The Bitter Beginning of Cocoa

Long before Hershey perfected the Kiss, the ancient Aztecs of Mexico were brewing chocolate to drink. But it didn't taste much like the creamy hot chocolate we're used to. It was very bitter and gritty. The Aztecs called it chocolatl, meaning "warm liquid." And they thought of it as a food of the gods.

Legend has it that Aztec emperor Montezuma drank more than 50 cups of chocolatl a day.

The drink was made by grinding up fermented, dried cacao beans and mixing them with water and spices, such as green chili peppers. The brew was usually topped with a foamy froth derived from cocoa butter.

Cacao beans, from which cocoa is made, come from pods that grow on the Theobroma cacao tree. The trees are native to South America and can grow only near the equator. Cacao pods look like small red or gold footballs (they're about 6 to 8 inches long). Each pod holds from 20 to 50 creamy white beans surrounded by a liquid that looks and has the consistency of Elmer's Glue.

After the beans are removed from the pod, they are piled up and covered for 10 days. During this fermenting process - invented by the Aztecs - giant piles can get as hot as 125 degrees F. The fermenting kills the seed and causes the beans to lose much of their bitter flavor. After fermenting, the beans are dried and packed in bags for shipment.

Christopher Columbus took cacao beans back to Spain in 1502, but King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella showed little interest. And in 1519, when Spanish conquistador Hernn Corts became the first European to try chocolatl, he didn't like its bitter taste.

Ultimately, someone thought to sweeten chocolatl with cane sugar - an import to the New World - and serve it hot. Spaniards, especially the nobles, fell in love with the drink. Spain managed to keep the secret of chocolate for a century. Spanish monks finally spilled the beans to their French brethren.

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