If one stands near the Chicago River fork, just by the world famous Merchandise Mart, they are struck by a familiar and enticing smell. On a good day, a large portion of downtown Chicago smells distinctly of chocolate. Following the railway lines just west of the river will lead you to the Blommer chocolate factory. Blommer currently processes almost 45% of the cacao beans in the U.S. and the Chicago headquarters stands as their largest processing plant. The smell is so strong and distinct, you can actually discern the difference between when they are making milk chocolate versus cocoa powder or dark chocolate. Traveling further down the river to the North is a strip of land that use to hold a coffee roasting plant. On a perfect day, these smells would intermingle as the roasting released their warm bitter notes on the air, reminding us of coffee and chocolate’s shared past.
(A former tumbler post allowed Chicagoans to track the chocolate scent daily)
Standing there, it begs the question about where their paths diverged. How did chocolate make the transformation from the beverage of revolutionaries and royalty to a confectionary treat to appease the masses?
By the time cacao became the darling of beverage establishments, the Old World had abandoned the Humors system of medicine. No longer were there debates as to whether chocolate was warm or cold or how to best balance it with spices. At the same time, drug crops such as tea, coffee and chocolate, which had long been associated with wealth and status, were becoming more accessible. Daily rituals were created around these beverages, often with the addition of sugar, which was growing in popularity. However, both chocolate and coffee fell out of favor as a beverage when the British East India Company increased the tea supply, causing tea prices to drop dramatically. The lower prices made it more accessible, transforming it to a national compulsion for the British. Coffee would eventually become more accessible and regain some lost ground, but rather than look to rebound as a beverage choice, chocolate evolved in the food space as a confection and flavoring.
Several different innovations helped chocolate with this evolution. Going back to its heyday as a beverage, drinking chocolate was growing in popularity in the new world. At the time, cacao was still being ground and processed by hand on matates. It was an arduous process, that took time and manpower, keeping chocolate in the hands of those who could afford it. In 1765, Dr. James Baker partnered with John Hannon to simplify the process and reduce labor. The pair rented a grist mill in Milton Lower Falls, MA, using water power to grind the chocolate. This was chocolate’s first step in to the industrial age, liberating it from the labor of hand grinding and creating a more consistent product. The company they formed, Baker chocolates, still exists today under the Kraft Heinz company.
(Baker Chocolates still stands today in Milton Falls, MA)
The next leap forward for chocolate came in 1824 from the Swiss. Coenraad Van Houten, a Swiss chemist, developed a new processing method using a hydraulic press. The press removed more than 70% of the cacao butter from the cacao nibs, leaving a cake, which could be easily turned in to powder. The cacao was then treated with alkaline, which reduced the bitterness, making for a milder, more palatable chocolate. This not only made it cheaper and easier to make in to a beverage, but the resulting powder could be used as a flavoring for cakes, and other confections, helping chocolate easily expand it’s usage beyond beverages in to foodstuffs.
(Van Houten’s Press had a multi-stage process to remove fats from the cacao nibs)
The next innovation came from the Quakers in England. In 1847, as sugar consumption was taking a drastic turn up, Joseph Fry mixed cocoa powder and sugar with melted cacao butter. The resulting mixture was malleable enough to be cast in to a mold, making the world’s first eating chocolate, and transforming chocolate from flavor to stand alone item.
The Swiss continued to innovate and in 1867 Henri Nestle, a Swiss chemist devised a way to make powder milk through a process of evaporation. This would become the first ready to mix infant formula. (which would eventually lead to a rather sorted history among the Nestle company.) This innovation proved to be useful when in 1879 Daniel Peter used it to make the first milk chocolate bar by mixing with chocolate liquor, drying the moisture out of the mix and adding cacao butter. The resulting chocolate was sweeter, smoother, and more palatable.
Not to be outdone, that same year Rudolphe Lindt invented the conching machine. The machine consisted of a flat granite base and granite roller. Cacao nibs were ground by the roller and the resulting liquor was splashed over it at the end of each roll, allowing more air to come in contact during the process. The conching process had several major advantages. First, the continual motion caused the cacao to be more finely ground, which would eventually produce a smoother chocolate. Second, the contact with the air made it easier for moisture and volatile oils to evaporate, removing some of the acidity and making for a milder, more enjoyable flavor. Lastly, and importantly, the friction in the conching process created heat, this allowed chocolate makers to reduce roasting time (as some could be done in during the conching process), which sped up chocolate production dramatically.
The last leap forward toward mass produced chocolate takes us back to the United States with Milton Hershey. In 1903, Hershey was just starting to build his chocolate empire in the center of Pennsylvania. The one process that he struggled with was processing the milk for his milk chocolate with attempts often leading to scorched or burnt milk. He finally called in John Schmalbach, who mixed skim milk with a high ratio of sugar. Using low heat evaporation, he was able to create sweetened condensed milk. The resulting product mixed beautifully with cocoa powder and cacao butter. Not only did it produce eating chocolate, but the process made the chocolate more shelf stable and able to be stored for several months. It also created a smoother mixture overall, which was easier to move through equipment and molds, allowing them to make chocolate faster and cheaper. We now had a chocolate that was cheap and fast to produce, and could stay fresh for months, allowing it to be shipped further and stocked longer. With Hershey’s the once beverage of royalty was forever transformed into an indulgence for the masses.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 2007 (1996) The True History of Chocolate.
Brenner, Joel. 2000. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars.
D’Antonio, Michael D. 2006. Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams.
MacCarther, Kate. “Blommer Chocolate to Back Cocoa Sustainability Program.” Crain’s Chicago Business. May 9, 2012. (online version)
Mintz, Sidney W. 1986 (1985) Sweetness and Power.
Murray, Sarah. 2007. Moveable Feasts: From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century, the Incredible Journeys of the Food We Eat.
http://chicagococoasmell-blog.tumblr.com/ (retrieved 3/4/2018)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conche (retrieved 3/5/2018)