The Surprising History of Hot Chocolate

It may seem like a basic drink that kids would have already made to go along with their Halloween costumes, but the history of hot chocolate is more surprising than you might think. It turns out this popular beverage has been around for centuries, and there is evidence suggesting it was created as far back as 2nd century China (although some later scholars disagree).

The “the history of hot chocolate” is a great example of how something that started out as one thing can become something completely different. This article will explore the surprising history of hot chocolate.

Vintage Cadbury's cocoa advertisement fireman drinking.

This is the time of year for hot cocoa.

At the very least, it is for red-cheeked kids who are wanting to warm up after a long snow day.

And for the ladies who want to watch The Shop Around the Corner while cuddled up under a blanket.

A guy, on the other hand, is sitting by the fire in his leather chair, sipping an appropriately male beverage such as black coffee or scotch.

This is how cocoa is seen these days. It’s only a delicious treat that a guy may indulge in once or twice a year, if at all.

It was, however, a different tale for thousands of years. While we generally think of chocolate as a solid, it was originally a fluid throughout nine-tenths of its lengthy history — the first real chocolate bar, as we know it, was not made until 1839. Chocolate was formerly regarded as a precious, holy, even magical beverage — a sign of power, a privilege of warriors and the elite, and a delicious tonic that was eaten daily and provided the sustenance required to face virile trials — thousands of years ago.

Real chocolate is an extraordinarily complex substance that contains 400-500 distinct components, contrary to its ho-hum, often even junk food-like reputation. Several of these chemicals have mind- and body-boosting properties:

  • Caffeine is a stimulant that may be found in modest concentrations in chocolate, depending on the kind and quantity of ingredients.
  • Theobromine — a moderate stimulant different from caffeine that gives chocolate its kick and energizes without over-activating the central nervous system as caffeine does. It also improves mood, dilates blood vessels, lowers blood pressure, relaxes the smooth muscles of the bronchi in the lungs, and may be used to treat coughs.
  • Tryptophan causes the brain to produce the feel-good chemical serotonin.
  • Phenylethylamine – releases norepinephrine, which improves enthusiasm, alertness, and decision-making skills, and dopamine, which releases endorphins (natural analgesics) and elevates mood, in a similar way to amphetamines.
  • Flavonoids are antioxidants that may increase heart and brain blood flow, prevent clots, promote cardiac function, and serve as anti-inflammatories.

Chocolate has also been thought to be an aphrodisiac for generations.

In a nutshell, hot cocoa is a potent elixir that improves mood and vigor while also combating stress, anxiety, and pain. The scientific name for the cocoa tree is Theobroma cacao, which means “food of the gods” in ancient Greek. What other beverage tastes fantastic, is naturally full, and stimulates the mind and body?

It’s no surprise, however, that this beverage, far from being a child’s beverage, has long been a favorite of monarchs, soldiers, and explorers.

A Terminological Note: Hot Chocolate vs. Hot Cocoa

Vintage Baker's cocoa hot chocolate advertisement.

While the terms hot chocolate and hot cocoa are often used interchangeably, they are not interchangeable. Chocolate is made from cacao seeds (also known as cocoa beans) that grow in pods on the tropical Theobroma cacao tree’s bark. After that, the seeds are fermented, dried, and roasted. The cacao nibs are left after the shells have been removed. The nibs are crushed into a thick paste called chocolate liquor, which is made primarily of cocoa solids and cocoa butter and does not include any alcohol. Mesoamericans used this paste to produce a highly treasured beverage by mixing it with water.


Vintage Cadbury's cocoa hot chocolate advertisement.

There was cocoa before there was Red Bull.

Until 1828, when Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten invented a process that could separate out most of the fat — the cocoa butter — from the chocolate liquor, leaving a dry cake that could then be pulverized into cocoa powder, chocolate was made this way and consumed almost entirely as a drink. The nibs are treated with alkaline salts to neutralize their acidity, soften the taste, and increase the cocoas’ miscibility in warm water before going through the “Dutching” process. “Dutch cocoa” is the ultimate product. The term “natural cocoa” refers to cocoa that has not been subjected to the Dutching process.

Cocoa butter, along with additional components like sugar, vanilla, and milk, is re-added to the chocolate liquid to form premium solid chocolate.

So, hot cocoa is prepared with Dutch or natural cocoa powder, whereas hot chocolate is produced with solid chocolate bits or shavings. The latter is sometimes known as “drinking chocolate.” They’re both delicious.

Chocolate, the Drink of the Gods in Ancient Mesoamerica

Illustration ancient Indian Mesoamerican codex hot chocolate cocoa.

Cacao production dates back to ancient Mesoamerica, when it was used for religious, economical, and nutritional purposes.

The Mesoamericans believed the drink prepared with cacao, xocoltl, to be holy and used it in initiation rites, burials, and weddings. Cacao beans were often utilized as a form of payment. Because cacao was both a money and a meal, drinking chocolate was like sipping cash — akin to lighting your cigar with a hundred dollar note – and as a result, it was a luxury reserved mostly for the wealthy.

Cacao was farmed and eaten by the Olmecs and Mayans, but the Aztec civilisation is best renowned for it. Montezuma the II, who drank 50 golden goblets of chocolate a day and possessed a massive warehouse of cacao (provided by conquered peoples for whom he demanded the beans as tribute), declared that only those men who went to battle might ingest cacao, even if they were his own sons. This restricted chocolate eating to royals and nobles ready to fight, merchants (who were forced to take up weapons due to their trips through dangerous area), and soldiers. Chocolate was a regular element of their military rations for the latter; powdered cacao wafers that could be combined with water in the field were provided to every solider on campaign. “This drink is the healthiest item in the world, and the greatest sustenance of everything you could drink in the world,” one Spanish observer noted, “since he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, may spend a full day without eating anything else.”

Blood and chocolate were both holy liquids to the Aztecs, and cacao seeds were employed in religious rites to represent the human heart, a nod to their famed ceremony in which this still-beating organ was ripped from a sacrifice victim’s chest. For warriors, the link between blood and chocolate was particularly strong, and it was provided during the solemn initiation ritual of new Eagle and Jaguar knights, who had to go through a grueling penance process before entering the Aztec army’s most elite ranks.


In peacetime, chocolate was served with tobacco tubes as an after-dinner drink, similar to how contemporary gentlemen used to enjoy brandy and cigars after a meal (and still do). The Mayans loved hot chocolate, the Aztecs wanted cold chocolate, but all Mesoamericans like it frothy, which was achieved by pouring the chocolate back and forth from a high bowl into one below (a large, foam-creating swizzle stick was added later through a Spanish creolization of the practice).

Unless honey was added, Mesoamerican chocolate was likewise bitter. A wide range of spices and ingredients, including pulverized flowers and vanilla, were added to this robust, bitter beverage. The Aztecs were particularly fond of chile pepper, which gave the drink a pleasant burn as it was consumed. Maize was often added to stretch the chocolate and make it more filling, but this form was seen to be inferior to the pure, potent type.

The Drink of Europe’s Movers and Shakers

Vintage European men drinking hot chocolate cocoa together.

Conquistadors brought chocolate back to Spain in the 17th century, and it swiftly spread across Europe, where it remained a luxury and a drink of the elites. Chocolate, which originated in Spain and was more costly than coffee, was associated with the south, Catholicism, and aristocracy, whilst coffee was associated with the north, Protestantism, and the middle class.

Vintage Jesuit priests making hot chocolate cocoa over fire.

Monks and priests loved chocolate, and the Jesuits even owned cacao plantations in the New World. Many of “the earliest recipes employing cacao beans come from a 12th century Cistercian monastery, Monasterio de Nuestra Seora de Piedra monasterio,” according to the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. It is already a mainstay in the monastery kitchen by 1534, according to documentation. According to legend, a Franciscan monk named Fray Jerónimo de Aguilar, who went with Cortéz, delivered a recipe and some beans to the Monastery’s Abbot, Don Antonio de Lvero. Cistercian monasteries frequently feature a chamber above the cloister, known as the chocolatera, intended exclusively for the manufacture and enjoying of chocolate, as represented in this picture – taken at the Monasterio de Piedra.” Surprisingly, the popularity of drinking chocolate among Catholics sparked heated dispute about whether it was a drink or a meal, and therefore whether it could be drunk during fasting periods.

However, with the reintroduction of the Mayan habit of drinking chocolate hot by the Spanish, as well as the welcome addition of milk and sugar, the beverage quickly gained adherents from all corners, many of whom proceeded to add their own twists to the old drink. Cinnamon and black pepper, as well as ambergris, a solid, fatty material found in the stomachs of sperm whales, and musk, which is released by the glands of the Himalayan musk deer, were popular additions (and believed to be an aphrodisiac). Others added orange peel, rose water, cloves, crushed pistachios and almonds, or egg yolks to the mix.


At Spanish bullfights, chocolate was served in big cups, and it soon became popular in coffee shops and specialized “chocolate houses” throughout Europe, where the upper class met to drink hot drinks, gamble, and debate the important philosophical and political topics of the day. In England, each business was usually linked with one of the Parliamentary parties, and they were often transformed into full-fledged gentlemen’s clubs. The Cocoa-tree Chocolate House, for example, on London’s St. James Street, was patronized by the Tory party and later became the Cocoa Tree Club, with members including Jonathan Swift and Edward Gibbon. Mrs. White’s Chocolate House, another Tory establishment, was created on Chesterfield St. in 1693; it was famous not only for its chocolate but as a notorious center of gambling – the gaming room was nicknamed “Hell” and patrons placed bets on everything from elections to which raindrop would make it to the windowpane first. In 1778, the chocolate shop relocated to St. James Street and became an official, high-end gentlemen’s club. It is still standing after more than 300 years and is now known simply as White’s. Three kings have been among the club’s members, as well as a large number of other royals, nobility, and prime ministers.

Expeditions to the Farthest Points of the Globe

Cocoa has been a mainstay on all major trips to the North and South Poles because of its warming, filling, and renewing characteristics. As a bulwark against the morale and strength-sapping effort of slogging through a chilly, austere environment, explorers and their teams of men would drink cup after cup of it.

Daily ration of coca Robert Falcon Scott south pole expedition.

Robert Falcon Scott’s daily rations for his journey to the South Pole were 450g biscuits, 340g pemmican, 85g sugar, 57g butter, 24g tea, and 16g cocoa. The sweetness in the cocoa, according to Scott, kept the guys from wanting to murder each other. These rations only gave each guy with roughly 4,500 calories per day, which is at least 2,000 calories less than what is required for sledging, which is why the soldiers starved and perished upon their return from the Pole. Roald Amundsen, who beat Scott to the Pole and gained weight on the way back, packed five times the amount of chocolate that Scott did.

Robert Falcon Scott let his troops drink hot cocoa five evenings a week during his ill-fated effort to be the first to reach the South Pole. When they stopped for dinner each evening, they heated up one pot of “hoosh,” a thick stew prepared with pemmican (dried meat and fat) and hard biscuits, as well as a pot of cocoa. The former was washed down with the latter. While “many disputes raged over the competing qualities of tea and cocoa,” as one of his men, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, documented in his diary, and some of the men favoured the former, Scott preferred cocoa for its softer stimulation. “The warmth of your hours of rest depends largely on getting into your bag immediately after you have eaten your hoosh and cocoa,” Cherry-Garrard noted, and the prospect of having to get out of the bag in the middle of the night, exit the tent, and expose one’s peppermint stick to the cold was not appealing. Scott agreed to allow tea two times a week as a compromise. He also had his guys drink cocoa in the mornings to fill their tummies with something solid and energizing while limiting potty stops on the march.


Aspley Cherry Garaged south pole expedition drinking hot chocolate.

Scott requested Apsley Cherry-Garrard (right), a Terra Nova Expedition participant, to man-haul a sledge 60 kilometers to Cape Crozier in order to recover an Emperor penguin egg. A storm pinned the guys down, their tent blew apart, and they were forced to sleep in their sleeping bags, exposed to the pouring snow and -40°F temperatures. Because it was so chilly, Cherry-teeth Garrard’s chattered so loudly that they fractured. A month later, the guys returned to base camp tired and freezing, and were rejuvenated with mugs of cocoa. Cherry-Garrard mentions cocoa no fewer than two dozen times in his description of the awful event, The Worst Journey in the World, noting, “There was always enough to be had,” and calling it “the most gratifying substance conceivable” and “the most consoling drink.”

Will Steger, an American explorer, and his multinational crew of five others consumed 2,070 cups of Swiss Miss during their 220 day, over 4000 mile dog-sled trip of Antarctica in 1989.

On the Front Lines, Hot Cocoa

Vintage military advertisement hot chocolate cocoa.

For millennia, chocolate and cocoa have been included in military rations, dating back to the Aztec warriors.

Officers often ate chocolate for breakfast during the Revolutionary War, and members of the Continental army were granted a monthly ration of chocolate based on their rank: colonels and chaplains got four pounds, majors and captains three pounds, lieutenants two pounds, and so on. Smooshing prepared cacao nibs into a cake yielded this chocolate ration. Soldiers would shave portions of the cake into a saucepan of boiling water using their pocket knives. The resultant beverage was thought to be revitalizing, and much of the chocolate was donated to hospitals to assist the ill and injured regain their strength.

The introduction of cocoa powder made it simpler for troops to carry and make “chocolate” while on the battlefield. During World War I, however, before genuine field rations were established, YMCA volunteers often provided soldiers with hot chocolate. The YMCA stepped in to fill the gap left by the military’s lack of morale, welfare, and comfort services, sending 25,000 volunteers to military units and bases from Egypt to France. Among their numerous services, the “Red Triangle Men” established comfort shelters and canteens near the battlefield where troops could get food, cigarettes, and cup after cup of steaming hot chocolate after a conflict.

Vintage military hot chocolate cocoa advertisement.

Vintage Y.M.C.A advertisement of coca.

Vintage Y.M.C.A canteen in Egypt group of soldiers posing.

Egypt’s YMCA canteen.

Vintage Y.M.C.A man serving hot chocolate cocoa to soldiers.

On March 22, 1918, a “Y” man in the Toulon Sector offers hot chocolate. One soldier said that the cocoa made him “feel like a new man.”

Vintage Y.M.C.A canteen serving hot cocoa chocolate to soldiers.

“The Ypres Salient was roaring with fierce artillery fire once again.” At St. Eloi, British regulars had blown up six enormous holes in the enemy’s trenches, and the seized area was held by the Canadians. However, the ground was held at a high price. Our guys returned wounded, shattered, and exhausted. Both the guy and the dugout were required back then. He labored away at a difficult gasoline burner at all hours of the day and night, preparing hot chocolate for the wanderers. A never-ending parade of heroes paraded down the street. Men who had not been badly wounded in the head or arm were transported from the trench treatment station to the field dressing station further down as “walking patients.” Some of those passing by had been buried by “Rum Jars,” while others had suffered from shell concussion, but the majority had been injured by shrapnel and were fainting from blood loss. Wounds had drained them of all “sand,” and the hot cocoa was a pleasant tonic for the tired and injured marchers.” -Volume 43, 1917, Young Men


New types of battle rations, such as the C-Ration, were created during WWII. The C-Ration was a two-can meal that included an M-unit (entree, such as beef stew) and a B-unit (bread and dessert). 5 hardtack crackers, 3 sugar pills, 3 Dextrose energy tablets, and a packet of beverage mix were previously included with the latter (instant coffee, powdered lemon drink, or boullion soup powder). The beverage menu was enlarged in 1944, and a disc of sweetened cocoa was added to the selection.

Soldier's c-ration hot chocolate cocoa in 1944.

In 1944, cocoa mix was introduced to the C-ration.

The C-Ration was changed and altered in the years after WWII, and it went through multiple iterations. The C-4 was introduced in 1954, and it included sugar and non-dairy creamer, among other things. Soldiers would typically use one box of each to make their chocolate more flavorful.

Vintage fry's cocoa hot chocolate advertisement.

Although C-Rations were phased out in 1958, Vietnam troops continued to receive cases of them labelled with 1950s dates. The military devised the “Meal, Combat, Individual,” or MCI, to replace the C-Ration, which offered greater diversity than its predecessor. The B-3, which included four cookies and a sachet of cocoa mix, was one of four B-unit cans offered. Nonsmokers would sell their smokes (4 were provided in the MCI’s “Accessory Pack”) for cocoa packets, which were highly desired. To prepare a mocha beverage, some of the guys would mix cocoa powder into their coffee. If they ran out of cocoa, the guys heated water in a can, chopped up their Tropical Bar (a heat-resistant chocolate bar that came with their sundries kit), and added a packet of creamer and sugar to produce a hot and delicious drink.

MREs, which started to supplant MCIs in the 1970s and 1980s, still feature cocoa mix.

This Virile Elixir is Perfect for the Holidays (and Beyond!)

Vintage hot chocolate cocoa advertisement.

If this article has made you want a cup of cocoa, here are a few suggestions for getting the most out of this delicious beverage.

Dark chocolate has up to three times the amount of flavonoids found in wine and green tea, while cocoa powder contains more than solid dark chocolate. However, since the alkalizing process saps 60-80 percent of the flavonoids in Dutch chocolate (despite the fact that cacao is so abundant in them that there’s still enough), you may want to opt for natural cocoa to obtain the most strong dosage. Prepared cocoa mixes sometimes include more sugar than cocoa, so sweeten an unsweetened kind with a little sugar or a natural sweetener (like stevia). Mark of Mark’s Daily Apple eats it straight up in his milk as a rare holiday treat (he’s not a fan of dairy on a daily basis), claiming that the leche contributes enough natural sweetness on its own. Unfortunately, dairy has been known to limit antioxidant activity and absorption in the body, so if you want to reap the advantages, try mixing it with almond or coconut milk, or just boiling it in hot water. Like a true Mayan, you can even make a genuinely strong tonic using raw, ground-up cacao nuts. (Plus, cacao nibs are high in magnesium, which helps enhance testosterone naturally – maybe there’s something to the ancient notion of chocolate as an aphrodisiac after all…)


Vintage cadbury's hot chocolate cocoa advertisement.

Of course, as previously said, antioxidants aren’t chocolate’s sole advantage, and its feel-good effects are only increased when served with a little sugar and milk at the appropriate moment. As on a hiking trip or when riding the Polar Express, for example. Is it just me, or was one of the most remember sections of the book as a kid the remark of “hot cocoa as thick and creamy as melted chocolate bars”?

Mmmm, I believe I’ll pour a creamy pot of tea and go relax by the fire. Aztec warrior, eat, or as it were, pull out your heart.


Mmmm, I believe I’ll pour a creamy pot of tea and go relax by the fire. Aztec warrior, eat, or as it were, pull out your heart.


Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe’s The True History of Chocolate

Louis E. Grivetti and Howard-Yana Shapiro’s Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage




The “aztec hot chocolate” is a drink that was originally made by the Aztecs. The drink has been around for thousands of years and it is still popular today.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an interesting fact about hot chocolate?

A: Hot chocolate is a popular drink that originated in Mexico. Its made by heating cocoa powder with milk or water to 115 degrees Fahrenheit, and adding sugar, vanilla extract/scent, and sometimes cinnamon.

What is the history of hot chocolate?

A: The history of hot chocolate is a complicated subject. There are many different stories and legends about how the drink came to be, but theres no concrete evidence that theyre true. In general, it appears as if hot chocolate has been around since at least the late 15th century in Central America; however, given its high sugar content, it didnt become popular until much later when coffee became more widely-used throughout Europe.

Who invented hot chocolate powder?

A: The cocoa powder that is mixed with hot milk to make chocolate was invented by the Maya and Aztec people in Central America.

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