The history of American chocolate is steeped in innovation, entrepreneurship, and a keen sense of flavor development that caters to a wide variety of tastes. The evolution of the U.S. chocolate industry reflects the nation’s ability to adapt and innovate, starting from its roots and blossoming into the sweet decadence we know and love today.
Chocolate has its origins in ancient indigenous civilizations, including the Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec, who lived in what is today Mexico and Central America. They imbibed chocolate as a ceremonial drink, a practice that was a mark of the elite for over 3,500 years. Prepared by blending cocoa with water, vanilla, honey, and chili peppers, this unique mixture found its way to Europe through Spanish explorers, along with the New World’s gold. Thus, Europe got its first taste of chocolate, which was initially enjoyed exclusively by the aristocracy.
Cacao beans grow in the pods of cacao trees, which are native to Central and South America. The pods are harvested by hand, after which the beans are removed from their pods and cleaned. Then the farmer must ferment the wet beans on the ground or in a wooden box for several days, which is critical to develop the flavor. After fermentation, the beans must be dried, roasted, and crushed to develop the flavor profiles desired by the chocolatier. Finally, the beans are ground to separate the cocoa butter from the liquid chocolate, which can be processed into various forms to make the chocolate sweets we all love and enjoy! While cacao trees aren’t native to the United States, there are limited areas where they can be grown. Notably, Hawaii has a suitable climate and location within the ‘Cocoa Belt.’ For more information on chocolate production, visit the website of the International Cocoa Organization.
The History of American Chocolate
Today, chocolate is deeply woven into American culture. It punctuates celebrations throughout the year, from the heart-shaped confections gifted on Valentine’s Day, to the chocolate bunnies at Easter, and the trick-or-treat goodies at Halloween. It’s not just a seasonal treat either – it’s a year-round delight, as ubiquitous as it is beloved, gracing store shelves in all forms and flavors, ready to satisfy the nation’s collective sweet tooth at a moment’s notice.
One early leader in America’s chocolate sector was Milton S. Hershey, an ambitious entrepreneur who began producing chocolate to coat his caramels in the late 19th century. Sensing the potential of chocolate, Hershey sold his caramel business to concentrate exclusively on chocolate-making and established The Hershey Chocolate Company in 1894. This landmark decision laid the foundation for what would become one of America’s most iconic brands: Hershey’s. From the Hershey Bar to Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup to the delightful Hershey’s Kisses, Hershey’s innovations have come to define American chocolate. Did you know that a Hershey employee, H.B. Reese, invented the iconic Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in his basement in 1928? The Hershey company provided the chocolate coating for his earliest peanut butter cups, and Reese eventually sold his business to Hershey’s in 1963. Today, the company continues to produce all these classics at its 19 plants, earning revenues of over $10 billion in 2022.
Another titan of American chocolate is Mars, which produces popular products such as M&Ms, Snickers, and Twix. Originally named Mar-O-Bar Co., the first iteration of the chocolate giant was founded in 1920 by Frank C. Mars in his home state of Minnesota. Frank had learned how to hand dip chocolate from his mother, Elva. Mars introduced the beloved Snickers bar in 1930, while the first M&M’s candies were made for the U.S. military in 1941, providing candy-coated chocolates that wouldn’t melt as easily as typical chocolate bars. M&M’s were made commercially available in 1945, growing into what is now a $1 billion brand globally. In 1981, astronauts chose M&M’s to be the first candy in space on the first space shuttle mission. Today, Mars company is still family-owned and has seen five generations of leadership from the Mars family.
The U.S. West Coast was also the birthplace of several iconic American chocolate brands, including Ghirardelli Chocolate and See’s Candies, both of which have Californian roots. Ghirardelli was founded by an Italian immigrant, Domingo Ghirardelli, in San Francisco in 1852, making it the third oldest American chocolate company after Baker’s (founded in 1780) and Whitman’s Chocolates (founded in 1842). Today, Ghirardelli is known for its miniature square chocolate bars with fillings like peppermint, raspberry, and caramel. See’s Candies was opened in 1921 by Mary See and her son, Charles, in Los Angeles. The company expanded to the San Francisco area in the 1930s, and enthralled visitors to the 1939 World’s Fair that was held in the city. The brand’s popularity grew rapidly after that, even helping Lucille Ball prepare for her iconic scene in the popular I Love Lucy “Job Switching” episode. Today, See’s has expanded to 240 shops and has a booming online sales business. They still make many of Mary See’s original flavors of chocolate confections, including maple walnut creams, Victoria toffee, and hand-dipped bonbons.
Lammes Candies, produced in Austin, Texas, also has a long history. The business was founded by Willian Lamme in 1878, but he briefly lost the business in 1885 in a poker game until his son repaid William’s gambling debt of $800 and reclaimed the business. Lammes is still family-owned and operated today by the fifth generation of the family, and the brand has become iconic for its chocolate and nut confections, including the chocolate-covered pecan and caramel “longhorns,” as well as its chewy pralines made from pecans and soft, creamy caramel. They even make a habanero version for those who like it spicy!
The Diversity of Contemporary American Chocolate-Making
The diversity of American chocolate is a testament to the country’s innovative spirit. Chocolatiers combine the highest quality chocolate with creative flavors to make unique confections. One leader in that regard is Compartes Chocolate, which is sometimes dubbed the “most Instagrammed chocolate in the world.” Compartes was founded in Los Angeles in 1950 by an Italian husband and wife who started creating European-style confections in their home. Early fans of the brand included Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and even Winston Churchill. After nearly 50 years in business, the Compartes family sold the brand to the Grahm family, and today the company’s CEO and lead chocolatier, Jonathan Grahm, has reinvigorated the brand by releasing scores of innovatively flavored chocolate bars such as blueberry muffin, donuts & coffee, strawberry shortcake, and cereal bowl (white chocolate with various breakfast cereals included). Compartes also produces a wide range of flavored chocolate truffles, including Scotch whiskey, almond butter, and even Velveeta cheese!
The contemporary American chocolate scene is full of innovative chocolatiers who aren’t afraid to push the boundary on flavor, design, and textures. Some standout players in the industry today include Exquisito Chocolates in Miami, And Sons Chocolatiers in Beverly Hills, and Christopher Elbow Chocolates in Kansas City. Some artisan chocolatiers are even producing bean-to-bar chocolate, which means that they source, roast, grind, and produce chocolate all on site. Two stand-outs in that field are Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco and Manoa Chocolate on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu.
The diversity of American chocolate is also reflected in the many ways it’s used in desserts. It can be a solid chunk in a chocolate chip cookie, the molten heart in a lava cake, smooth sauce drizzled over a sundae, or a fluffy mousse layered in a cake. The adaptability of American chocolate, in its many forms, contributes to the endless variety of desserts that form a part of the nation’s gastronomic identity. To give you a firsthand taste of the use of American chocolate in desserts, here’s an easy recipe:
Chocolate Overload Mini Oreo Cheesecakes (adapted from Pretty Simple Sweet)
· 34 Oreos, divided (24 for bottom, 10 for filling)
· 2 packages Philadelphia cream cheese (500g), at room temperature
· 100g granulated sugar
· 120 ml sour cream
· 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
· 2 large eggs
· Hershey’s Syrup, M&M’s, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups for decorating
- Preheat oven to 160C. Line standard muffin pans with 24 paper cups and put one whole Oreo at the bottom of cup. Coarsely chop the remaining 10 Oreos and set aside.
- In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat cream cheese and sugar on medium speed for about 2 minutes until well combined.
- Add sour cream, vanilla extract, and eggs. Beat until smooth.
- Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and fold in chopped Oreo cookies.
- Pour batter into muffin cups. Bake for 20 minutes until set.
- Remove from oven and cool completely.
- Refrigerate for at least 4 hours, then decorate with Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup, M&M’s and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
- Refrigerate any leftover cheesecakes (there won’t be!) in an airtight container for up to 5 days.