The Mocha: The Surprising History Of A Delicious Coffee Drink

The Mocha. You know it. You love it. You’ve perhaps been self-conscious about ordering it around your coffee snob friends. However did this beautiful creation first reach us, and where does it stand today in the pantheon of coffee drinks?

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The Mocha’s Origin Story

The melding of coffee and chocolate flavors into mocha seems so intuitive that it would predate time, but the ancestry of our modern-day mocha is often traced back to eighteenth-century Italy. (Alas—there was no Reeses-style moment where a chocolatier accidentally tripped and toppled a dollop of chocolate into some goatherd’s coffee pot.) A drink made from coffee, chocolate, and cream known as the bavaresia was popular in Turin, Italy, where a coffee bar called Caffè al Bicerin elevated the drink to some level of acclaim—and renamed it the bicerin, also the name of the small glass in which it was consumed (consider this the early progenitor of the Gibraltar). Originally served in deconstructed form, where the drinker mixed the parts together themselves, it came to be offered as a fully prepared drink, cementing the popularity of this flavor profile as something ready right off the menu.

From the bicerin we can follow the drink’s popularity across Europe and to the Americas, where a concoction made from espresso, steamed milk, and chocolate became known as the Mocha Latte, now most commonly referred to as simply the “mocha” (and sometimes, mochaccino), encircled its chocolatey embrace around our hearts. Those savvy with coffee geographies have already noted the connection in name to Moka, the famed coffee port of Yemen, which gained fame for coffees with a chocolate-forward flavor profile. It is said that the drink, like beans from Moka, takes its name in honor of the city.

The Modern Mocha

Today’s mochas offer something for everybody, spanning the “waves” of specialty coffee and running the gamut from decadent desserty coffee treats piled high with whipped cream to sleeker, sophisticated takes with made with artisan chocolate and bedecked with latte art. What’s universal is the symbiotic connection between coffee and chocolate, no matter how you serve it.

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A mocha at Passenger Coffee in Paris. Photo by Michelle Hwang.

“Our chocolate knowledge definitely helps us understand coffee easier than most companies,” says Christina Ng, product manager at Ghirardelli Chocolate, which manufactures a range of chocolate sauces and powders used in mochas.

Ng says the company’s mocha products have grown steadily in the past few years, but are most popular in the winter. “The mocha is definitely a consumer favorite,” says Ng, adding that 70% of US consumers have tried the drink.

Boutique chocolatiers agree that their relationship to the coffee world, forged by the mocha, is a special one. “Coffee customers seem to be more discerning about what it is they’re getting,” says Shawn Askinosie, founder of Askinosie Chocolate, a popular ingredient choice for specialty cafes.

“We make small batch cocoa powder and there aren’t very many people who do that,” says Askinosie. “And sometimes we can’t make enough. But the customers that we do have will ask us very specific questions about it and the reason is because they want to know and they want to know because their customers want to know. They care about origin, they care about tempering profile, they care about cocoa content versus sugar content.”

And while many cafes use the same chocolate for their hot cocoa offerings as their mochas, the drinks are uniquely constructed—which is to say a mocha isn’t just hot chocolate with a shot of espresso in it.

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A mocha at Tilt Coffee in Los Angeles. Photo by Tatiana Ernst.

Drinks at Brooklyn, New York cafe Sit and Wonder “both have the same base, which is our housemade chocolate syrup, but the ratio of chocolate or milk is unique to either drink,” explains barista Shelby Miller. Many cafes find that mixing their own chocolate syrups and ganaches for mochas allow them to attenuate exactly the chocolatey profile they’re looking for their mochas—the sweet spot if you will.

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Unusual Mochas Abound

Some cafes take the mocha a step beyond.

Crazy Mocha, based in the Pittsburgh area, offers a variety of specialty mochas year-round on their menu, but Kim Garrett, Crazy Mocha’s General Manager, says their craziest mocha is the wild cherry.

“I think Wild Cherry probably would be the most intriguing,” says Garrett. “It’s really just a mocha with cherry in it, but there’s not a lot of coffee drinks that have a cherry and coffee combination.” Crazy Mocha also offers a Monkey Mocha, which is a banana-flavored mocha that Garrett likens to a chocolate-covered banana.

Whether you prefer your mochas with a classic flavor profile, single-origin chocolate, whipped cream on top, in candle form, or with a banana—there’s no question that the marriage of chocolate and coffee provide a sense of comfort and treating-one’s-self that’s hard to match. So go ahead. Next time you’re out for coffee? Mocha the most of it.

Liz Clayton is the associate editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.

This coffee news article firstly appeared at Sprudge, a Coffee News and Culture online magazine.

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