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Chocolate began as beer-like brew 3,100 years ago

The chocolate enjoyed around the world today had its origins at least 3,100 years ago in Central America not as the sweet treat people now crave but as a celebratory beer-like beverage and status symbol, scientists said on Monday. Researchers identified residue of a chemical compound that comes exclusively from the cacao plant -- the source of chocolate -- in pottery vessels dating from about 1100 BC in Puerto Escondido, Honduras.

This pushed back by at least 500 years the earliest documented use of cacao, an important luxury commodity in Mesoamerica before European invaders arrived and now the basis of the modern chocolate industry.

"The earliest cacao beverages consumed at Puerto Escondido were likely produced by fermenting the sweet pulp surrounding the seeds," the scientists wrote in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The cacao brew consumed at the village of perhaps 200 to 300 people may have evolved into the chocolate beverage known from later in Mesoamerican history not by design but as "an accidental byproduct of some brewing," Cornell University's John Henderson said.

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Comment by Clay Gordon on February 5, 2008 at 12:58am
Brewing a beverage from the pulp (which is still done today using a species of cacao known as grandiflora) makes a lot of sense. The process of transforming raw cacao beans into chocolate is complex and there have long been questions associated with how the Olmecs figured it out. By starting with fermentation, the Olmecs would have been left to figure out what to do with the seeds. By eating them they knew about their stimulant properties and would have tried to figure out a way to preserve the seeds after fermenting the pulp. Drying them prevents mold and roasting them is a natural experiment on the dried beans. Having a reliable source of cacao for brewing into beer provides ample reasons for domestication.

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