First invented in South America, chocolate has remained ingrained within most cultures up to modern times. However, the process of turning the raw cacao beans into a final product has drastically evolved.
While the Aztecs were truly the first to invent a form of chocolate, the delicious treat has its roots deeply ingrained in the Mayan history as well. Cacao was first used to make an ancient champagne-like beverage by fermenting the pulp around the cacao seeds. It is theorized that the cacao seeds were accidentally fermented as well, leading to the first chocolate flavored drinks.
The Aztecs would pile up the seeds from the cacao plant and allow them to ferment for multiple days. They would then bake them over a fire to dry out the beans, and crush the beans into a fine powder. This is where the chocolate production would stop back in Aztec times. The powder was mixed with water and spices and served as a drink. This process continued relatively unchanged until the industrial revolution, and the formation of solid bars.
The fermentation and baking processes still remain crucial steps today. The characteristic flavors that make chocolate taste like chocolate are formed during these processes. We now know that the fermentation and subsequent baking synthesizes esters, aldehydes, aromatics, and other organic compounds which make up the taste and smell of chocolate. Using the scientific techniques available today engineers and food scientists are able to purify the smell, flavor, and sub-components of chocolate. This has allowed for real and synthetic chocolate to be made by companies such as Mars™ and Nestle™ at massive scales.
Engineers have taken the slow, batch-style, production of chocolate that was done by the Aztecs and have revolutionized it. Chemical engineers employ methods such as continuous phase separation, annealing, and melting point elevation to produce highly accurate products that are extremely consistent. Through careful formulations and well controlled processes, chocolate can now be made continuously, in any flavor imaginable, at a rate and uniformity that is astounding. Everything from the percent mass of cacao butter to the wrapping for each bar is engineered to produce a perfect product.
First a handmade fermented drink, now a mass-produced commodity. The chocolate you love today is a far cry from what it started out as, but change has never tasted so sweet.