Bitter or sweet
One of the simplest and most generic gifts people give and receive on their birthdays, during the holidays and especially to children is chocolate. The demand for chocolate is older than the Mayans and this demand has created a multi-billion dollar industry which is partly responsible for the major success of businesses like Mondelez (NASDAQ: MDLZ), Nestle (SWX: NESN) and Hershey (NYSE: HSY). At its foundation, the entire chocolate business is based upon one main commodity: Cocoa. The mass production of chocolate around the world along with its demand has created an industry worth $208.14 billion in 2020 and is projected to grow by another $15 billion by 2025, according to statista.com. However, the chocolate industry today is vastly different from what it was back in its infancy.
The earliest traces of the use of cacao (the raw material harvested from the cacao tree) is dated back over 5000 years ago to the ancient Mesoamerican civilizations where they brewed frothy drinks using vanilla, chili peppers, water, ground roasted cacao beans turned to paste, and other spices. In general, these civilizations saw chocolate as a useful source for energy, and it was praised for its mystical and medicinal qualities. According to historians, the Mayans and Aztecs had in the belief that chocolate was a gift from the gods and was often used for celebrations and even funerals.
Fast-forward to the late 1500s, when chocolate was first introduced to Europe and the industry was reserved for the most powerful and wealthy elite. The importation of chocolate was extremely expensive, and its supply was lacking heavily. Even though it is said that the chocolate beverages available at the time were quite bitter and described as an ‘acquired taste’ by men, like Spanish missionary, Jose de Aldo, it was still seen as a symbol of luxury and high status by the ones who could get their hands on it.
Two major innovations helped kick-start the chocolate industry we recognize today and made chocolate more desirable and attainable to the everyday consumer. First, the replacement of chili flakes and spices by sugar. The Europeans soon altered the frothy chocolate drink from being a spicy drink, to a sweet one. This is said to have tasted much better and helped maintain demand among the elite. The second major innovation came much later in 1828 when Dutch chocolate maker Conrad J. van Houten patented an inexpensive process for creating a fine powder, known as ‘cocoa press’ which gave the ability of making chocolate products in solid form (what we know as chocolate bars today). These two innovations alone opened the door for others like Daniel Peter (the inventor of what we know today as milk chocolate) to piggyback on these breakthroughs and create all-new products and processes to help make chocolate more readily available to the masses.
From chocolate to cellphones, humans seem to always find a way to improve the things that attract them most. Beyond this, it is interesting to think that industries tend to follow similar patterns, whether ancient or modern. Gone are the days that any trace of chocolate is found at a Royal family’s dinner table or of the IBM (NYSE: IBM) model 5150 Personal Computer, which cost $1,565 USD (equivalent to $4,455 USD in 2020). Now, we can email our friends about which chocolate bars we intend to hand out to the whole neighbourhood on Halloween, all from the palm of our hands.