The 19th Century Pioneers Behind Chocolate’s Biggest Makeover

Chocolate’s life journey is a captivating tale that spans almost three millennia, but its most crucial juncture might have been the influence of inventions during the time of the Industrial Revolution. Chocolate, today, hardly resembles its late 18th century predecessor and has undergone a major shift in consumption and social status since. The innovations explored below chronicle the Industrial Revolution as the catalyst that generated a seismic shift in both status and consumption of chocolate; and demonstrates how converging 19th century innovations repositioned chocolate from a luxury item to a commonplace snack.

poster-the-penthievre-family-or-the-cup-of-chocolate-115756
This image perfectly captures the opulence associated with chocolate prior to the shift effected by the Industrial Revolution

According to Coe and Coe (232), “for at least 28 centuries, chocolate had been a drink of the elite and the very rich,” and the Industrial Revolution was the driving force that metamorphosed chocolate from a costly drink to a cheap food. Crucial to this transformation was a group of pioneering chocolate makers whose ingenious inventions converged to truly transform chocolate. The harbinger of future mechanization arrived when twelve year old Swiss, Philippe Suchard, upon realizing the cost of chocolate at the time, decided to make his own. By 1826, Suchard had not only succeeded in making chocolate, but had invented “the world’s first mélangeur or mixing machine” (Coe & Coe, 232).

However, the turning point for chocolate production occurred in 1828 when an invention by Dutch pioneer, Coenraad Van Houten, facilitated groundbreaking advancement in chocolate making. Van Houten’s hydraulic press refined the process by removing most of the cacao butter from cacao liquor, leaving behind a solid “cake” of cocoa, which could be repurposed in many ways. Van Houten further refined cocoa powder by treating it with alkali substances that significantly reduced its bitterness thereby creating the perception of stronger flavor (Coe & Coe 234). It was these key improvements that ushered in a new era of chocolate making. Coe and Coe put it this way:

“. . . in the year 1828, the age-old, thick and foamy drink was dethroned by easily prepared, more easily digestible cocoa. Van Houten’s invention . . . made possible the large-scale manufacture of cheap chocolate for the masses . . .”

The hydraulic press made mass produced chocolate a feasible endeavor and chocolate entrepreneurs envisioned the possibilities that this breakthrough created. By 1847 J. S. Fry & Sons had achieved a major milestone: they discovered a method for molding chocolate into bars, “which they christened Chocolat Délicieux a Manger  . . . the world’s first true eating chocolate” (Coe & Coe, 241). In so doing, Fry paved the way for future possibilities  . . .

Van Houten's Hydraulic Press
A Hydraulic Press: the invention that opened up a world of possibilities for chocolate manufacturers

By 1867, Henri Nestlé, a Swiss chemist, “discovered a process to make powered milk by evaporation,” and fortuitously laid the foundation for future enhancements in chocolate making. Nestlé had developed the key ingredient that fellow countryman Daniel Peter would later add to his chocolate production—and so it was that the milk chocolate bar was born in 1879 (Coe & Coe, 247). By then, chocolate’s makeover was well on its way, but there was one more wrinkle to be smoothed—chocolate bars still had a hard, grainy consistency.

This displeasing characteristic was apparently the impetus that drove another Swiss, Rodolphe Lindt, to keep experimenting with various techniques—he was determined to make chocolate’s consistency more agreeable (Lindt.com). Lindt’s perseverance paid off in 1879—enter the conche and a technique Lindt called “conching.” The mechanics of Lindt’s conche machine transformed chocolate’s grainy consistency into a smooth, velvety, molten experience. Soon enough, the quality of Lindt’s fondant chocolate became the norm, setting the bar that still endures today .

Lindt's Conche
A model of Lindt’s Conche: the invention that improved the texture and flavor of chocolate

These innovations forever changed the chocolate industry by creating the conditions for expansion and competition among manufacturers eager to capitalize upon the emerging market—“Chocolate confections had now become big business in Great Britain, the continent, and in America” (Coe & Coe, 242). This enormous increase in demand encouraged more manufacturing, which in turn lowered chocolate’s price point as manufacturers competed for a place of prominence. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Milton S. Hershey was fast becoming “a formidable rival to . . . European competitors,” and by the 1980s approximately 25 million Hershey Kisses were produced daily [Coe & Coe, 252]. Hershey was fast building a loyal following of consumers and would eventually become a household name in America.

Today, chocolate, a once opulent ambrosia has come full circle and can boast its own grand cru. But at the same time chocolate is also readily available in multiple forms via myriad brands, strategically positioned near retail checkout counters as an impulse-buy item available to all strata of 21st century society.

Lindt
Lindt chocolate continues to innovate and has maintained a strong presence in the industry

Citations:

  1. D’Antonio, Michael. Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. 2006. New York, NY. Simon & Schuster.
  2. Coe, S. D. and Coe, M. D. (2013) The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson.
  3. Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food Lecture Slides 2016.”

Multimedia Sources:

  1. chocolateclass.wordpress.com
  2. Chocolate.lindt.com
  3. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chocolat_Suchard
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nestle
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