The first people known to have made chocolate were the ancient cultures of Mexico and Central America. These people, including the Maya and Aztec, mixed ground cacao seeds with various seasonings to make a spicy, frothy drink.
Later, the Spanish conquistadors brought the seeds back home to Spain, where new recipes were created. Eventually, and the drink’s popularity spread throughout Europe. Since then, new technologies and innovations have changed the texture and taste of chocolate, but it still remains one of the world’s favorite flavors.
For these people, chocolate wasn’t just a favorite food—it also played an important role in their religious and social lives.
The ancient Maya grew cacao and made it into a beverage. The first people clearly known to have discovered the secret of cacao were the Classic Period Maya (250-900 C.E. [A.D.]). The Maya and their ancestors in Mesoamerica took the tree from the rainforest and grew it in their own backyards, where they harvested, fermented, roasted, and ground the seeds into a paste.
When mixed with water, chile peppers, cornmeal, and other ingredients, this paste made a frothy, spicy chocolate drink.
Like the earlier Maya, the Aztecs also consumed their bitter chocolate drink seasoned with spices—sugar was an agricultural product unavailable to the ancient Mesoamericans.
Drinking chocolate was an important part of Maya and Aztec life. Many people in Classic Period Maya society could drink chocolate at least on occasion, although it was a particularly favored beverage for royalty. But in Aztec society, primarily rulers, priests, decorated soldiers, and honored merchants could partake of this sacred brew.
Chocolate also played a special role in both Maya and Aztec royal and religious events. Priests presented cacao seeds as offerings to the gods and served chocolate drinks during sacred ceremonies.
Chocolate: A Mesoamerican Luxury Before chocolate was a sweet candy, it was a spicy drink. Some of the earliest known chocolate drinkers were the ancient Maya and Aztecs of Mesoamerica.
They ground cacao seeds into a paste that, when mixed with water, made a frothy, rather bitter beverage. Drinking chocolate was an important part of life for the Classic Period Maya and the Aztecs.
The Spaniards recognized the value attached to cacao and observed the Aztec custom of drinking chocolate. Soon after, the Spanish began to ship cacao seeds back home.
An expensive import, chocolate remained an elite beverage and a status symbol for Europe’s upper classes for the next 300 years.
Sweetened chocolate became an international taste sensation. When the Spanish brought cacao home, they doctored up the bitter brew with cinnamon and other spices and began sweetening it with sugar.
They managed to keep their delicious drink a Spanish secret for almost 100 years before the rest of Europe discovered what they were missing. Sweetened chocolate soon became the latest and greatest fad to hit the continent.
Chocolate was a European symbol of wealth and power. Because cacao and sugar were expensive imports, only those with money could afford to drink chocolate. In fact, in France, chocolate was a state monopoly that could be consumed only by members of the royal court.
Like the Maya and the Aztecs, Europeans developed their own special protocol for the drinking of chocolate. They even designed elaborate porcelain and silver serving pieces and cups for chocolate that acted as symbols of wealth and power. Cacao farming required lots of land and workers. Cacao and sugar were labor-intensive agricultural products. To keep up with the demand for chocolate, Spain and many other European nations established colonial plantations for growing these plants.
A combination of wage laborers and enslaved peoples were used to create a plantation workforce.
Chocolate: A European Sweet Until the 1500s, no one in Europe knew anything at all about the delicious drink that would later become a huge hit worldwide. Spain’s search for a route to riches led its explorers to the Americas and introduced them to chocolate’s delicious flavor.
Eventually, the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs made it possible to import chocolate back home, where it quickly became a court favorite. And within 100 years, the love of chocolate spread throughout the rest of Europe.
A steady stream of new inventions and advertising helped set the stage for solid chocolate candy to become the globally favored sweet it is today.