Hot chocolate has a long and varied history. Venerated as a royal drink in Mexico, it was brought to Spain in the mid 15th century, and soon became popular with Europeans. Modern hot chocolate is a far cry from the original drink, though, which was made by mixing hot water and finely ground cocoa beans. As the beans still contained all their natural cocoa butter, they didn’t mix evenly with the water and turned into a sort of gritty broth with a layer of fat floating on top – not very appealing to modern tastes.
It wasn’t until the early 19th century that a Dutch chemist, Coenraad Johannes Van Houten, discovered a way of removing some of the cocoa butter. The resulting powder was treated with an alkali, so that it mixed more evenly with water. This alkali process is still known as ‘dutching’ in the chocolate industry, in honour of its discovery, and the Van Houten company still have a reputation for manufacturing top quality hot chocolate to this day.
Nowadays, the process involves giant hydraulic presses, which squeeze out the cocoa butter. Baking soda is added as the alkali, and the resulting product is cooled, crushed and sifted into powder. Sugar and sometimes milk powder is added to make a product that’s ready to drink with the addition of hot water, and it’s then packaged. Some of the hot chocolate goes off to catering industries for use as a flavouring, and the rest goes to retailers.
The cocoa butter residue is used by the cosmetics industry, among others.
So next time you’re enjoying a cup of creamy, smooth hot chocolate from your coffee machine, think about how far cocoa has come on its journey from bean to delicious drink. If you’re topping up your coffee machine with chocolate powder, check out our range of coffee ingredients, including Van Houten standard, less sugar and fairtrade varieties.