New Year’s Day is a time of remembrance, and with the arrival of the year 2012 many people have begun to remember the Mayans, those crazy ancient people who predicted our planet’s demise by the end of this trip around the sun. While those doomsday claims may not have many rigorous studies attributed to them, we say “who cares?” — anyway, this is a beer column. We’re more into the Aztecs, those badasses who were known for ripping out people’s beating hearts before kicking them down the filthy pyramid steps. A little Indiana Jones humor goes a long way. Now on to making you smart. Aside from the torture, the Aztecs paved the way for future civilizations, developing ideas for organized education, high-quality dyes and medication for pain relief. And most importantly, beer. The drink we’ll be discussing primarily is chocolatl, which lives on most famously in our modern-day hot chocolate. Before it was the kidnapped child of Swiss Miss and Nestle, it was the party drink of Central Mexico. For this drink, we must start, not with the Aztecs, but with the Pre-Olmecs, who began cultivating cacao trees roughly around 1400 B.C. The fruit of these trees can ferment into chocolatl, an early alcoholic beverage reserved for the elite caste. Most speculate this drink was shared during village rituals such as marriages, births and any number of religious ceremonies. These ceremonies changed little over the next few hundred years, as the cultivation of cacao survived among multiple Mesoamerican tribes, most notably the Mayans and our ruthless friends the Aztecs. Chocolatl was also hailed for its medicinal properties. It was said to cure dysentery, diarrhea and fatigue, to bolster immunity and to act as an aphrodisiac. Hot chocolate indeed. The drink varied depending on the regional cultivation. The most famous examples of these utilized chili peppers to give a unique punch to the otherwise bitter beverage. Other ingredients would range from vanilla, cornmeal, honey and the milder pimiento pepper. The rich loved chocolatl. The majority of its consumers were royalty and the upper echelon of society. The drink would be consumed almost as a sole means of hydration by some royals; Montezuma’s court, for instance, would consume thousands of cups daily, with Montezuma claiming upwards of fifty of those. It only seems too ironic then that the death of Montezuma at the hands of explorer Hernán Cortés would lead to the drink being brought to Europe and ultimately popularized worldwide as its sweetened descendent, hot chocolate. The ancient way of chocolatl has not been completely lost to milk and marshmallows, however! Several custom chocolatiers use chili peppers in the Aztec tradition to make wonderfully smooth and spicy candies. And most recently, Dogfish Brewing Company has even gone a step further by creating its own version of the traditional chocolatl beverage. Working with Cornell University archaeochemist Patrick McGovern, Dogfish analyzed the residue from drinking vessels found in Central Mexico to derive ingredients to be used in an authentically ancient brew. With some ingenuity and creative liberties, this analysis led to Theobroma, a beer included in the Dogfish Ancient Ales series. The beer resembles honey in cloudiness, golden hue and scent. The head is very thin, which is unfortunate due to the frothy nature reported in early chocolatl iterations. Also unlike chocolatl this is definitely a beer, specifically an ale brewed with ingredients resembling those closest to the ancient beverage. Honey is a clear front-runner on first quaff, with a general sweetness and thickened mouthfeel. Further sips reveal the bitter notes on top of the taste, reminiscent of both the cacao beans and the chilies used in the brewing process, though these are very faint. While your closest Aztec friends would argue their historic chocolatl was a little less refined and put hair on your chest, Theobroma is a wonderful break from current beer conformity. History bears repeating and our hats are off this New Year to the work of Dogfish Head in preserving our alcoholic history.