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Science for Grown-ups: Indulge in the Study of Chocolate at WonderLab After Dark by Harper Humphrey, WonderLab Museum

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Chillaxin' in the climber during WonderLab After Dark 2016! Hands-on science is not just for kids.

Chillaxin’ in the climber during WonderLab After Dark 2016! Hands-on science is not just for kids.

Chocolate is everywhere: tempting shoppers from drugstore end-caps, drawing wishful looks at vending machines, and causing child tantrums in checkout lines. We eat it with caramel, with nuts, with nougat. We drink it. We give it to others as a sign of love, consolation, and celebration. Some people would bathe in it if given the chance.

Each year, LIFEDesigns partners with local nonprofits during the Week of Chocolate to use this rich, crave-able confection to raise funds for and awareness about their affordable housing programs and other social services. On February 17th, WonderLab Museum of Science, Health and Technology is joining the festivities by hosting WonderLab After Dark: Chocolate. This 21-and-over event is an opportunity to try local craft brews, mead, food and, of course, chocolate — and explore the science of the popular treat.

WonderLab staff has been preparing for the event by learning all they can about chocolate. Museum Educator Jared Katz, for example, has been researching the ancient origins of the sweet that is now found all over the world.

“What I think is most interesting about chocolate is it started out as an ancient Maya commodity, but is still widely consumed, produced and traded today,” says Katz.

In his research, Katz learned that what we now call chocolate first appeared in Mesoamerica in 1400-1100 B.C.E. The people of the Ulúa Valley, in modern day Honduras, were the first to use the beans of the cacao tree, the source of chocolate.

A 2007 study based on chemical analyses performed on several ceramic vessels found that chocolate was, in fact, discovered as a byproduct. The primary consumable was an alcoholic beverage made from fermented cacao seeds, according to anthropologist John S. Henderson in the article “Chemical and archaeological evidence for the earliest cacao beverages.” 

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In other words, chocolate was discovered in the process of making alcohol. Once discovered, it became an integral part of Mesoamerican culture.

What weighs more than a ton, has 3,000 sharp points, and pillow? The WonderLab Bed of Nails, of course. Guests at After Dark enjoy more than just chocolate at the adults-only event.

What weighs more than a ton, has 3,000 sharp points, and pillow? The WonderLab Bed of Nails, of course. Guests at After Dark enjoy more than just chocolate at the adults-only event.

“The chocolate consumed in ancient Mesoamerica, in contrast to the chocolate of today, was often consumed as a frothed beverage,” says Katz. “Once discovered, this drink made from cacao seeds became a central aspect of social, ritual and political life throughout Mesoamerica.”

At WonderLab After Dark: Chocolate, visitors will have a chance to examine and taste cacao with Dr. Anya Royce and her lab from the Indiana University Department of Anthropology. Guests will immerse themselves in over a thousand years of chocolate science from the ancient Maya to modern day people.

“Because cacao was a beverage primarily enjoyed by the elite, cacao seeds were a valuable commodity,” says Katz. “Chocolate was significant in many Mesoamerican cultures, including the Aztec. At the time of conquest, the Aztec and Maya even used cacao beans as a form of currency, leading to René Francis Millon’s excellent book: When Money Grew on Trees.

When Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire (now modern day Mexico City), the Aztec drank a beverage called chocolatl, which is most likely where we get our term “chocolate,” which is discussed by G. A. R. Wood and R. A. Lass in their book Cacao.

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When Cortés took cacao back to Spain, the Spaniards changed the drink by adding sugar, cinnamon, and other spices to the bitter cacao paste, says Katz. This sweeter drink, much more similar to the chocolate of today, then spread to surrounding Europe and beyond.

These days, chocolatiers have turned chocolate making into both an art and a science. At WonderLab After Dark: Chocolate, cacao explorers will learn how the folks at Bloomington’s own Peacetree Mountain Truffles control the crystalline structure of chocolate as it cools in order to make a shiny, melt-in-your-mouth treat.

For the adventurous chocolate lover, Peacetree Mountain Truffles will also be showcasing truly amazing flavor combinations, including balsamic vinegar and chipotle peppers. These fusions of flavors showcase just how far cacao has come.

For more traditional chocolate pairings, Kroger at College Mall is teaming up with WonderLab to host a chocolate and cheese tasting, featuring Murray’s Cheese Shop cheeses. Learn how pairings of cheese and chocolate can enhance the flavor of these two seemingly incompatible foods.

Advance tickets for WonderLab After Dark: Chocolate are $15 for members and $18 for non-members, and are available online at wonderlab.org or at the museum Visitor Services Desk. Day-of tickets will be available for purchase at the door for $20. Ticket price includes museum admission and activities, as well as appetizers and indulgent desserts donated by Lennie’s. Local craft cysers (fermented drinks made from fruit, honey and spices) from Oddball Fermentables, along with other local brews, will be available for purchase, with a portion of proceeds going to WonderLab.

WonderLab After Dark: Chocolate is a part of LIFEDesigns’ Week of Chocolate 2018, a citywide celebration of chocolate taking place at various locations around Bloomington, February 2-18. WonderLab After Dark: Chocolate rounds out the festivities and is scheduled for Saturday, February 17th from 6 to 9 p.m. at the museum. Immediately following is an afterparty in the The Tap Brewpub (downstairs) from 8 p.m. to midnight, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the museum.

The 2018 WonderLab After Dark Series is sponsored by Griffin Realty and Mira Salon and Spa. To learn more about WonderLab After Dark: Chocolate go to WonderLab Science Museum on Facebook. For more information about how chocolate is made read: “So, What Happens in Willy Wonka’s Factory?” by WonderLab Blogger Abigail Bainbridge. For other fun science facts and information about WonderLab’s adult programs, follow @WonderLab on Twitter and Instagram, and follow Jared Katz @museumeduc8or on Twitter.

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