If you’re a chocolate lover, you’ve probably seen a wide selection of chocolate bars that range from bitter to sweet milk chocolate. Surprisingly, chocolate comes from a bitter and savory bean called cacao.
Before milk and sugar transformed cacao into luscious and rich dessert creations, cacao’s original usage was as a brewed beverage. Below, we’ll provide a detailed overview of brewed cacao, its history, nutritional content, and how you can brew it at home.
What Is Brewed Cacao?
Also known as cocoa, cacao is a tree whose seeds supply the flavor and substance of all known chocolate products. Cacao seeds or beans are located inside giant orange pods hanging from the tree, each containing anywhere from 20 to 60 seeds.
There are currently four species of cacao beans being cultivated:
- Trinitario: Originating in the Caribbean Islands
- Forastero: The most popular and widespread cacao variety
- Criollo: The most expensive and rare cacao variety with the most prized flavor
- Nacional: The newest species on the market, gaining popularity for its creamy and rich flavor
Farmers and purveyors extract cacao beans from their pods for chocolate and cocoa, but brewed cacao was the original mode of consumption. Brewed cacao has recently seen a comeback as a fashionable, healthy alternative to coffee.
Cacao beans undergo a roasting and grinding process, like coffee, before being combined with boiling water to brew. Brewed cacao can be a hot or cold beverage traditionally enjoyed without milk or sugar.
Cacao nibs and ground cacao are becoming staple products sold in packages at specialty grocers or in the health section of large grocery stores. You can easily brew cacao at home using similar methods to coffee. However, brewed cacao’s flavor, nutrients, and properties differ vastly from coffee.
Brewed Cacao’s Origins
The Cacao tree is native to Mexico, and the culinary practice of brewing cacao dates to the pre-colonial indigenous civilizations that predominated both central and southern Mexico. Archeologists have found brewing vessels for cacao from Mexica, Aztec, and Mayan ruins dating to between 1900 and 900 BC.
Indigenous civilizations considered cacao a gift from the gods, with many fascinating mythological stories surrounding brewed cacao’s origins.
The Mayans even have a cacao god known as Ek Chuah, whom they honor with an annual cacao festival in April. The Aztecs used cacao in their offerings to their God, Quetzalcoatl.
Brewed cacao was both a culinary tradition as well as a spiritual and medicinal tradition. Each civilization used cacao in different brewed recipes and even as a powder to mix with tobacco as a ceremonial smoking ritual.
The Aztec emperor Moctezuma served Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes and brewed cacao at their first meeting. Upon tasting this delicious beverage and witnessing cacao’s cultivation, the Spaniards brought cacao beans back to the Old World, introducing brewed cacao to Spanish nobility in 1544.
The popularity of cacao reached the rest of Europe quickly, and cacao plantations sprouted up in Spanish and French colonies in the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Of course, the discovery of sugar changed the course of cacao to a dessert.
Still, brewed cacao endured the test of time in Mexico, and you can still find brewed cacao as a popular drink in many Mexican states.
Difference Between Brewed Cacao and Coffee
While coffee and brewed cacao share many similarities as comforting and stimulating beverages to start your day or provide a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, they have just as many differences. Below, you can read about how coffee and brewed cacao differ on numerous levels.
The most fundamental difference between coffee and cacao is that they are two entirely different beans from two different plants. Coffee beans come from the coffee plant, a native cultivar of Africa and the Middle East. Cacao comes from the cacao plant, originating in Mexico and Meso America.
Coffee beans are small, oval beans with a smooth surface and a characteristic line down the center. Cacao beans are much larger, with a rough surface and varying shapes.
Coffee beans have seen much vaster speciation than cacao, with numerous types of coffee beans grown in highland regions around the world. Cacao has only four variants cultivated for culinary use.
Both coffee and cacao are bitter drinks, but the underlying flavors and mouthfeel are vastly different.
Coffee has a bitter and acidic palate with notes of different flavors, including fruit, nuts, earth, and even cocoa. Coffee has a thin yet full-bodied mouthfeel. Espresso is perhaps the most texturally complex, with a velvety mouth feel and a frothy head.
Cacao has a distinctly chocolatey flavor that mirrors the taste of dark or bitter baking chocolate. It isn’t acidic but rich and creamy with a thick, almost grainy mouthfeel. Brewed cacao is less bitter than coffee, with notes of sweetness and earthy flavors.
Another huge difference between coffee and brewed cacao is their stimulating components.
While coffee is a well-known stimulant due to its high caffeine content, cacao has only a fraction of the caffeine found in coffee. An 8-oz cup of coffee has around 95 mg of caffeine compared to an 8-oz cup of brewed cacao with a mere 15 mg of caffeine. Therefore, coffee has over six times the amount of caffeine as brewed cacao.
That said, brewed cacao has another stimulating chemical component called theobromine, which delivers a long-lasting stimulating effect without the characteristic caffeine crash we experience with coffee.
If you’re a coffee lover, you know there are numerous brewing methods at your disposal, including:
- French press
- Moka pot
- Espresso machine
- Percolating coffee machine
- Aero press
- Cold brew
This assortment reflects the more widespread use of coffee as a beverage. Brewed cacao is still in its infancy as a popular beverage and thus has fewer brewing methods.
Brewed cacao utilizes two main brewing methods. For hot cacao, a French press is the only suitable brewing method. Cold-brewed cacao is a more popular drink in its native Mexico due to warmer climates. Cold-brewed cacao uses the cold brew method, immersing the beans in cold water to sit for 24 hours.
Coffee varies significantly in price point, according to quality and location. However, even the most expensive coffee beans are less costly than cacao beans.
A quick look at prices reveals that ground coffee from Kauai, an exclusive and expensive Hawaiian coffee purveyor, costs around 7 dollars for 10 oz. A 10 oz portion of cacao beans costs a whopping 20 dollars.
Additionally, it takes nearly twice as much ground cacao as coffee to produce the same amount of liquid.
Both coffee and cacao are nutrient-rich, low-calorie beverages that will give you a boost of energy and essential micronutrients. Coffee has fewer calories than cacao, with a mere five calories per cup compared to 20 calories per cup of brewed cacao.
Brewed cacao has a higher carbohydrate and protein content than coffee. Brewed cacao is much richer in antioxidants than coffee. It is also a more pH-neutral beverage, whereas coffee is highly acidic.
How To Make Brewed Cacao at Home
The easiest home brewing method you can follow to make brewed cacao is with a French press:
- Spread cacao nibs on a baking sheet and roast at 350 F for between five and 18 minutes.
- When the nibs have cooled, place one tablespoon of nibs in a coffee grinder and grind to medium-fine ground. This will create around two full tablespoons of ground cacao.
- Boil one cup of water. While the water boils, place the two tablespoons of cacao in the French press.
- Pour the boiling water over the cacao powder. Gently stir the mixture, then let it sit for between five and seven minutes.
- Strain the powder by pressing the French press plunger to the bottom of the receptacle.
- Pour and enjoy straight or add simple syrup and milk.
How To Choose the Correct Option for You
Coffee and brewed cacao are both excellent options to wake you up and energize your day. Considering the differences we’ve gone over, choosing the right option for you depends on your budget, taste, and nutrient preferences.
If you get the jitters and crashes associated with caffeine, brewed cacao’s low caffeine content will suit you. If your stomach is sensitive to acidic foods, brewed cacao has a low-acid makeup that won’t upset your stomach.
If you are on a tight budget, coffee is a much better option for your finances.
Brewed cacao is a rich and flavorful beverage with stimulating and nourishing components. Its slightly bitter taste and brewing method mirror coffee and make an excellent alternative for acid and caffeine-sensitive stomachs.
We hope you enjoyed learning about the history, nutrition, and brewing methods of brewed cacao. We’d love to hear your feedback on your experiences with brewed cacao in the comments below.