Hot Cocoa vs. Hot Chocolate

Turns out, they're different beverages.

In 1827, Coenraad Van Houten developed a new method of processing cocoa beans that would change chocolate forever.

When cacao beans are processed, the nibs are ground into a thick paste known as cocoa mass. Van Houten’s process removed more cocoa butter, leaving behind a powdered form of chocolate that was perfect for creating chocolate that could be molded into novel shapes.

Van Houten’s process, known as “Dutching,” made chocolate less expensive and more portable. Today, it’s what we use to make hot cocoa.

Hot cocoa, it turns out, is not the same as hot chocolate. Hot cocoa is made from powdered chocolate with little or no fat, so it requires a thickening agent like cornstarch or soy lecithin to mimic the richness of hot chocolate. (PopSci recommends mixing the powder with a small amount of water or milk until it forms a paste to avoid the graininess that plagues instant hot cocoa mixes.)

By contrast, hot chocolate is a thick, decadent beverage made by melting chocolate in milk or cream. Hot chocolate contains the cocoa butter that Van Houten’s process removes, which is part of why it’s much richer than powdered cocoa.

During the 16th century, hot chocolate tasted so good that it caused anxiety among people who observed religious fast days. Worried, they debated whether they should abstain from hot chocolate despite its purported health benefits. (Pope Gregory XIII eventually declared that drinking hot chocolate was fine.)

But high quality, full-fat chocolate was expensive, so it didn’t take long for hot cocoa to gain ground. Hot cocoa was also highly portable – which is how a dogsled team of six explorers managed to bring nearly 2,100 packets of Swiss Miss on a 1989 trek through Antarctica.

Neither hot cocoa powder nor creamy hot chocolate, however, bear much resemblance to the drink’s original form.

The first cacao plants were nurtured and harvested thousands of years ago by the Olmec, who lived in what is now southern Mexico. They ground cacao beans into a paste, same as today, which would be mixed with water (and sometimes wine, according to some sources) and then poured carefully between two vessels until the mixture was frothy. Sometimes other ingredients, especially chili peppers, were added for flavor.

The beverage became known as xocolatl, rooted in the Aztec word for cocoa (caahuatl). The indigenous Mexican word chocolat pays homage to the ancient Olmec beverage, too, marrying the words for foam (choco) and water (atl).

The drink contained enough caffeine to provide a mood-boosting hit of energy, so it was believed to possess powerful health benefits. Aztec leader Montezuma II’s affection for xocolatl is now infamous – legend has it that he would down dozens of cups each day to flash his wealth. Some wealthy leaders were so fond of xocolatl that they were buried with their xocolatl pouring jugs. Besides society’s elite, xocolatl was reserved for the military.

When Cortez arrived in central America in the 1500s, he was served cold, frothy xocolatl, and it made such an impression that he brought cacao beans and the special pouring jugs back to Europe. Soon, Europeans had essentially ruined all of xocolatl’s health benefits by pumping it up with milk and sugar and removing the chili peppers.

No matter which form you like best – creamy and rich, quick and portable, or cold and frothy and spiced – humans will keep finding ways to drink chocolate.

Something else

If you enjoyed Anne Helen Peterson’s recent article about millennial burnout (or even if you didn’t!), you should check out this follow up from Tiana Clark, a poet and professor who wrote about her own burnout and how it’s informed by her experience as a black woman. Clark writes:

If the stakes and obstacles to the elusive American dream are different for black millennials, then isn’t it reasonable to assume that our brand of burnout would be different, too? So many of us are weary and worn down. Burnout is not a new concept; we just have a new way of describing, or rather marketing, the particular anxiety of our age. I wonder if this zeitgeisty phenomenon — this attempt to define ourselves as the spent, frazzled generation — has become popular because white, upper-middle-class millennials aren’t accustomed to being tired all the time? Aren’t used to feeling bedraggled, as blacks and other marginalized groups have for a long time?

It’s a question worth thinking about!

Illustrations by Anna Doherty