From Beverage to Bar: How the Industrial Revolution Shaped Cacao Beans into the Modern Chocolate Bar

Chocolate bars are cheap and readily available today, but up until the 19th century, chocolate was an elite product almost always consumed as a beverage. Why did chocolate preparation methods change and how was the switch even possible? In this blog post, I will argue that Industrial Revolution technological innovations such as the hydraulic press and the conche made chocolate production cheaper and faster, transforming cacao from a rare and exotic beverage enjoyed by the elite into a common and government-regulated bar consumed by the masses.

In 1828, chocolate underwent its first major transformation with the help of Coenraad Johannes Van Houten’s hydraulic press and alkalizing process. Pictured below, the hydraulic press took chocolate liquor– the result of fermenting, roasting, winnowing, and grinding cacao beans– and applied immense pressure to it, causing the liquid to separate into cocoa butter and a solid cake that could be ground into cocoa powder.[1] The press allowed chocolate manufacturers to quickly and cheaply produce the inputs to chocolate production without boiling the liquor and affecting its flavor. But Van Houten did not just prevent the flavor of chocolate from becoming burnt and bitter; he improved it with the help of a chemical alkalizing process. Van Houten treated his new cocoa byproduct with alkaline salts that made the powder darker in color and milder in flavor,[2] leading to a sweeter, water-soluble product that appealed to a wider audience. When Van Houten’s patent expired in 1838, companies such as Fry and Cadbury entered the market and began using these cheap cocoa inputs to replace chocolate beverages with chocolate bars.

Van Houten's Hydraulic Press

Although the production of cocoa powder was an important first step in the evolution of chocolate, Cadbury and Fry’s rise to commercial dominance would have been impossible without the subsequent rise of sugar. As historian Sidney W. Mintz describes, “During the period 1750-1850 every English person, no matter how isolated or how poor, and without regard to age or sex, learned about sugar… A rarity in 1650, a luxury in 1750, sugar had been transformed into a virtual necessity by 1850”.[3] In 1847, Fry capitalized on the newfound availability of sugar and combined it with cocoa powder and melted cocoa butter to create the world’s first chocolate bars. Because of its low cost and sweet flavor, sugar effectively substituted other more expensive sweeteners such as vanilla and anise flower and allowed Fry and Cadbury to price their bars to include a much wider audience. As a popular Fry advertisement shows below, chocolate was now being openly marketed to children. By drawing a connection between Fry’s Chocolate and happiness, the advertisement worked to make chocolate a staple for England’s youth.

Fry's Chocolate Ad

But these Cadbury and Fry bars were still not the smooth and rich chocolate bars enjoyed today; in 1879, Charles Lindt’s invention of the conche standardized previously grainy and variable chocolate bars and gave them a uniform texture and flavor. Pictured below, the conche kneaded the cocoa mixture against a granite surface, aerating the chocolate and giving it a silky texture.[4] Emblematic of the Mesoamerican metate, the conche made chocolate more flavorful and palatable. But while the quality of chocolate was previously judged based on the texture and flavor of the bar, Lindt’s vision of a uniform chocolate bar disassociated the consumer from the actual cacao beans and contributed to a rise of inferior chocolate.

Lindt's Conche

Industrial Revolution technology made chocolate bars appear uniform, but this technology also helped manufacturers hide inferior chocolate behind veils of sugar and colorful packaging; with the demand for chocolate soaring, many companies began using the new industrialized process to cut corners in production and lower costs. Before the Industrial Revolution, using the highest quality cacao beans was essential because it was impossible to hide the taste of bad beans. But with the help of the conche and the alkalizing process, it was now possible to mask the flavor of cheap Forastero beans and market it as high quality chocolate.[5] However the industrial shortcuts did not step there. In 1850, The Lancet, a British medical journal, reported that 39 out of 70 analyzed chocolate samples were colored with red ocher from ground bricks and most samples contained starch grains from potatoes.[6] With each new invention, chocolate was looking and tasting better, but serious food safety concerns remained.

The ability for manufacturers to market inferior chocolate spurred a direct response by the British Food Safety Movement. As the 1858 Punch cartoon, “A Hint to Paterfamilias”, shows, parents were educated on the dangerous additives in sweets and urged to demand transparency in production. In response to growing concerns, the British government passed regulatory acts such as the Sale of Food and Drugs Act of 1875, which essentially mandated British manufacturers to be fully transparent about the ingredients they put into their products.[7] While the problem of inferior beans remains to this day, the Food Safety Acts were the final step towards the establishment of a uniform chocolate bar.

"A Hint to Paterfamilias"

The Industrial Revolution opened the door for large-scale chocolate production; by making chocolate cheaper and easier to produce, inventions such as the conche and the hydraulic press spurred a shift towards chocolate for the masses and directly contributed to the food safety movement. The impact of the Industrial Revolution on the history of chocolate has been profound. It is because the Industrial Revolution that the chocolate bar even exists. And it is because the Industrial Revolution that these bars share their ingredients with the consumer.

[1] Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate Thames and Hudson (London, 2013) 234.

[2] Ibid., 235.

[3] Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History Penguin Books (New York, 1985) 148.

[4] Maricel E. Priscilla, The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes Crown Publishing Group (New York, 2009) 40.

[5] Ibid., 42.

[6] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 244.

[7] The Sale of Food and Drugs Act (1875) accessed at URL

Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Crown Publishing Group, 2009.

Images:

Fry’s Chocolate Advertisement, http://benefitsofchocolate.appspot.com/images/FrysChocolate.png

Van Houten’s Hydraulic Press, http://www.worldstandards.eu/images/cocoa%20press.jpg

Lindt’s Conche, http://www.barry-callebaut.com/cms_files/N-1674-enImg1.jpg

Punch Cartoon, http://www.bl.uk/britishlibrary/~/media/bl/global/english-online/collection-items-manual/j/o/h/johnleechcartoonspunch18581120207.jpg?w=608&h=342

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