The cocoa tree presumably has its origins in the northern part of South America, including the Amazon region. There is, however, evidence that cocoa beans were cultivated in Central America even before the Aztecs conquered the area now called Mexico City around 1200.
It was not until the 16th century that the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortéz introduced the cocoa bean into Europe after his return to Spain from Mexico. When he landed in Mexico in 1521 the local people showered him with all kinds of gifts because they regarded him, much to his surprise, as the reincarnation of one of their gods. Among these gifts were cocoa beans valuable to the Aztecs not only as a means of payment but also as a stimulant, which they made from de-shelled ground beans, mixed with other vegetable products to improve their flavour.
The discovery of distant areas not only caused a fundamental change in the general world view but also altered people’s dietary patterns profoundly, especially in European towns.
Ships brought until then such unknown products as coffee, tea, corn, cocoa and tobacco, while sugar was imported into Europe in large quantities because of the rapidly growing sugar cane production in the West Indies. With more sugar available, the consumption of coffee and cocoa increased.
The slow advance in technology at that time hardly affected the consumption of tea and coffee, which were grown using relatively simple cultivation methods, but was probably one of the reasons that cocoa consumption in Europe, apart from Spain, increased more slowly.
In the 16th century cocoa had become very popular as a drink made with sugar and water, first in the colonies and in Spain, and later on in other parts of Europe as well.
In Europe cocoa beans were initially prepared in the same way as in Mexico: cocoa nibs were ground manually by moving a grinder over a heatable grinding stone, which European traders used to take home from their voyages to Mexico.
After a period in which Spain had succeeded in keeping the preparation of cocoa a secret,
the product found favour in the royal courts and with the bourgeoisie in other European countries as well, but not yet with the ordinary people. As cocoa consumption did not keep pace with cocoa bean output in Central America, cocoa traders started to advertise in Europe. Around 1680 books were being published in the Netherlands as well as in France which promoted the use of coffee, tea and cocoa as a drink or stimulant. Around 1685 the Dutch physician, Cornelis Decker, probably at the instigation of a number of Dutch merchants, wrote a book on coffee, tea and chocolate.
From 1700 to 1800
After a long time, in which only water and sugar were added to make cocoa drinks, chocolate manufacturers started to change their recipes. Milk was now added, as well as eggs and wine, while chocolate in solid form became increasingly popular.
The 18th century saw a further improvement in chocolate manufacturing techniques. In addition to the traditional grinding stone, the mortar and the grinding kettle with the iron ball were now being used for grinding the cocoa nibs. Preferably, cocoa was defatted to obtain a partly defatted cocoa liquor as the basic material for making chocolate. The cocoa butter fraction obtained after pressing cocoa liquor was used in the pharmaceutical industry.
This period also saw the beginning of industrial cocoa processing carried out in factories or rather small workshops with only a few employees.
The Dutchman Casparus van Houten established C.I. van Houten & Zoon in 1815, while Coenraad Johannes van Houten gained in 1828 a ten-year monopoly for the manufacture of ‘powder chocolate’ that he had been able to improve by pressing cocoa liquor.
In 1818 the number of chocolate factories in the Netherlands had increased to twenty-seven, fifteen of them operating in the province of Zeeland. In spite of this the country’s cocoa beans imports in 1850 were only 225 tons while its cocoa product exports amounted to only 20 tons.
The industrial revolution in Europe caused the manufacturers of cocoa and chocolate processing machines to step up their activities; France saw a considerable growth in the production of rolling machines (SAVY) and in Germany J.M. Lehmann-Dresden’s machine factory was established in 1834, to become market leader in cocoa processing machinery production until World War II. Other well-known suppliers of production and processing equipment to the cocoa and chocolate industry were Baker Perkins, Barth, Bauermeister, Bühler, Carle & Montanari, Duyvis, Nagema and Probat.
In 1875, when Daniel Peters of Switzerland succeeded in making milk chocolate, this had a great impact on the cocoa industry. Little is known as to how he invented this type of chocolate, but the fact that he worked with the chemist Henri Nestlé most probably played a crucial role as the latter was engaged in baby food development, while his company manufactured condensed milk.
In the Netherlands substantial improvement in cocoa powder manufacturing shifted the emphasis in cocoa processing to cocoa powder and associated with it to cocoa butter yields. This resulted in the country’s increase in cocoa products exports from 20 tons in 1850 to 2.000 tons in 1900.
Casparus van Houten made another discovery by finding that cocoa could be further improved by treating it with alkali. This treatment made the cocoa stronger in flavour, and redder and darker in colour, which greatly added to the popularity of cocoa as an ingredient in food. The increasing demand for cocoa butter used in milk and melt-chocolate made according to the ‘Swiss method’ could be satisfied by the equally increasing cocoa butter yield, while the overall demand for cocoa butter resulted in rapidly growing cocoa powder stocks.