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Hot Chocolate’s Steamy History

Melted chocolate dripping from top of image over a hot chocolate recipe card and a chalk illustration of a cup of hot cocoa

Discover how this iconic beverage has evolved from ancient remedy to modern wintertime staple.

By Amy Chenaille, Youth Services Manager, Pohick Regional Library

Thousands of Years in the Making

From cacao to hot chocolate to cocoa, the delicious sweet and steamy drink we know and love has come a long way over many millennia. According to The Sweet Story of Hot Chocolate! by Stephen Krensky, 3,500 years ago — long before coffee hit the scene — the Olmec people in Central America grew cacao beans. They would grind them up, mix them with water and other ingredients, and drink this as medicine or for special occasions. In Chocolate: Sweet Science & Dark Secrets of the World’s Favorite Treat by Kay Frydenborg, we learn that cacao beans were even used as money, too! 

The Book of Chocolate by HP Newquist reports that when hot chocolate was first introduced to Spain in the 1500s, the drink was not well-liked until some chefs tried new recipes that added sugar and cinnamon. The result was such a delight to the Spanish they kept the tasty treat a secret for 100 years! Once the secret was out and more places in Europe could source cacao beans from the Americas, hot chocolate continued gaining in popularity. 

Science entered the equation in 1828 when a Dutch chemist thought he could make hot chocolate even better, as Carol Jones notes in her book Chocolate. The scientist was able to separate most of the cocoa butter from the nibs (the bits left over after roasting the beans that get ground up to make a drink). The cocoa powder left behind did make a better drink because it dissolved more smoothly in water or milk. And thus hot cocoa was born! While technically different from the ancient hot chocolate, these two names for a scrumptious treat are now essentially interchangeable. 

What’s Your Hot Take?

Around the world, various cultures drink hot chocolate with unique ingredients. Oranges, vanilla, marshmallows, whipped cream and so many more flavors, toppings and add-ins are used. 
How do you drink your hot chocolate (or hot cocoa)? What delicious new concoction would you create in writing your own recipe? Share it with us on social media or at! For more inspiration, click here to find recommendations of cookbooks and informational books about hot chocolate.

Fairfax Virtual Assistant