The Original Buzz-Inducing Elixir

By Kary Vannice

What could be better than chocolate and wine? How about chocolate wine?

It is a little-known fact that chocolate wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for the early Mesoamericans’ insatiable lust for fermented fruit, and a good buzz. The cocoa tree that grew wild throughout the tropics of what we now know as the Americas was originally sought after for the juicy flesh that surrounds the cocoa seed. Indigenous people found that they could harvest the small, football shaped pods that grew directly from the bark of the tree and create a slightly alcoholic drink to be used in religious ceremonies and celebrations.

In fact, “cocoa wine” was the real motivation to domesticate the cocoa tree. The eventual processing of beans into chocolate became a fortuitous byproduct, but initially was never even considered. Chocolate was only discovered because wasting the leftover beans was unthinkable in a society where all of nature’s sacred gifts were used to their fullest advantage. (See “Chocolate – Drink of the Gods,” elsewhere in this issue for what the ancients did with the seeds.)

Ironically, now that our modern society has developed their own insatiable lust for all things chocolate, the original buzz-inducing elixir is now considered a waste product in the chocolate-making process.

Several years ago at the Mercado Orgánico de Huatulco, I noticed a cocoa vendor displaying an odd assortment of bottles filled with a white, slightly transparent liquid, clearly producing the tiny bubbles that are a hallmark of active fermentation. Curious, I asked him what was in the bottles. He said it was the liquid that came off of the cocoa beans as they were fermenting in the sun, before being dried, roasted and processed into chocolate. Amazed and delighted, knowing the benefits of fermented foods for the health of the human gut, I told him I would buy all the bottles. For me, the novelty of getting to try this mysterious, effervescent juice (and its health benefits) far outweighed the fact that the drink itself might be less than delicious.

I immediately removed the mesh covering on one of the bottles and took a cautious sip, my curiosity getting the better of me. As it turned out, the taste was pleasant, if not sweet, and didn’t taste at all like chocolate. The vendor smiled with delight as he saw my reaction to this newly introduced probiotic. Noticing this, I asked him to tell me more about the fermentation process.

Seeing that I was clearly taken by this discovery, he didn’t pass up the opportunity to share his knowledge with me, from start to finish. He picked up one of the ripe cocoa pods at his fingertips and adeptly sliced it open with this pocketknife, exposing 40-60 tightly packed fleshy, seeds inside. They looked a bit like a fat, ghostly-white corn on the cob, if the kernels were about ten to twenty times as plump.

He proceeded to tell me that chocolate would not have its chocolaty flavor at all if it were not for the process of fermentation. After harvesting the pods and scooping out the seeds, they are packed into containers to ferment for about six to ten days. During this time, yeasts, bacteria, and enzymes break down and ferment the juicy white pulp that surrounds the cacao beans. As this happens, they release a juice referred to as the “sweatings” that is generally tossed out as a waste product.

However, this ingenious farmer, true to his indigenous roots, saw opportunity, not waste, in this bubbly, slightly boozy froth. Fascinated by the agro-history lesson and eager to support his sustainable practices, I told him I would take at least two bottles a week for as long as he could provide them. Sadly, the supply didn’t last long, but the lesson remains.

And now you, too, know that the origins of your favorite chocolate were not chocolate at all, but a fruity fermented wine that dates back to 1400 BC and remains a link between us and the ancient peoples of the Olmec, Aztec and Mayan cultures.

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