The New York Times points to some research that indicates cacao pulp was first used as the base for wine before someone had the bright idea to do something with those funny seeds inside the pod. (Oddly, the article refers to cacao “beer”, which seems incorrect since beer is made from starchy materials, while cacao pulp is sugary fruit. C’mon, NYT fact-checkers!)
The early use of alcohol from fermented pulp isn’t too surprising, and the Coe “True History of Chocolate” discusses the use of cacao pulp to make wine, even recently. Cacao pulp, which is the white flesh that surrounds the cacao beans inside the pod, tastes good without any processing, and contains enough sugar that it starts fermenting quite quickly. Using the pulp to create wine actually takes you a step backwards from chocolate, since the pulp is needed to quickly ferment, creating heat that germinates the seed, then causes the seed to ferment. Evidence that pulp fermentation was the first use of cacao is suggestive of a possible pathway to discover the unique properties of the bean.