Typically an alleviant for cold hands or pouty tantrums, modern hot chocolate is an innocent favorite among children returning from building snowmen or the sledding down the bunny hill. But the deliciously rich chocolate drink has bitter and nefarious origins. And contrary to the common assumption, the drink’s provenance lies not in the brisk altitudes of snow-covered mountains, but deep in the rain forests of Central and South America.
Hot chocolate traces back to Mesoamerica, commencing with the ancient Aztec empire, and with blood. The Aztecs worshipped their gods fervently, believing that they sacrificed themselves to fertilize the earth and allow humans to thrive. The Aztecs repaid their supposed debt these deities with routine human sacrifice. In a show of murderous zealotry, hundreds, sometimes thousands of Aztecs were sacrificed at a time to quench the thirst of one of their many gods — mostly to Mictlantecuhtli, god of the dead. The ritual involved slicing open a tribute’s abdomen, bleeding him or her out and extracting the still-beating heart.
“Cacao” is often confused with “cocoa”. Cocoa is more modern, referring to the highly processed cacao powder used to make instant hot chocolate. Cacao refers to cacao beans, direct from the cacao tree. Without any added sugars or fats, cacao is the cleanest form of edible chocolate.
Now — what does this have to do with hot chocolate? Plenty. The purposes of human sacrifice and drinking chocolate were intimately related. If human blood appeased the gods and brought good fortune upon the Aztecs, the cacao tree was the gods’ way of assisting Aztec warriors in battle. Both blood and cacao were considered sacred; cacao beans, the main ingredient in the chocolate drink and cultivated from native cacao trees, were believed to be gifts from Quetzalcoatl, their god of wisdom. This is why the cacao tree’s scientific name is Theobroma cacao; “Theobroma” is ancient Greek for “food of the gods”.
Before a battle — wherein the Aztecs would collect their slaves and future sacrifice victims — the highest-ranking and most elite fighters would drink cacao. Even without eating and after trekking many miles, it was said that the cacao drink provided warriors with endurance, vigor and an Achillean bloodlust. And then in times of peace (peace being a subjective term), drinking chocolate was as a regal late-night delicacy.
It was said that the cacao drink provided warriors with endurance, vigor and an Achillean bloodlust.
Of course, what the Aztecs were drinking was hardly anything like today’s hot chocolate. This cacao, like pure dark chocolate, was extremely bitter. Aztecs would extract cacao seed pods from the tree, then ferment, dry and roast them. Once de-shelled, the leftover cacao nibs were ground into a thick chocolate paste and mixed with water. The finished, frothy and highly prized delicacy was — since cacao beans were a type of Mesoamerican currency — actually drinkable money.
Advanced as the Aztecs were, drinking cacao and spirited warriors were no match for insurgent muskets and Spanish conquistadors. Culturally, the victorious Europeans took very little from the indigenous civilization, but were very much enamored with the dark beverage. In the 1600s cacao seeds were transported back to Spain and spread throughout. The Aztecs had drank cacao cool, but the Spanish and English — taking after the Mayans, who had their own version of the drink — drank it hot. It was still very bitter, but overseas, the Europeans had the means and motivation to nurture the drink with the addition of milk and sugar.
The Mayans drank their cacao hot. The Aztecs preferred it cool. Both enjoyed it frothy. They would mix the cacao paste with water to produce a liquid chocolate elixir, which was was then poured back and forth between bowls, making it foamy. A variety of spices and seasonings (chili pepper, vanilla, pureed flowers, etc.) were also added for supplemental flavor.
Your classic cup of Swiss Miss is neither the Aztec elixir nor the Spanish elite’s delicacy; hot chocolate is still fairly new to the world. It’s made with shavings from chocolate bars, which weren’t even invented until the mid 19th century. That’s right: the idea of hot cocoa predates actual chocolate. So where hot cacao is ground directly from a cacao tree, hot chocolate is contingent on cacao first being made into chocolate — which traces back to Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten.
Probably the single greatest influence on modern hot chocolate, van Houten did more than just add alkaline salts to reduce cocoa’s bitterness. Most importantly, he invented a machine press that extracted approximately half of cacao’s natural fat (which we refer to as cocoa butter). His finished “Dutch cocoa” had a dry, cake-like texture, which was more moldable, affordable to make and cheaper to buy than anything that preceded it. Drinking cacao had previously been a drink for Europe’s elite; van Houten’s Dutch press allowed it to be mass produced and mass consumed. From there, Joseph Fry (arguably modern hot chocolate’s second most influential person) added melted cocoa butter to this “Dutch cocoa” to form the first chocolate bar in 1847, eventually leading to hot chocolate as we know it today.
Hot cocoa’s image has been tarnished with marshmallows and whipped cream, but its heritage shouldn’t be forgotten. After shoveling snow all day or face-planting down the mountain, there’s no shame in ordering a chocolate drink. Sit back with your feet up and let your buddies laugh. While they’re sipping on IPAs and craft beers, you’re drinking something fit for a king — a gift from the gods that will, if need be, give you an edge in the battlefield.