What are some descriptors that pop into your head when you think about chocolate? Smooth? Creamy? Velvety? Those are some of the feelings Dove wants you to imagine when you are viewing their ads like the one above which show gleaming liquid chocolate on and even comparing their chocolate to silk throughout. Though these are some of the modern connotations of chocolate, its origins were anything but. As technologies improved, the goal of chocolate makers moved towards smoother and smoother chocolate, that is, until technologies allowed for chocolate to become “too smooth,” after which consistency became more of a conscious choice by chocolate makers.
Evidence of cacao consumption dates back to as early as 1900 BC according to tests on pre-Olmec vessels found at archeological sites in Mexico and Central America. The word cacao is sometimes thought to come from the Olmec word “kakawa.” The Olmecs, whose civilization prospered from approximately 1500 BC to 400 BC, likely used cacao for religious and medicinal purposes. They were also possible ancestors of the Mayans who are thoroughly documented—primarily from the Dresden Codex—as having used cacao in many aspects of their lives. When the Maya consumed cacao, it was often in the form of a frothy beverage, often mixed with maize and spices. One technique involved grinding the cacao nibs with a metate, a curved volcanic stone slab. The individual grinding the nibs uses a stone roller with a curvature almost matching that of the metate. Then, while the nibs are being ground, small amounts of water are tossed in, creating a sort of cacao paste. When this is mixed with other ingredients in water, granules are still very much present and noticeable. There will not be any whole nibs, but particles will still be distinguishable. In the video below, at approximately the 2 minute mark, we can see a woman, affectionately referred to as Señora Ruiz, grinding roasted beans on a metate. Usually, the beans would be deshelled, or winnowed, which leaves only the nibs, but this is not necessarily a mandatory step. We can see that even after she grinds it into a “fine” powder, the cacao paste is still visibly granular. In addition, in the video, Señora Ruiz adds sugar—among other ingredients—to the cacao paste. Sugar was not introduced in Mesoamerica until the Europeans brought it over during colonization, thus the recipe that Señora Ruiz is concocting is, in fact, not a true ancient Mesoamerican recipe.
The metate and other instruments like it were among the only ways to grind cacao until around the early 1800s as the industrial revolution ushered in new mechanized methods for refining chocolate past what was possibly by hand. The first major breakthrough in this was when Coenraad Johannes van Houten patented the hydraulic press in 1828. The hydraulic press allowed cocoa powder to be separated from the cocoa butter, “a peculiar mild fat…to the amount of 43 per cent according to Bousingault, and 53 per cent according to Lampadius” (Scientific American 3). Not only could this process separate the two which allowed the cocoa powder to become finer, the cocoa butter could then be added later in different quantities which alters consistency and texture. The same Scientific American article that described the proportion of cocoa butter per bean also outlines another new technology of the time, a granite cacao milling machine, “a machine consisting of an annular trough of granite, in which two speroidal granite millstones are turned by machinery” (Scientific American 3). This is yet another step in the road to finer, smoother chocolate. The technology is not immensely complicated. It is still, at its core, a stone that is grinding cacao, just like the metate, yet this machine can do the process more intensely, more efficiently, and with more precision.
1879 brought the concept of conching into the world of chocolate thanks to Rudolphe Lindt (yes, the same Lindt as Lindt Chocolate). Conching involves the cocoa butter being re-added and the chocolate liquor being continuously turned in a large vat, evenly distributing the cocoa butter and any other ingredients that are added at this stage. According to F. H. Banfield, Director of Research at the British Food Manufacturing Industries, conching along with controlled grinding “can standardize the smooth-eating qualities of his product” (Banfield 299). It is interesting to note that in this article, he mentions chocolate as a couverture, in which the consistency matters a great deal as flow rate and viscosity are vital factors due to the chocolate not flowing evenly if it is too thick and draining off if it is too thin. Thus, consistency is not only important for the mouthfeel it gives a consumer eating it straight, but also with its performance around other food items.
Lastly, an invention that debuted in 1912 but is still widely used to this day is the three-roll mill (or five-roll mill depending on the preferred end consistency). During this process, the chocolate liquor is run through a number of tightly spaced rollers that squeeze the liquor through, reducing its particle size. The more times this process is run, the finer the texture of the chocolate gets. Most chocolate makers today aim for 18-20 microns for their particle size. Particle size is a delicate balance. A particle size too large and the consumer can feel individual granules within the chocolate—which is not necessarily a bad thing and at times done intentionally, especially by more artisanal chocolate makers. A particle size too small and the consistency of the chocolate comes off as almost gooey. The video below shows the chocolate process as a whole but does a good job of describing the rolling process and its significance with consistency. Not only does it get the particles to a desired size, it shapes them into almost “pearl-like” spheres so that they roll, instead of sticking to the palette.
In ancient Mesopotamia, the most advanced form of chocolate grinding came in the form of the metate resulting in cacao products and beverages with rough and gritty cacao particles. The Industrial Revolution was the impetus for many chocolate related inventions, the first of which being van Houton’s hydraulic press which allowed for the separation of cocoa butter from cocoa powder. The conching process, invented by Rudolph Lindt, allowed for a smoother chocolate by re-adding cocoa butter and thoroughly mixing the chocolate liquor. The final game changer with regards to consistency was the three-roll mill. It was this invention that allowed for the chocolate liquor to become not only fine enough where individual particles are indistinguishable by the tongue, but too fine to where the chocolate feels gooey. Whereas originally, chocolate consistency was a factor of the present technology, after many inventions and adaptations of technologies, consistency has become a conscious choice.
Banfield, F. H. “FROM COCOA BEAN TO CHOCOLATE.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, vol. 105, no. 4998, 1957, pp. 298–300. JSTOR.
“Chocolate.” Scientific American, vol. 8, no. 1, 1852, pp. 3. JSTOR.
Edgar, Blake. “The Power of Chocolate.” Archaeology, vol. 63, no. 6, 2010, pp. 20–25. JSTOR.
Lee, Owen. “Preparing Drinking Chocolate near Oaxaca, Mexico.” YouTube, YouTube, 25 Apr. 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlAg7zIR57k.
Mars, Incorporated. “Dove Chocolate Commercial – Senses.” YouTube, YouTube, 6 May 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwPwQ4S4op8.
Tasty. “How Chocolate Is Made.” YouTube, YouTube, 27 Nov. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPe1jMuX32s.