Chocolate, Coffee, and Tea: An Interactive History

When the Europeans arrived in Meso-America, they encountered as perhaps the most important and desired foodstuff of the Aztec “Indians” a bitter and energizing drink derived from the seeds of the cacao plant.  But a half-millennium later, in cafes and bakeries and grocery shops around the world, chocolate has become synonymous with sweetness and indulgence, and no longer with energy, health, vigor, and vitality.  What accounts for this radical shift in the way that chocolate is perceived and consumed?  While innovations in chocolate manufacturing and increases in the availability of sugar in the developed world allowed for the possibility of chocolate to be transformed from a cleansing beverage into a sugary dessert, the ability to make chocolate into candy cannot alone explain its transformation.  Instead, it was competition from two other caffeinated beverages, coffee and tea, that drove the long-term process of converting chocolate from an invigorating food to an ultra-sweet indulgence.

When chocolate was first introduced into Europe during the 16th century, it remained, according to Marcy Norton, strikingly similar to the drink enjoyed by the Indians of the New World.  “Europeans in both the New and Old World learned to like chocolate in its full Mesoamerican complexity, adopting the whole spectrum of cacao beverages that surrounded them” (Norton).  Over time, Europeans began the process of adding sugar and other spices to create unique blends of chocolate, which grew in popularity alongside the explosion of sugar onto the European scene in the 18th and 19th centuries (Coe and Coe, 114-115).  Importantly, the introduction of chocolate in Europe coincided with the introduction of both coffee and tea into Europe, which would have arrived in Europe as luxury goods just after chocolate in the early 1600’s (Reich).  Figure 1 shows a picture of a Dutch ship from the time period, which might have carried coffee or tea from Africa and Asia into Europe.

Dutch Ship

Figure 1

I believe that it was the competition with these stimulant drinks that caused chocolate to transform into becoming primarily consumed as a sweet drink or candy by the early 1900’s.

The energizing properties of coffee and tea have caused these beverages, in a manner very similar to that of chocolate, to serve important functions in virtually every society that has been exposed to these drinks.  Anna Reich describes the cultural importance of coffee in Ethiopia, where one legend tells of a herdsman who discovered the invigorating qualities of coffee when he observed his goats running around wildly after consuming the fruit of the coffee bush.


Figure 2: The Legend of Coffee’s Discovery in Ethiopia

Both tea and coffee have historically played roles similar to the one that chocolate played in Meso-America and early Europe; they each were consumed in liquid form, often at warm temperatures, and each was thought to have medicinal and stimulating properties.  It comes as no surprise, then, that coffee and tea largely supplanted chocolate as the go-to stimulant drink for modern Europeans and North and South Americans.  Still, we may ask why it came to be that chocolate became so closely associated with sweetness and candy, while the other two drinks, which are also frequently accompanied by sugar, remain seen more as stimulants than as sweets.


Figure 3: chocolate is depicted as a dessert item, while

the black coffee serves the role of an energizing stimulant

Part of the answer may relate to the naturally higher caffeine contents of coffee and tea; alternatively this difference may stem from the innovations in chocolate production that allowed it to be consumed as a solid food.  Whatever the case may be, chocolate’s shifting role over the past half-millennium is due in large part to its association with the other two major stimulant drinks, which have combined to change how we perceive and consume chocolate.

List of Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Coe, Michael D. The true history of chocolate. 280 p., (2013).

Norton, Marcy. Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics. Oxford University Press: 2006.  Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=industrialization&searchText=and&searchText=chocolate&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dindustrialization%2520and%2520chocolate%26amp%3Bacc%3Don%26amp%3Bwc%3Don#fn34

Reich, Anna. Coffee and Tea: History in a Cup. The Herbarist: 2010.

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