The Evolution of “Hot Chocolate”

Today, it is not so uncommon to walk into a coffee shop and order a classic hot chocolate, but the sweet, rich flavor we know and love now has not always characterized a typical “hot chocolate” drink. In fact, the first “hot chocolate” was served cold and had no sugar at all (Martin). The Aztecs and Mayans had very basic chocolate drinks, and one of the first descriptions of the Aztec chocolate drink by a European, Girolamo Benzoni, was that chocolate “seemed more like a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity” (Coe and Coe 110). It was not until European intervention that sugar was added to those drinks (Martin). Europe’s addition of sugar to indigenous “hot chocolate” beverages transformed the drink from a cold, bitter drink to the warm, delectable drink we know today, and this transformation helped contribute to the expansion of chocolate consumption.

One of the first known chocolate drinks was made and consumed by the Mayans and Aztecs. This drink, known as cacahuatl, was made of cacao, ground maize, water, and sometimes chili, vanilla, or other indigenous spices (Miller). The video above shown in lecture shows a woman preparing a Mayan chocolate drink. The great care taken when grinding the cacao highlights the importance of the chocolate drink to the indigenous people (Martin). While the Aztecs and the Mayans enjoyed and respected this drink, the Europeans were not so fond of the bitter taste. As previously mentioned, Girolamo Benzoni was one of the first Europeans to record his experience with the cacahuatl, and he added that “the taste is somewhat bitter, it satisfies and refreshes the body, but does not inebriate” (Coe and Coe 110). That is, to the Europeans this chocolate drink was an acquired taste, and even after getting used to the taste, it was not necessarily desirable (Martin).

The Europeans solved the “bitterness problem” by adding their own ingredients to the original chocolate drink. Specifically, the Spaniards added sugar and spices such as cinnamon, anise, and black pepper (Miller). These more familiar ingredients were likely added to make the chocolate drink more appealing to the palates of the Europeans at the time.The video above details European intervention in chocolate recipes, including the addition of sugar, spices, and eventually, milk. While modifications to hot chocolate recipes continue today, sugar is still a main ingredient, and a drink made of cacao, water, and cornmeal would still be considered an acquired taste. This makes it difficult to picture cacahuatl making it onto the menu of a typical coffee shop such as Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, but it does give a new perspective as to how the addition of sugar to chocolate recipes helped increase chocolate consumption.

When the Europeans added sugar to the basic chocolate drink, the sugar changed the flavor of the drink. This change in flavor satisfied the “sweet tooth” of the European population at the time, and because of this, more people were inclined to try the chocolate drink, and soon, chocolate houses became a common social venue (Martin). The spread of chocolate truly began once the chocolate drink started to satisfy the palates of a greater number of people. The expansion of chocolate continues today as new ingredients are added to create more complex hot chocolate recipes like the ones described in the video above. Just like sugar, ingredients such as peanut butter, caramel, and nutella serve to alter the flavor as to satisfy all sorts of tastes. This new wave of modifications is even diverging from sweet hot chocolate at times to appeal to those looking for salty, savory, or even spicy chocolate drinks. All of these changes serve to appeal to a wider range of people and sustain the chocolate culture we know today.


Works Cited

Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2013. Print.

Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 11 February 2015. Class Lecture.

Miller, Ashley. Chocolate: Food of the Gods. Cornell University, 2007. Web. 19 February 2015.

Montesinos, Veronica. “The Story of Chocolate.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 16 April 2011. Web. 19 February 2015.

Simply Bakings. “3 DIY Hot Chocolate Recipes.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 19 December 2014. Web. 19 February 2015.

Toledo Ecotourism Association. “Making a Chocolate Drink.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 10 May 2008. Web. 19 February 2015.

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