The evolution of chocolate history: from Mayans to modern luxury

11 Oct 2023

Chocolate Knowledge Food + Drink

From the Aztecs and Mayans to the Victorians, people have always loved chocolate — here’s all you need to know about the chocolate history of your favourite treats

Today we’re surrounded by a vast array of chocolate choices — and we wouldn’t have it any other way. From Pink Champagne Truffles to Passion Fruit Chocolate Selecors, there’s chocolate for every taste and occasion. But looking back at chocolate history, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, there was a time when chocolate was rare and even unknown to most people.

Over the decades and centuries, our favourite cacao treat has developed and evolved, changing with technology and trends. By understanding chocolate’s rich history, we can appreciate its many forms and nuanced flavours in a whole new way. So if you’re ready to learn more about your best-loved delight, whip up a mug of velvety-smooth hot chocolate and strap in as we dive into this fascinating and delicious story.

Chocolate history: a cacao timeline

Cacao is the heart and soul of chocolate. By no means a modern discovery, the humble cacao bean has been beloved by many for thousands of years. So how did it first become an edible treat?

Ancient beginnings and the origins of chocolate

Our story begins over four thousand years ago in Mesoamerica (broadly modern-day Central America). Unsurprisingly, this is where the cacao tree naturally grows (although you’ll also find cacao farms in Ghana, Cameroon, and Cote D’Ivoire).

Back then, people mainly cultivated cacao beans to produce a drink. Historians believe they may also have fermented the white pulp that surrounds the beans to create an alcoholic beverage. Perhaps these ancient peoples would have enjoyed our own Cacao Gin, with its malty, toasted edge.

The significance of cacao to Mesoamerica cannot be overstated. Cacao is a defining cultural characteristic for every civilisation in the region before Europeans arrived. The Pre-Olmecs (2,500 BC), the Olmecs (1,600-400 BC), the Maya (250–950 AD) and the Aztecs (1300-1521 AD) all believed cacao to have great significance.

Chocolate’s cultural significance

Across all these cultures, they believed the gods gifted cacao and so using this ingredient enabled communion with them. There’s evidence of cacao being used in religious rituals, feasts, festivals and funerals. Cacao appeared in many medicines and even acted as a form of currency. So it’s safe to say that the cacao bean was a treasured crop that permeated every aspect of daily Aztec and Mayan life.

Of course, we still use chocolate for important occasions, and we have many suggestions on how to create the perfect gift for special birthdays.

For the Maya, cacao pods were symbols of life and fertility. They believed the rain deity Chaac shed their blood on the cacao pods so they produced. They also had an annual festival to celebrate the Cacao god Ek Chuah. The Maya’s chocolate drink mixed a roasted cacao seed paste with water, chilli peppers and cornmeal. In fact, we get the word chocolate from the name for this drink, “xocoatl”, meaning “bitter water”. It might not sound quite as enticing as our Velvetised hot chocolate sachets, but we owe a lot to this ancient phrase.

For the Aztecs, the god Quetzalcoatl stole a cacao tree from heaven. They believed that consuming their cacao drink increased a person’s wisdom and power. The Aztecs prized the cacao drink, which the emperor Montezuma consumed in golden goblets that he immediately threw away.

Chocolate’s introduction to Europe

So, how did cacao cross the oceans? Well, on the 15th August 1502, Christopher Columbus became the first European to encounter cacao beans. During his fourth trip to the Americas his crew seized a canoe belonging to indigenous people. His son Ferdinand observed that the local population greatly valued the beans, which he named “almonds”. So Columbus took cacao beans back to Spain, but it made little impact. Europeans had yet to discover the delights of chocolate.

The Spanish went on to conquer the Aztecs and establish a colony led by Hernando Cortez. He probably became the first European to witness the chocolate drink, while at Montezuma’s court in 1519. However, his interest in cacao was not in its taste, but its economic potential.

Cortez established a cacao plantation, and soon, Spanish people living in the colony were enjoying rich and aromatic drinking chocolate, which they served both hot and cold. This early chocolate drink featured a hint of chilli, which the Spanish believed would help with abdominal pain, fever and catarrh.

Today people are rediscovering the richness of chilli chocolate, with its irresistible combination of sweet and spicy flavours.

Yellow illustration of the history of chocolate map

A royal affair

Chocolate first made an impression in the Spanish Court, when monks served them a chocolate drink in 1544. This became even more popular when people started to add sugar or honey (to counteract the natural bitterness of cacao beans). Over the following decades, the spices were removed from the recipe, taking us one step closer towards that “modern” chocolate taste.

The chocolate drink started to spread across Europe, where it became a fashionable symbol for the rich and powerful. King Louis XIV of France loved chocolate, where it was regularly served at the Palace of Versailles. In France, chocolate became known as an aphrodisiac, perhaps starting its close association with romance. Even now, we offer different chocolates for that special someone in your life.

England’s late to the party

In contrast, the English were initially less enthusiastic about chocolate. In 1579, English pirates even burnt cacao beans seized from a Spanish ship, believing they were sheep droppings with little value – a sad moment for chocolate history.

England’s attitude to chocolate changed after they took Jamaica from Spain in 1655, along with its cacao plantations. Drinking chocolate became popular across England, but again only for the rich. The high import duties meant a pound of cacao beans cost around the same as a skilled tradesman’s weekly salary.

The English became the first to make drinking chocolate with milk, as well as water. Egg yolks, brandy or sherry could be added for extra flavour. These drinks were often enjoyed in dedicated chocolate houses, where the leading political, financial and cultural figures would meet for both pleasure and business.

Perhaps these chocolate houses were a little like our own restaurants and cafés. Here couples, friends, families and colleagues come together to chat and create memories, whilst enjoying cacao-inspired food and drink.

But not everyone was a fan of chocolate houses. King Charles II worried about influential figures meeting privately outside of the royal court. In 1675 he outlawed chocolate houses, claiming they were “hotbeds of sedition”. However, chocolate houses were so popular that he faced strong opposition, and Charles reversed his decision days later.

Pink illustration of England chocolate history

New ways to enjoy chocolate

Other members of the royal family had more favourable views of chocolate. In May 1709 Queen Anne spent the modern-day equivalent of £5,000 on chocolate. Chocolate houses were considered too masculine and inappropriate for respectable women, so they tended to enjoy chocolate at home.

In the 17th century, Europeans started experimenting with chocolate as a food. In 1674, a London coffee house called “At the Coffee Mill and Tobacco Roll” served chocolate in cakes and rolls. Three years earlier the chef, Clement Lassagne, served almonds coated in caramel to the Duke of Plesslis-Praslin, a French diplomat. The Duke loved them and gave them to people as gifts, which became known as praline. Later people added chocolate to create the classic we love today.

Inspired by the original, we have our own range of Praline Chocolate, where we offer different combinations of chocolates and nuts.

The Industrial Revolution changes everything

Before the Industrial Revolution, only the rich enjoyed chocolate. Grinding cacao beans by hand or using traditional mills was labour-intensive, which increased the price. The rapid advancements in technology during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries changed this forever. While we may not automatically associate chocolate with machinery, there were a few key inventions that would go on to speed up production and bring it to the masses.

In 1712, Thomas Necomen developed the first commercially successful steam engine. By the end of the century, steam engines were used to grind cacao beans. In 1828 the Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes Van Houten invented the cacao press that squeezed out half of the cacao butter. This resulted in a smoother chocolate that’s easier to mix with other ingredients.

These new technologies and processes meant that chocolate could be mass-produced to a high standard — and quickly. This caused the price of chocolate to drop dramatically and (for the first time) it became a treat for everyone to enjoy.

The history of the first chocolate bar

Before the Industrial Revolution, people mainly enjoyed chocolate as a drink or dessert ingredient. Even with the technological advancements of the 18th century, you couldn’t mass-produce chocolate bars.

The Fry family changed this. In 1847, Joseph Fry discovered how to create a paste by mixing cacao powder, sugar and cacao with a higher percentage of cacao butter (instead of warm water). This paste could then be poured into moulds and cooled to create chocolate bars. While the predecessors were brittle and dry, Fry’s solid chocolate was smooth, rich and creamy. It wasn’t long before the Fry family released the first mass-produced chocolate bar in 1866 — an instant success.

A testament to the versatility of chocolate, 150 years might have passed but we’re still finding innovative ways to enjoy bars that riff on the Frys’ creation. Our very own Batons and Slabs celebrate the diverse collection of chocolate flavours.

Blue illustration of Bristol chocolate illustration

The rise of big chocolate companies

The Industrial Revolution was a key aspect of chocolate history, and enabled some chocolate companies to grow on an unprecedented scale. Britain, with its empire and access to resources, proved the ideal location for chocolate businesses to boom.

In 1763 the Cadbury Brothers built the first factory for cacao and chocolate production in the UK. Then in 1866, they bought a Dutch cacao press, which enabled them to make drinking chocolate that was 100% pure, called Cocoa Essence.

During the 19th century, Fry & Sons, Cadbury Brothers and Rowntree all grew to become the dominant confectionery companies. They used many modern business strategies to succeed, such as launching new products and developing innovative advertising. One technique was to promote chocolate as an aid for improving people’s morality and health. This was rooted in the Quaker tradition, to which the three big confectionery families belonged.

In 1919, Fry & Son and the Cadbury Brothers ended their rivalry by merging. The twentieth century saw Cadbury grow even bigger and later rivals would emerge – both at home and abroad. Most of the high-street chocolate bars we know today were launched and achieved great commercial success.

But by the 90s there was a growing appetite for high-quality chocolate that was accessible to everyone. This is when Hotel Chocolat was born.

Lilac illustration of world map chocolate history

The troubled history of chocolate

It would be irresponsible to share the history of chocolate without mentioning some of its darker aspects. Like all goods discovered by Europeans in the New World, the history of chocolate has strong links with colonialism, the slave trade and human exploitation.

In the 16th century, the Spanish used the indigenous people of the Americas in cacao bean production. They were poorly treated and disease devastated the population, killing 90%. Needing more people to work on the cacao and sugar plantations (sugar being a vital ingredient in chocolate), people from Africa were enslaved and transported to the Americas.

When European countries started to ban slavery in the nineteenth century, Africa became the largest producer of cacao beans in the world. However, African countries were still European colonies, where the indigenous people were exploited for little pay. This issue has plagued the chocolate industry ever since. At Hotel Chocolat, we’re proud to be part of a growing movement to change this. As part of our Engaged Ethics, we’re committed to treating our cacao farmers fairly, paying them above the market rate (Equitable or better than Fair Trade).

How did chocolate change the world?

We may be biased in our passion for chocolate but there’s no denying that the treat had a significant impact on the world. What began as a religious beverage for ancient civilisations in the Americas, soon became a symbol of European power, and eventually transformed into an irresistible treat enjoyed by people from all walks of life.

But the journey isn’t over. The beauty of chocolate is that creators are continually finding new way to explore its rich flavours. No longer confined to a traditional chocolate bar, cacao has found its way into baked goods, cocktails, vegan fudge and even sumptuous salad dressings.

It’s no overstatement to say that there’s chocolate for every dish, celebration, and taste preference.

Chocolate as we know it today — a continuing evolution

People have a greater selection of chocolate to choose from than ever before. In addition to the classics (milk, dark and white), there are more flavours, textures and combinations to be explored.

Chocolate makers, like Hotel Chocolat, are at the forefront of pushing the boundaries to create new delicious possibilities for customers. We’re rather proud of the exciting and sometimes unusual flavour combinations our chocolatiers come up with.

Trio illustration of chocolate products

Modern chocolate trends

Part of the chocolate industry’s success is its innovation, which reacts to customers’ ever changing demands.

In some cases, this has gone beyond experimenting with cacao percentage, leading to the creation of brand-new types of chocolate. Take ruby chocolate, for example. This young upstart is fast becoming a popular favourite. In addition to its delicious creaminess, the vibrant pink colour makes it perfect for social media.

Another trend is people wanting a more intense and authentic chocolate experience. This leads them to chocolates with higher cacao content, sometimes even 100% cacao. Often described as bitter, but this oversimplifies all the rich variations of flavours and texture. High-quality ingredients are essential for achieving the right balance.

Banner with cacao bean photo on it

Chocolate as a cooking ingredient

Chocolate doesn’t just taste great on its own, it makes lots of other foods taste better. Why have a fudge cake when you can enjoy a triple-layer chocolate fudge cake?

Before chocolate came to Europe, most desserts were based around fruit or nuts. The addition of chocolate elevated these flavours to another level. However, there’s nothing to say that chocolate can only feature in sweet dishes. With its complex flavours and delicate bitterness, chocolate is a fantastic addition to an array of savoury dishes. Why not try some of our creative recipes?

And if you want some more hints and tips on cooking with chocolate, take a look at our helpful guide.

Where will it go next?

The chocolate industry is constantly changing. On top of this, customers increasingly want chocolate for more than its taste- — it needs to match their lifestyle.

For example, the number of people becoming vegan or reducing their dairy intake has increased dramatically over the last decade. People are doing this for ethical and/or health reasons. But they still want to enjoy chocolate, so that’s a growing market for chocolate makers.

That’s why we developed our own Unbelievably Vegan* Chocolate range, where every mouthful is creamy and satisfying without ever being too sweet.

* We believe our dark and Nutmilk chocolate is suitable for vegans. However as it is made in the same environment as our milk chocolate we cannot guarantee it is free from milk.

The history of Hotel Chocolat — and our effect on the chocolate industry

Of course no history of chocolate would be complete without including our own story. From the beginning, Hotel Chocolat has challenged the industry and pushed boundaries. We’re driven to provide customers with high-quality chocolate that’s ethically produced.

When was Hotel Chocolat launched?

We started in 1993. Hotel Chocolat was the brainchild of two entrepreneurs: Angus Thirlwell and Peter Harris. They were on a mission to make chocolate exciting again.

From the beginning, we did things differently. We originally sold chocolates online, making us one of the UK’s earliest-ever “e-tailers”. We were there before companies like Amazon and eBay. Yes, the internet in the nineties might have been lacking in all the bells and whistles, but it served us well.

Illustration of old school website with trio of products

We then launched the Chocolate Tasting Club in 1998. This grew into a large community of chocolate tasters who received unique selections every month.

In 2004, our first Hotel Chocolat shop opened. Located in North London, this success led to further shops being opened in the following years.

Our chocolate shops, cafes, and restaurants

Today, we have 126 shops, as well as cafés, restaurants, outlets and factory stores, so you can be sure you’re never too far from one of our cacao havens. Why not take a look at our location finder to see where your nearest chocolate shop is?

The Rabot Estate in Saint Lucia

In 2006 we bought the Rabot Estate cacao farm in Saint Lucia, enabling us to grow our own cacao beans for the first time. The rich and fertile volcanic soil, high altitude and rainforest water all create a unique environment (terroir) that is perfect for cacao trees.

The 140-acre estate is also in a stunning location. In front of you the twin Piton peaks emerge symmetrically from the Caribbean Sea. Behind you, the rainforest stretches into the distance, studded with the gigantic peaks of Mount Gimie and plunging valleys. You can also see the Soufrière volcano and Sulphur Springs.

Farming our own cacao was a bold move, which went against the overall trend in the chocolate industry. But Rabot Estate creates a direct connection between our customers and the origin of chocolate – cacao. We’re one of the very few in the world doing this.

Photo of female cacao farmer and chocolate history illustration

Our ethics and sustainability

Being ethical has always been at the heart of Hotel Chocolat. We treat workers fairly, tread lightly on the planet, strive to leave things better than we found them and act with a conscience.

For us, actions speak louder than words. To make cacao fairer for farmers, we didn’t just pay them, we invested in them. By working together, we helped to bring the world’s love of chocolate back to the growers who make it possible.

As a chocolatier and cacao grower, we’ve learned firsthand about taking care of the environment – from organic farming and sustainable packaging to reducing waste and our carbon footprint.

Our people are vital to who we are. We pride ourselves on being an inclusive business, with a culture in which everyone can succeed and develop, with the opportunity to grow.

With over 20 years of experience, we aim to be market leaders in ethical business practices and sustainability. It’s a journey, not a destination. We will continue to benchmark, review and improve. Because it’s the right thing to do.

We also recognise the impact that our business has on the environment. That’s why we set ourselves two targets. One is achieving Net Carbon Zero by 2030. The other is having 100% recyclable or reusable packaging.

Ultimately, we want to leave things better than we found them – and think our chocolate tastes better for it.

Fun facts about chocolate

We’ve shared with you many facts from across the history of chocolate, but here are a few we couldn’t quite fit in.

Queen Elizabeth II was a “chocoholic”

According to a former royal chef, the Queen loved chocolate with broad tastes. She enjoyed some of the most expensive luxurious chocolates, as well as some that can be bought in any corner shop.

Cacao trees live for a century

They start producing cacao seeds after five years, but stop after 60.

Illustration of cacao tree lifespan

The Aztecs preferred their drinking chocolate cold

In contrast the Maya enjoyed a hot beverage.

Chocolate has around 600 flavour compounds

In comparison, wine only has 200. Imagine how many there are in a selection box!

Milk Chocolate is a Swiss invention

It was created by Daniel Peter of Vevey in 1875. It took him eight years to develop the recipe.

Chocolate comes from a fruit tree

Cacao pods are not a fruit though. Instead, the cacao seeds grow inside the fruit.

White chocolate technically isn’t chocolate

White chocolate is often not considered “real” chocolate, because it doesn’t contain any cacao solids. Instead it’s made primarily from cacao butter. But who cares? White chocolate is still delicious.

Embrace the world of chocolate with Hotel Chocolat

Now you know everything about the history of chocolate (well the important bits anyway), why not explore our full range?

For thousands of years, chocolate was primarily enjoyed as a drink. Discover our Hot Chocolate collection, which uses grated pieces of real chocolate. Designed to be less creamy and sweet than the usual drinking chocolate, ours promises incredible smoothness and deep cacao flavours.

The Aztecs preferred chocolate with spice. Why not capture some of those traditional flavour combinations with our Chilli Chocolate Selector? Every bite has soft hazelnut praline with a tingle of chilli, sealed in dark chocolate. This chilli chocolate will get your senses tingling.

The chocolate bar revolutionised the chocolate industry. We have a wide selection of Batons and Slabs to suit every palate. From the mellow flavours of milk chocolate and creamy white, to the brooding depths of dark chocolate, plus rare single estate and origin chocolates too. You’ll find a chocolate to love right here.

Search all our chocolates now.