Cacao History 101

barkeater Blog

By Sarah Elizabeth Morris

You walk through a grocery store and don’t think twice about the rows of chocolate of all varieties. We take it for granted today, but chocolate wasn’t so easy to come by up until recently. In fact, most of us don’t even question the process and where the chocolate originates from. And we’re not just talking about the New Jersey warehouse it may have been shipped from. 

Cacao trees were native to ancient Mesoamerica, where football-shaped cacao pods grew (and still do) up to 20 inches each. Though they grew in a variety of shapes and colors, each pod held beans with the same bitter taste, quite contrary to the pulp that is cultivated and processed into the sweet treat we know today. In fact, the beans were so bitter, they weren’t even eaten. Instead, the native peoples in what is now South America, fermented the beans and drank the tart beverages.  It was quite common to add ground up hot peppers to the mix (hot chocolate anyone?).

Cacao provided more than just nutrients back in the B.C. age. According to archaeological discovery, the upper class used dishes decorated with cacao powder. But it didn’t stop there. A Mayan tomb, traced back to around 480 B.C., was found lined with cacao powder; it was assumed that the body belonged to a wealthy family. The Mayans also used cacao for ceremonies and festivals, as well as currency. So yeah, money DID grow on trees.

In European culture, chocolate wasn’t introduced until it was brought back from the Americas and used as medicine. Through royalty, chocolate was introduced as a treat to eat with sugar and honey, a delicacy to the common folk. 

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the price of cacao dropped and more people could afford imported chocolate. However, this caused major problems with child labor, which was needed to meet the consumers’ growing demand for chocolate. Today, fair trade chocolate certification may be used to ensure that the farmers are paid fair wages and plantation owners abide by fair labor practices.

Next time you take a taste of chocolate, try to put yourself back in time and realize how lucky you are to live in a world where chocolate is abundant.