What is cacao?

Posted by Kasey McCaslin on

We are all very familiar with chocolate, but what in the world is cacao? For a lot of us chocolate is an experience, a favorite finish to the day or a maybe a reminder of sweeter times in our youth. It's delicious, nostalgic, reliable, sensual and comes in so many different shapes and forms. But where does it come from? What is it's history? And how did chocolate become well, chocolate?

The food we love so much is botanically considered a fruit and it's proper name is, Theobroma Cacao or just cacao. It originated through out the rain forests of the Amazon basin and parts of Mexico. Ancestral Mesoameican civilizations like the Olmecs domesticated Theobroma Cacao and were the first to turn this strange fruit into "chocolate". The fruit has a tough, leathery rind (think like a large gourd or squash) and contains two things inside. One is a sweet, wet, pulpy like white fruit (in South America they call this part baba de cacao "slime of cacao") and under that are 30-50 pale to dark purple seeds. These seeds are what eventually turn into our oh so precious, chocolate. For most of cacao's known use and history it has been consumed in the form of a drink. In the Mayan civilization cacao became a very vital part to their society, beans were roasted on a metate and mixed with achiote, chiles, corn and water. This liquid combination was poured from one jug to another but from a great height to create a frothy consistency as the poured liquid landed into the second jug. This delicious beverage was consumed often and was widely loved by everyone. These seeds were so valuable and precious to these civilizations that they were used as currency, and were an integral part of ritual and community. It was so highly revered by the Aztecs that they called cacao, "the food of the gods".

Stone Grindz Chocolate Dark Chocolate Scottsdale, Arizona

Almost a 1,000 years later, the first Europeans tried cacao and at first it wasn't well received, most said it was too bitter or too savory and it wasn't until the Europeans realized the value associated with these beans that their interest was really piqued. Columbus and Cortez both had encounters with cacao, and Cortez even brought some home to the Spanish king but nothing much came from it at the time. No one really knows for sure how chocolate crossed the Atlantic and became such a hit in Europe, but it's thought that somewhere around 1542 it was introduced to the people of Spain and the first sanctioned shipment of beans happened in 1585. The Spanish created a similar drink to the Mayans and Aztecs but served it hot instead of cold and added sugar to make it sweet. The drinking of cacao quickly spread throughout Europe and it became an integral part of coffee and tea houses. This love for cacao didn't come without without suspicion or fear though, as it was debated as being evil and sinful, cacaos dark color and strange allure also gave the food a reputation of an aphrodisiac. Sadly this great food also has many roots in slavery as Aristocrats brought enslaved Africans back to Central and South America to work cacao plantations. During this time cacao trees were also taken back to Africa to expand plantations and Africa remains the largest producer of cacao in the world (about 70% of chocolate beans are grown there). Farmers in this area are paid next to nothing for their time and work, while the cacao being bought is flipped for big money in places like the United States. Slavery within the cacao world still remains an huge issue today and a lot of chocolate directly or indirectly supports this unjust system. By only supporting chocolate that states it is fair trade you can help ensure the farmers are properly paid. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog to read more about this issue and how you can help to mend it.

Fast forward to 1772 and Americas first chocolate factory was opened. It was called Hannon's Best Chocolate and still exists today as Bakers Chocolate. In 1826 the first melanger was invented and allowed makers to grind cacao nibs into chocolate liquor. Not long after chocolate evolved from mostly a beverage into a solid bar, and eventually in 1879 Swiss chemist Henri Nestle and chocolate producer Daniel Peter created the worlds first milk chocolate bar. They went on the create the company Nestle, sound familiar? The chocolate making process was furthered enlightened when the first conch was invented. This machine aerates, stirs and heats the chocolate in a particular way to create a very smooth texture, one that we've all come to love and associate with our friend, chocolate. A little over a decade later Milton Hershey started mass producing chocolate in Hershey, PA and is still one of the biggest names known today with this beloved food. Hershey company controls about 44% of the American chocolate market.

In the last 100 years chocolate has evolved into a huge, huge industry. It has crept into every corner of our lives and can be tasted almost anywhere in the world. The term "bean to bar" was coined in the 1990's to reflect a chocolate maker not interested in mass-producing but rather focusing on direct sourcing and producing high quality chocolate with an intense making process. At Stone Grindz we try and do just that. Create chocolate that tastes exceptional but that also has integrity and tells you a story. Our process involves seven essential steps. Sourcing from ethical and sustainable farms and paying fair wages for those involved in the agriculture. Sorting cacao beans to ensure the quality and consistency of each one, roasting to enhance and balance flavors, winnowing the shell from the nib, melanging to refine the particles of cacao, conching to achieve buttery-like, smooth textures and finally tempering the finished product into a solid form with a shiny look and perfect texture. Chocolate is truly an amazing thing, rich in history, flavor and process. We hope you'll enjoy the journey with us. 

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