The world’s first chocolates were crude. Most often chocolate was consumed as a ceremonial spiced beverage. Modern chocolate is smooth and melty, a testament to modern machinery and automation. Over 500 years ago, when cacao—the raw material for chocolate— was first exported to Europe, it was minimally and inconsistently processed.
Market monopolies and vertical integration by large businesses have brought about the modern chocolates found in convenience stores around the world. Colonization played a huge role in the development of modern chocolate into this saccharine, global form.
Up until the 1800’s, all chocolate was consumed in beverage form. When cacao beans were brought to Spain, and later to other parts of Europe, they were brought alongside spices. The cacao drink continued to be prepared with those spices until the introduction of sugar, which until then had been mostly used in tea. Adding sugar transformed the flavor of cacao beverages into something resembling that of modern chocolate.
Unlike the Spanish, the British didn’t tend to add spices to their drinks, nor did the French. The sweetness mellowed out cacao’s harsher flavors and made it more appealing to all consumers.
The first chocolate bars were a rudimentary creation, a pressing of cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and sugar. Eating chocolate as a food brought the flavor of cacao out from under the thumb of the rich and into the hands of the masses. There weren’t yet machines which could run for days, refining the chocolate until smooth. Perhaps there also wasn't much knowledge about how each of the chocolate processing steps affects flavor.
Some of the most important innovations for developing modern chocolate have been: the longitudinal conche, powdered milk, cocoa butter press, and standardized post-harvest protocols. The conche is integral in the chocolate making process, as the machine responsible for taking out much of the harsh acidity and bitterness which characterizes cacao beans. Powdered milk further mellowed out chocolate’s flavor, as well as making it cheaper to manufacture.
The cocoa butter press made it easier to remove the fat from cacao beans, leaving chocolate manufacturers with cacao butter to sell to the cosmetics industry and cocoa powder to sell to the public. This cocoa powder was diluted with sugar and milk powder and sold as hot cocoa mix, bringing the diluted flavor of chocolate to the masses. Chocolate bars continued to get cheaper as cacao cultivation spread to Africa and Asia, and chocolate companies continued to stretch their cacao with fillers.
As cacao was grown in more parts of the world, the complex processing necessary to fully develop its flavors didn’t travel with it. Only when large chocolate companies began seeking the highest quality cocoa at the lowest price did they begin spreading cacao processing protocols. Such standardized practices are still not commonplace around the world. But even if they don’t do them, cacao farmers in most countries know about picking only ripe pods, and both fermenting and drying their cacao.
Modern chocolate has one other big helper to thank: sugar. The modern chocolate industry wouldn’t be possible without contemporaneous innovations in the sugar industry. The ability to sweeten cacao is one of the most important factors in its palatability and near-obsession from consumers. When cacao drinks were first sweetened with sugar, it came in sugar loaves and had to be snipped off and dissolved in a liquid. With the ability to remove more moisture from sugar, companies could add it to cacao mass without fear of the mass seizing and thickening.
As sugar has been vilified by the media, other sweeteners have stepped in and added variety to the chocolate industry. Vegan, sugar-free, and dairy-free chocolates have opened chocolate up to most every world market. But recently, market demand has started going back to its roots. Those first chocolates made in Europe were developed in a very different context. At the time, the world was still being discovered and many foods were labeled by origin, including cacaos. The first chocolates in Europe were actually single origin chocolates.
While traceability in small-batch chocolate making is nothing new, its ethical sourcing definitely sets it apart from its ancient counterpart.