When the Spaniards arrived, the Mesoamericans were busily drinking cacao. They were so besotted by this drink, in fact, that they proudly shared it with company. In 1519, the Aztec emperor Montezuma served some to his new guest, the conquistador Hernando Cortes.  The Aztecs thought that Cortes was the reincarnation of an exiled god-king. Instead, he had come calling to find rumored Aztec gold, and within three years he brought down the Aztec empire.

The Spanish

Cortes brought cacao home to Spain in 1529, according to many scholars. He was not the first to do so. Nearly 30 years prior, Christopher Columbus had presented cacao beans from the Caribbean to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella as a curiosity, and nobody considered them further.

Yet Cortes did his homework and sweetened the cacao drink for Spaniards, adding copious amounts of sugar that was unavailable in Mesoamerica. Before sailing home, he also planted cacao trees in the Caribbean.

Unlike the Mesoamericans, the Spaniards kept their discovery on the hush. For nearly 100 years, Spanish aristocrats secretly sipped this new delicacy. They also continued to experiment, adding cinnamon and vanilla to the sugar and serving it steaming hot. As the drink gained popularity, the Spanish planted more cacao trees in its colonies in Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru and Jamaica.

Other Europeans

Soon after the Spanish opened their first cocoa processing plant, in 1580, news of cacao got out. As with much chocolate history, different theories abound. Some say the monks tasked with processing the cacao beans broke the silence and whispered to their French counterparts. Some point to the 1615 marriage between Anne of Austria, daughter of King Philip III of Spain, and King Louis XIII of France, saying she gave him chocolate as a wedding gift.

Regardless of who spilled the beans, as it were, cacao use spread across Europe—the earliest to France and Italy. Amsterdam later rose as an important cocoa shipping port. Chocolate found favor in royal courts and in the Catholic Church, which decided to let people drink chocolate during fasts. The first English chocolate house, similar to today’s coffee houses, opened in London in 1657, and chocolate houses in Florence and Venice gained notoriety in the early 1700s.

White's Chocolate House, London, c.1708.

The Europeans also used cacao for medicinal purposes, to cure stomachaches and other ailments, as is still done in some cultures today.

As chocolate’s popularity rose, even more clever minds began thinking of ways to use this mysterious food—a welcome alternative to the coffee and tea people drank every day to avoid unsafe water. This increased brainpower, coupled with the invention of machinery, quickly churned out many improvements for chocolate-lovers.

Chocolate for the Masses

While Europeans had been using wind or horses to power mills to grind cacao, hydraulic and steam-driven chocolate mills that produced chocolate faster were invented in the early 1700s in France. Not long after, cocoa prices dropped, and chocolate transitioned to a little luxury nearly everyone could afford.

Another milestone came in 1828 when the cocoa press was invented—and with it, cocoa butter and cocoa powder. The cocoa press lowered prices further, it made hot chocolate smoother and it paved the way for solid chocolate.

More European Firsts

  • Chocolate Bars: An English company, Joseph Fry & Sons, was the first to market a chocolate bar, in 1847. To do so, these early chocolatiers added to cocoa powder some melted cocoa butter and sugar—a vast improvement over the coarse-grained chocolate that had been the norm. In 1879, Rudolph Lindt unveiled his conching machine, curved like a conch shell, which ground the nibs finely and smoothed chocolate to a greater degree.

  • Milk Chocolate: Switzerland’s Daniel Peter, with help from his neighbor Henri Nestlé, created the first milk chocolate bar in 1875. But the first person to add milk to the traditional cacao drink was English physician Sir Hans Sloane, who in the late 1600s brought cacao back with him from a trip to Jamaica. Apothecaries sold his milky concoction as a medicine, and in the 19th century the Cadbury brothers used his recipe to manufacture hot chocolate.

Did You Know?
Cacao beans were so valuable to early Mesoamericans that they were used as currency.
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