In 1847 chocolate in bar form was invented. Prior to that, chocolate had always been enjoyed as a beverage. The idea of drinking a chocolate beverage dates back to 1500 B.C., when the Olmecs of the Central America domesticated cacao. Previously the fruit of the cacao tree had been eaten (it tastes like passion fruit); but at some point, the seeds, previously discarded like the seeds of most fruits, were found to have “magical” properties when roasted and ground into cocoa powder. A new beverage was born.
Chocolate was the drink of royals, aristocrats and wealthy merchants; often served in gold goblets, the beans were so valuable that they were used as currency. The same paradigm occurred once chocolate reached Europe: it took a couple of centuries to work its way down the socioeconomic ladder to physicians and to the middle class. Yes, chocolate was once considered medicinal, though not everyone approved of the beverage’s supposed health-giving or health-preserving properties. There were even debates over whether or not taking a cup of chocolate (which was served both iced and hot) was technically breaking a fast, a crucial consideration in a time when Roman Catholic religious fasts were taken seriously. If chocolate was merely a drink, it wouldn’t break the fast, but if it was judged to be a food, it could not be consumed during times of fast, including all of Lent, the hours between midnight and Holy Communion (which would probably have been celebrated during Mass in the morning), and any other times of fasting.
Clerics of all ranks weighed in on this critical subject, up to and including some Popes. Gregory XIII (1572-1588) ruled that chocolate did not break the fast, and other popes agreed. But some clergymen who were stricter in their interpretations attempted numerous bans of chocolate during fasts.
In 1645, Tomas Hurtado, who held a chair in theology at the University of Seville, judged that chocolate was a drink if made with water, but a food when milk or eggs were used in the preparation. By this we know that some chocolate was prepared with milk at least as early as the mid-17th century.
As early as 1657, drinking chocolate was advertised in an English newspaper. London’s first chocolate-house, run by a Frenchman, also opened in that year (although some sources indicate this opening might have occurred five years earlier, in 1652). However, coffee-houses also served chocolate as a beverage (at that time, tea was more expensive than either, so it was consumed only rarely). Both chocolate- and coffee-houses catered to the elite and wealthy, and both were famous for political gatherings and discussions. At the very end of 1675, Charles II, King of England, attempted to suppress coffee-houses as places of “license and seditious libel,” but the public outcry made enforcement of the decree an impossibility. Chocolate-houses proliferated in England during the latter half of the 1600s. The most famous chocolate-house was White’s, opened in 1693 in a fashionable area of London. These institutions would last barely a century. By the end of the 1700s, chocolate-houses were quickly disappearing. Many were transformed into gentlemen’s clubs, and White’s still exists as such a club today.
As you have probably noticed hot cocoa has not been mentioned up to this time. The reason? It wasn’t until 1828 that a chemist in the Netherlands, Coenrad J. Van Houten, took out a patent for a process to manufacture a chocolate with a much-reduced fat content. This chocolate, which was made in block or cake form, could be easily reduced to a fine powder, which we know as cocoa powder. Cocoa powder could now be made on a large scale, meaning that it would become more affordable to more people.
“Drinking chocolate” made the jump across the Atlantic Ocean to the American colonies early on, certainly not far into the 18th century. By 1712, Boston’s then-equivalent of today’s pharmacists, called apothecaries, were already advertising a chocolate beverage for its curative powers. It wasn’t called drinking chocolate then. It was just chocolate, since “eating chocolate,” the solid chocolate bar, would not be invented until 1847 (by Fry Brothers in Bristol, England).
Later, the term “drinking chocolate” was used to distinguish shaved or ground chocolate mixed with hot milk or water to create a beverage, as opposed to cocoa powder. Drinking chocolate didn’t seem to exist in the U.S. Within the past ten years, however, gourmet chocolate has become a hot category, and hot chocolate along with it. Now, instead of the can of Hershey’s or Droste’s from the supermarket, fine hot cocoa and hot chocolate preparations abound.
Good question! Hot cocoa, hot chocolate, drinking chocolate, sipping chocolate...the terms are often used interchangeably, but there are differences. The term “drinking chocolate” didn’t seem to exist in the U.S. prior to the end of the 20th century. Since the enormous surge in gourmet chocolate (known in the industry as “prestige”) European imports of “drinking chocolate”, as well as contenders from American artisan chocolatiers have proliferated.
Not all hot chocolate is created equal
But all hot cocoa and hot chocolate mixes are not equal. If you buy a typical supermarket brand, you’ll pay much less than you will for a “gourmet” product, but the ingredients will usually be of lesser quality and often include chemicals and artificial flavors.
By contrast, premium brands are more expensive (in some cases, far more expensive), but they tend to use fewer and better ingredients—and taste much better as a result.
While cocoa is technically the powdered product, many people use the term “cocoa” to mean the drink, “hot cocoa.” Cocoa beans are about 50% fat. To make cocoa powder, roasted cocoa beans are ground to a thick paste and pressed between hydraulic plates, which squeeze out about half of the excess cocoa butter; the hard disk of cocoa powder that results is typically between 20% and 22% fat. The disk is then pulverized into a fine powder. Drinking chocolate, by contrast, contains all the cocoa butter; and some brands even add extra cocoa butter for richness and better mouth feel.
I can think of no good reason for a drinking chocolate to contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, yet multiple mixes do. Others contained mono- and diglycerides (used to blend together ingredients which might not blend well on their own), corn syrup solids, dipotassium phosphate (prevents protein coagulation and/or precipitation), cellulose gum (an indigestible fiber used as a bulking agent), artificial flavors, canola oil, sodium silicoaluminate (a lump-preventing, anti-caking agent), sodium citrate (a buffering agent, added to adjust pH), sodium caseinate (provides a little bit of dairy flavor as well as a wee bit of thickening and a creamy look and feel), silicon dioxide (another anti-caking agent), and a few more ingredients not listed here depending on the various brands.
I don’t want my dietary indulgences containing this nonsense, nor do I care if a mix contains “less than 2%” of them. It should be noted, incidentally, that the majority of the more expensive preparations used fewer or none of these ingredients.
There’s no reason that even a basic hot cocoa mix has to contain any of the thickeners, anti-caking agents, bulking agents, etc., listed above, except that their manufacturers want a cheap product that will store well on a supermarket shelf for many months.
Consumers will note that the difference between many high-quality specialty foods and many mass-marketed products is that the latter often use lesser-quality ingredients and additives to produce a desired result—creaminess, thicker consistency, shelf stability etc. But “you get what you pay for”: a premium cocoa will cost three to five times what a supermarket product does.
What we all should look for in a hot cocoa or hot chocolate preparation is a short list of real ingredients, such as chocolate, cocoa, sugar, milk powder, cocoa butter, pure vanilla (none of that artificial vanillin nonsense), and a few others. Gentle reader, you have the power to make this happen. If enough people boycott the cheap products filled with unnecessary additives, manufacturers will be forced to stop making them. Just something to ponder.