A Brief History of Cocoa

A humble bean, human sacrifice and bitter scum. Yum yum!

Cocoa! You’ll know this humble jungle bean as the source of delicious cookies and lots of brown things - brown concrete, brown glass, brown fireworks and even brown shulker boxes. But you might not know its long and grand history, which involves ancient civilisations, human sacrifice, conquering Spaniards, and delicious confections.

People have been making cocoa for thousands of years. It's made from beans found on the frustratingly-similarly-spelled cacao trees, which originally came from central America. The mysterious Olmecs, the sophisticated Mayans and the powerful Aztecs all used them, at first to make a fermented drink a little like beer. Around 400AD, though, the Mayans figured out how to make chocolate, grinding the beans with local spices and other ingredients.

By the time of the Aztecs, chocolate had become quite the thing. Their legends said it was a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl and they compared the removal of the bean from the cocao pod to the removal of a heart during human sacrifice. In some ceremonies they even had a young man drink chocolate mixed with blood before he was sacrificed. The Aztecs couldn’t actually grow cacao trees in their highlands homelands, but they demanded that their colonies pay tribute to them in beans, which shows just how valuable cocoa was to them.

This Aztec sculpture of a man carrying a cocao pod dates from the 15th or early 16th century. Spot the red pigment around the little fellow's mouth? Decorative facepaint or an indication of a messy choccie habit? Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Museum, which currently houses the chap.

But when Europeans turned up in the sixteenth century, they hated the stuff. Missionary José de Acosta described the drink as “Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant to taste.” Conquistador Hernán Cortez described Emperor Moctezuma II drinking fifty flagons of chocolate a day but disliked its bitterness himself. This wasn’t the chocolate we know today; it was mixed with things like spicy petals, chilli peppers and aniseed-like leaves. But he also observed that it made its drinkers feel more alert, a result of a chemical compound called theobromine, which acts a little like caffeine in coffee.

Nevertheless, the Europeans began exporting the beans home, and instead of mixing it with spices, they began adding sugar. This sweet, sweet concoction swept across the rich classes, and a new obsession was born that fuelled the growth of a global industry. All product of a little jungle bean. Something to consider next time you reach for the cookie jar.