While not exactly coffee, the Aztec version of hot chocolate had tremendous social and economic significance.
The Aztecs did not drink coffee in its modern form. Instead, they consumed a hot cocoa-like drink called xocolātl. The word means ‘bitter water’ in the Yucatec Mayan language. The drink had significant religious significance to the Aztecs, who believed that a good dose of xocolātl could cure most ills.
It is hard to exaggerate how central xocolātl was to the economy and politics of the Aztecs.
History of Xocolātl
Our preferred morning drink was introduced to the Americas almost 100 years after the demise of their Empire. However, the hot refreshing cocoa drink known as xocolātl has a long history in Mesoamerica.
Cocoa beans were first cultivated in Mesoamerica by the Olmec civilization around 1000 BCE. They turned these plants into a paste and mixed it with water to produce the first version of xocolātl.
The Olmecs were so impressed with the way xocolātl raised their mood and energy level that they attributed mystical qualities to it.
Although it contained cocoa, xocolātl was anything but sweet, as the name ‘bitter water’ would suggest. The Olmecs did not cultivate sugar and therefore had no means for sweetening it.
Instead, the Olmecs mixed this concoction with chili peppers. They would pass the drink from goblet to goblet to froth it. They only consumed it once it attained a rich and thick texture.
The Mayans and Xocolātl
The Mayans grew a large amount of cocoa. They lived in an area where the plant thrived, and they developed expertise in growing it. The neighboring tribes and civilizations developed a taste for cocoa, and soon it was their primary means of trade.
The Mayan consumed xocolātl first thing in the morning, much as we take our coffee. It appears that poor and rich alike enjoyed xocolātl equally. They also believed in its healing properties. The drink was given to individuals with a wide range of ailments and complaints. Even Mayan cancer patients were advised to consume a regular dose of xocolātl.
Xocolātl in Aztec Society
The Aztecs did not grow cocoa beans themselves. Instead, they had to trade for it or conquer those who did. When they conquered the Mayans, the Aztecs forced the defeated nation to grow cocoa to benefit the elite in Tenochtitlan.
As a result, they viewed xocolātl as a luxury product and a clear marker of high social status. It was kept under guard at all times by the Aztecs. As the elite in Tenochtitlan hoarded cocoa, its value throughout Mesoamerica skyrocketed. It appears there was not only a thriving cocoa black-market but also counterfeit coca plants sold.
Therefore, it was only consumed regularly by members of the royal family and the privileged priestly class.
It seems that Montezuma II was obsessed with the drink. In most of Mesoamerica, all classes of society consumed xocolātl. However, the Aztecs seem to have tied it to social status. Montezuma limited consumption to the ruling elite and forbade the lower classes from partaking.
According to legend, Montezuma II would consume 50 goblets of the drink before visiting the harem. He believed only xocolātl would give him the stamina and virility required.
The regular Aztec warriors were allowed to drink xocolātl only before battle. The rulers and generals believed that it would give them increased strength and help them overcome fear.
When the Aztecs defeated a nation or tribe, the Aztec emperor would order them to pay regular tribute in the form of cocoa beans. To show off his tremendous power, Montezuma drank cup after cup of xocolātl. Like other very rich Aztecs, he often consumed it in golden cups, disposed of after a single-use.
As the Aztecs often did, they used the cocoa plant as an opportunity for human sacrifice. An annual festival in Tenochtitlan was held to thank the gods for providing xocolātl. The climax of the proceedings was the sacrifice of a defeated enemy warrior.
On to Europe
The Europeans who traveled to Mesoamerica took note of the xocolātl drink. However, it did not appeal to the European palette. Monks and missionaries in Mesoamerica sweetened the drink and added milk to it, creating what we call hot chocolate. It was soon a big hit in Spain.
Also, the frothing techniques the Aztecs used were copied and brought back to the old world. The xocolātl would inspire the countless frothy drinks Europeans and Americans drink today, from Frappuccinos to lattes. Starbucks owes the Aztecs and Mayans a great debt.