Sunday, August 3, 2014

Conrad Van Houten: Start of a Chocolate revolution

Conrad van Houten
Ever since, the time of that Hernan Cortez brought back cacao beans from the Americas, it became a luxury across Europe. From Spain it spread across to France and into the court of the extravagant court of Louis XIV. It then spread to other countries, to the Swiss, the Dutch, and later, the British. More and more ways of processing chocolate developed. Among the most pioneering was a Dutch chocolatier and engineer, Conrad van Houten.

Coenraad Johannes van Houten or Conrad van Houten came from a family well-experience in the trade of chocolate. Born in 1801, his father, Casparus van Houten, had already established himself in the chocolate business. The Dutch East Indies Company provided the supply of cocoa beans from the tropics. Many people could afford chocolate in Amsterdam caused by the flourishing trade with the east. With money came luxuries. And the Van Houten family capitalized in the rising income and growing demand for luxurious goods. 

At a young age, the young Conrad van Houten started to learn about the trade. As a child he helped his father in the business. He also started to learn the art of chocolate making. While making chocolate, Conrad and his father observed a problem in the processing of the cocoa beans. Part of the process of extracting cocoa from its beans was taking out its fats located in its nib. The process that was being used then was expensive, inefficient, and time consuming. Cocoa fat or butter could only be extracted when the roasted cocoa beans were boil or freeze. If boiled, the fat would rose to surface only then it could be extracted. If freeze, difficult way because of lack of refrigeration, fat would could extracted when the beans were hard. Both ways were ineffective as it only decreases by few amounts the cocoa butter in the beans.

In 1815, the very young Conrad van Houten began to find ways in extracting cocoa butter. In their shop in Amsterdam, van Houten toiled for many years before finally, developed a way to extract efficiently the cocoa butter.

In 1828, Van Houten found a way to extract the cocoa butter from the nib of the bean. He created a hydraulic press that would do the job. A roasted cocoa would be press by the machine and it could reduce significantly the cocoa fat content of the bean, from 54% down to 27 – 25%. The product of the press would leave a cake-like piece of cocoa.

Later on, from the powder cake that the van Houten Press created, Conrad discovered another significant process. If the cocoa powder was added with alkaline salts, like sodium carbonate, it would make the power more miscible to water, thus it could be used to create chocolate drinks. It was also found out that it created a darker chocolate as well as release more deliciously the chocolate flavor of the bean. This process became known as Dutching.

Dutching and the van Houten press began to spread across Europe and began the commercialization of chocolates. In 1830’s Cadbury bought a Van Houten press to use in his factory in Birmingham. Later, the Dutching process was used by another British, Joseph Fry to develop the chocolate bar.

For van Houten it was also a beneficial for his business. By 1850 Conrad van Houten was wealthy enough to build a large scale factory in Weesp. Van Houten presses were then later powered by steam engine and helped to produce a lot of chocolate. Many of which were exported to other countries, like Germany and France.

Van Houten’s claim over the process and the press, however, were challenge by some. But it was he who commercialized the idea and expanded it further across Europe. with his press and dutching, a chocolate revolution resulted to the bringing of chocolate from royals to the masses. Without the van Houten press, companies like Cadbury and other chocolate bars would not exist.

See also:
John Cadbury
Milton Hershey
Rodolphe Lindt

Cadbury, D. Chocolate War: The 150-Year Rivalry Between the World's Greatest Chocolate Makers. New York: Public Affairs, 2010. 

Murray, M. et. al. Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York: Atria Books, 2005.

Newton, D. Trademarked: A History of Well-known Brands. Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2008.

Pater, A. The Locomotives Built by Machinefabriek Breda: Voorheen Backer & Rueb. Netherlands: Brill, 1970. 

Wilson, P. & W. Hurst. Chocolate as Medicine: A Quest over the Centuries. Cambridge: The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2012.

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