. After all, good quality chocolate should be appreciated alone, unadulterated, and in authentic form. 

However, in some cases, the best quality chocolate can benefit from the addition of vanilla. Essentially, adding vanilla enhances creaminess, balances sweetness and counteracts bitterness and acidity. Although not strictly necessary with craft chocolate; in cases where craft chocolate is accompanied by a range of flavours, known as inclusions, vanilla can be a welcome addition. Such is the case for Forever Cacao’s Lacuma and Vanilla bar.

And for something really interesting, you can read about how vanilla might also have curious psychological effects on us too.

In the interim, why not explore some great milk and white chocolate bars (including one with matcha) crafted with real vanilla…