We know that the story of chocolate goes back at least 2,000 years and starts in equatorial Central America. The earliest records were simple drawings of cocoa pods carved into the walls of Mayan temples, along with writings calling it "food of the gods"--so it's no wonder Mayan royalty partook of the first known chocolate beverage at their sacred ceremonies. Mesoamerican people, including the Aztecs as well, enjoyed chocolate-blended beverages, including xocol?tl (CHO-ko-LA-tl)--translated from Nahuatl it means "bitter water".
Then as now, chocolate is produced from the seed of the tropical Theobroma cacao tree.
Just like the bittersweet chocolate drinks crafted in ancient times, the chocolate-making process starts with raw seeds harvested from cacao tree pods, then fermented to develop deep fruity flavors. After fermentation, the beans are dried and roasted, so that the outer husk can become cacao nibs.
The nibs are ground to become cocoa mass, considered the purest form of chocolate, otherwise known as “chocolate liquor”. From the liquor, two components are extracted, cocoa solids (which form unsweetened baking chocolate) and cocoa butter (the high fat by-product of processing cocoa liquor and the main ingredient of white chocolate). Learn more about the chocolate production process.
Contemporary chocolate is usually sweeter eating chocolates made from cocoa solids, cocoa butter or other fat and sugar. To create milk chocolate, sweetened chocolate is blended with milk products. White chocolate contains cocoa butter, sugar and milk but no cocoa solids, keeping its color pale and its melting temperature low. Learn more about discerning the different types of chocolate.
Around three quarters of the world's cacao bean production takes place in West Africa. Along the Ivory Coast, production reaches about 1.4 million tons each year, followed by Ghana, harvesting 600,000 tons per year. Much of the world's cacao is grown in tropical areas of Indonesia, Brazil, Ecuador, Togo, Mexico and Papua New Guinea. And while cacao beans are cultivated in other parts of Latin America, their share of the world market is smaller.