Tea, Chocolate, and Chili Peppers (divine combined!)

There were, in the early 1600s, women who “by the use of chocolate had correspondence with the devil.”


But this claim, as related by A. Saint-Arroman in his 1852 book, Coffee, Tea and Chocolate: Their Influence Upon the Health, the Intellect, and the Moral Health of Man, vividly illustrates how a seemingly innocuous choice to drink chocolate could be cruelly twisted and thus condemning.

Indeed, the world’s trifecta—coffee, tea, chocolate—has been wielded as power in all spheres of life, whether political, economic, or social. Even today, what we drink says a lot about us and equates in some measure to stature and power. Our beverage of choice may unite or divide, indicate that we know a culture’s norms or illustrate our ignorance, advertise our prosperity or betray our poverty.

It’s also no accident that “Coca Cola” remains one of the world’s most recognized words. Speaking of which, I just learned that Coke’s iconic bottle was designed to look like a cacao pod, even though there’s no cocoa in Coke (Feloni 2016). Which brings us back to chocolate.cacao pods and Coke bottleThe cacao tree is native to the Amazon, although it now grows in other countries, generally those near the equator. (“Cacao” is the tree and pod; after processing, the cacao beans are often called “cocoa.”)

And rather than consorting with the devil, the peoples who first used cacao thought it quite divine! The eighteenth-century botanist Carl Linnaeus agreed, calling the cacao tree Theobroma, Food of the Gods.

bean nibs choc
 Roasted cocoa bean, nibs, and Mindo Vanilla Rustic chocolate

First used by the Mayans and then the Toltecs, the later Aztecs had to obtain cacao beans by trade, with the beans themselves so valuable that they served as currency in the Aztec empire. Like the previous civilizations, the Aztecs ground the cacao nibs and then mixed them with chili peppers, maize, and water to make a beverage—but of course only for those of sufficiently high status.

Chocolate stirrers from Costa RicaBoth the beans and the beverage symbolized wealth and power, first in the Americas, and then later in Europe when it reached Spain in the 1500s.

Chocolate wasn’t really accessible to the lower classes until it could be mass produced, which finally happened as part of the Industrial Revolution. At the time, the English word “chocolate” still referred to the beverage (“chocolate” came from Nahuatl chocolatl, meaning “food made from cacao seeds”).

The first chocolate bar as we know it wasn’t developed until 1847, when Joseph Fry added cacao butter to powdered chocolate, or Dutch cocoa, which itself had just been developed in 1828.

cocoa powder

We now know that chocolate, like tea and coffee, has a ton of health benefits. Well, assuming you aren’t adding sugar and dairy. Which means unsweetened chocolate.

But that’s okay! Adding unsweetened chocolate to tea is pretty amazing, and we can assume we reap some of chocolate’s health benefits. Okay, fine, it’s really impossible to say—see my post on The Wellness Tea for some reasons why it’s incredibly difficult to calculate the actual health benefits of consuming any given plant.

But we can simply enjoy the flavor as we experience that emotional and mental boost we often gain from a cup of nice tea! That, at least, we can say!

Experiencing Chocolate and Tea

So anyway, if  you want to see for yourself how unsweetened (or high-cocoa content) chocolate interacts with tea, put a small piece on your tongue and then let hot tea wash over it (the sweet grassiness of a very high-quality sencha is particularly lovely with the chocolate’s complexity). An ideal pairing of chocolate and tea will bring out delicious nuances of both simultaneously.

Chocolate can also be added to tea leaves:

  • by adding the shells of the roasted cacao beans
  • by adding nibs, the part of the cacao bean that’s ground and used to make chocolate

A common chocolate tea simply combines a bold black tea with cocoa nibs—a blend that yields a whiskey-like creaminess. Shown here is O’Connor’s Cream from TeaHaus.

O'Connor's Cream leaves

I’d classify this as a dessert tea; you can bring out the chocolate notes even more by adding milk or cream to it. Although it’s not the same as biting into an Irish whiskey or Baileys chocolate bar, it has far fewer calories but retains that creamy decadence!

O'Connor's Cream brew

TeaHaus also builds on ancient Aztec tradition, finding that chili peppers and cocoa meld beautifully with strong tea. The blossoms and cocoa add creamy notes, but it’s the chili pepper that makes this Chili Chocolate tea a sensation! We love how the chili pepper heat comes slowly at the end, in the back of your mouth and the top of your throat. And there it lingers.

Chili Chocolate leaves

This heat is from the chemical capsaicin, which the NIH calls a “naturally-occurring botanical irritant.” It’s now synthesized and used topically to control peripheral nerve pain and osteoarthritis, among other uses.

When we ingest capsaicin, we don’t actually taste it.

Rather, capsaicin interacts with something called TRPV1. This protein normally lets our body know about dangerous temperatures (above 109˚F) so that our brains can appropriately react, but when it encounters capsaicin, it sends that same message and consequently we think we are encountering something hot. Our bodies then try to cool down (sweating, for instance)—and try to block the pain by releasing endorphins!

Dopamine is also released, so it’s possible that “eating large amounts of spicy food triggers a sense of euphoria similar to a ‘runner’s high’” (Tirado-Lee 2014).

Can’t promise the same level of euphoria with this tea, but it is pretty amazing!

Chili Chocolate brew

Another good match for chocolate is the caffein-free herbal, rooibos, which is inherently woody, sweet, and creamy. Add chocolate to that, and you have another great dessert tea, like this Dark Chocolate blend.

The roasted shells and nibs in this tea are from Mindo Chocolate, one of the first bean-to-bar chocolate makers in the U.S. They buy organically grown heirloom Arriba Nacional cacao beans (which have a chocolaty–nutty flavor) directly from the growers in Ecuador, and then oversee the fermentation and drying stages. They complete the process themselves, with no part of the cocoa pod going to waste.

  • the pods themselves are used as compost under the cocoa trees, also conveniently housing the midges that pollinate the trees
  • the shells of the roasted beans are used to flavor other products
  • the nibs are stone ground, and the chocolate tempered and molded
  • the pulpy fruit of the pod is made into Miel de Cacao, which is a bit like balsamic vinegar

dark chocolate rooibos leaves
Shown here is a cup of the Dark Chocolate rooibos with a block of Baker’s Unsweetened Chocolate. This U.S. product was developed by John Hannon in 1765, but the financier of the project, James Baker, bought him out in 1780. The business remained family-run until its incorporation in 1895, and today, over two hundred and fifty years later, Baker’s chocolate is still available.

dark chocolate rooibos

And by the way, you may well have chocolate foremost in your mind right now with Valentine’s Day just around the corner. You can blame that on John Cadbury. Not only did he come up with the idea of “eating chocolates,” but in 1861, inspiration struck and he adorned heart-shaped boxes with cupids and rosebud motifs.

What’s not to love about chocolate, whether sipped as chocolate tea or nicely paired with your tea?!

–Feloni, R., “7 strategies Coca-Cola used to become one of the world’s most recognizable brands,” Business Insider, 2/19/16.
–NIH, National Library of Medicine, “Capsaisin,” accessed 2/5/21.
–Saint-Arroman, A., Coffee, Tea and Chocolate: Their Influence Upon the Health, the Intellect, and the Moral Health of Man, Crissy & Markley, Philadelphia, 1852.
–Tirado-Lee, L., “This is your brain on capsaicin,” Helix, 7/16/14.

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