Ceremonial Grade Cacao:
An Energetic Standard from Seed to Cup
Fundamentally, ceremonial cacao is about RESPECTING cacao as a sacred plant elder. Ceremonial cacao is an energetic standard, speaking to how the cacao is handled from seed to drink with love, respect, and intention. The process of making ceremonial cacao is a many step additive process: while not each step must be present, the more steps that are tended to the more effective the cacao medicine will be. Here we share how we tend to cacao as a medicine throughout the entire process, and why we believe the cacao we offer you has magnificent healing potential.
Ceremonial cacao begins with the communities that we work with to source our cacao. Unlike the majority of chocolate consumed globally, we don’t source from centralized plantations. We only buy from small-holder organic farms, typically 0.5 acre to 5.0 acres in size. To date we’ve sourced cacao from almost one thousand such farms. Sourcing from small farmers often living in indigenous communities allows us to have a far more wide-spread social impact than paying just a single plantation, and it supports and values traditional ways of life in a time during which many of the communities we work with are struggling with the influences of modern civilization.
Small farms such as the ones we purchase are stakeholders in the communities and ecosystem. As such we often find superior environmental stewardship on these farms, employing not just organic principles but regenerative permaculture principles that actually improve the thriving of the land over time, whether that is tending to watersheds, building topsoil, or increasing biodiversity. The cacao grown on these farms tends to be a locally distinct genetic varietal, sometimes with an heirloom designation, that our partners support with seedling propagation in small nurseries. Cacao is an understory tree, so it lends itself well to polyculture agroforestry systems that produce abundant food staples and simultaneously offer ecosystem services such as habitat and buffer areas to intact rainforest areas.
Some examples of the practices we’ve seen in action on our small farms include:
- intercropping with banana, plantain, avocado, coconut, corn, coffee, ginger, cardamom, allspice, chili, achiote, calaloo, jippi jappa, and medicinals
- improving soil with bat guano collected from nearby caves
- inoculating soil with beneficial mushrooms from leaf cutter ant mounds
- chop and drop pruning, leaving all locally generated organic material on the farm to improve soil fertility
- opening cacao pods for wet cacao removal on site, so cacao pods can improve soil fertility
- pruning according to the moon cycle, during the waxing moon, when the cacao tree is most dormant
- managing cacao pod diseases primarily with pruning to allow sufficient airflow and sunlight throughout canopy
- agroforestry crop planning to provide young cacao trees with more shade and older cacao trees with less shade
- planting additional food crops such as plantain and banana to keep local animals contently munching and sparing cacao pods
- planting habitat for pollinator species to thrive, and for general beauty
- planting cacao trees on steep slopes in a diamond shape pattern, to maximize soil retention
Wet Cacao Purchasing
This step, while a little complicated to understand, is instrumental to the social impact we have in the communities we work with, so it is worth taking a moment with. In all the regions we work in, until the last decade, small holder cacao farmers had to do significant post harvest processing of their harvest before being able to sell it. They had two options: first, to ferment and dry their own cacao, or second, to "wash" the cacao.
Through fermentation, the sugary cacao pulp is digested by yeast and bacteria, and the end result is cacao beans with no white fruit on them, ready for drying. In contrast, washing the cacao beans is a process that essentially soaks the cacao beans to remove the white fruit from them, and then dries them. Many local farmers drink cacao made from washed cacao, as it is less time intensive and also with less potency so they can drink copious amounts of it daily.
In either case, these are additional labor intensive steps taking the farmers' attention away from growing cacao and spending time with their families. Washed cacao receives far lower prices than fermented cacao as it has inferior flavor. And fermenting cacao is difficult, and most small farmers are not experts in fermentation nor do they have the volume of cacao (minimum several hundred pounds of wet cacao beans each week) needed to achieve quality results. So both option do not produce premium cacao, and as a result fetches low prices, keeping farmers and their communities in a poverty sustaining cycle.
Enter the wet cacao purchasing model. All our cacao is purchased from farmers “wet”, meaning that we buy the fresh fruit from the cacao farmers immediately after the cacao pods have been harvested and split open, so that no post harvest processing is required from the farmers. We partner with local organizations that either establish buying stations in villages to purchase wet cacao from farmers, or that drive pickup trucks all the way to the farmer’s locations, sometimes quite far out on adventurous roads to the edge of the rainforest! Only the highest quality cacao is sold to our buyers: cacao with zero insect damage, no germination of seeds, and no mold. On field visits, we’ve often watched farmers sort their wet cacao into two buckets: one for our purchasing, and one sold to less discerning buyers.
Across hundreds of farms, our partners buy enough cacao to bring back to a locally run central fermentery, that with outside expertise is able to ferment and dry the wet cacao to international “fine” and “premium” standards. This allows the fermented and dried cacao to be sold on the premium international market to buyers like Firefly, fetching far higher prices that support the logistics of exporting cacao, operation of the fermentery by local community members, and most importantly, give our farmers a better price for their harvest.
Our farmers consistently receive some of the highest prices in their countries for cacao, and notably, they receive more for selling us wet cacao than they previously received selling washed or even fermented and dried cacao. This additional capital received and time savings allows our farmers to support their families better, and make investments back into their small farms. All of the partners we work with have pioneered this model of buying wet cacao in the regions they work in, often time making other buyers in the region have to adopt a similar model and raise their prices paid to farmers as well.
The process of fermenting cacao is very delicate and needs exacting attention to produce good results. The wet cacao is first allowed to drain excess liquid for 24 hour or so, and then it is placed in wooden fermentation boxes, approximately 3 feet on each side. About 500 lbs of wet cacao can fit in one such box.
Our partners purchase cacao on a weekly or biweekly basis from farmers, to incentivize farmers to only harvest perfectly ripe pods. This ensures consistent sugar levels entering the fermentation process, which helps ensure an even fermentation process.
In the first stage of fermentation, typically the first two days, anaerobic yeasts digest the sugars in the cacao fruit coating the cacao beans, and produce ethanol. The production of ethanol creates the ideal environment for acetic acid producing bacteria, which dominate the second stage of fermentation, which can last anywhere from an additional three to seven days. Cooler ambient temperatures, higher elevations, or larger cacao beans typically require longer fermentation times.
During the second stage of fermentation, the acetic acid bacteria digest the ethanol produced in the first stage, in the presence of oxygen, which is introduced by rotation the beans in the wooden box. This chemical reaction produces the heat that drives the fermentation process, a fermentation box can achieve 120F! The fermentation is typically monitored with a temperature probe, to determine when to rotate the fermentation box, typically at least twice to introduce more oxygen to moderate the rate of fermentation.
Proper fermentation is one of the key steps to producing the amazing flavor in our pure 100% cacao. By contrast, industry standard fermentation can be as little as 1-2 days, resulting in poor flavor development of the cacao.
Cacao Drying, Sorting, and Blending
The fermentation level is assessed for completion with a cut test, in which 50 beans are randomly sampled from a lot, and cut in half with a knife. The number of under fermented, partially fermented, and well fermented cacao beans are counted, to ensure the fermentation rate meets specifications.
Once fermentation is complete, the cacao needs to be dried to stop the fermentation process. Drying needs to proceed at a certain rate so that excess acetic acid does not get locked into the cacao beans, which produce a high level of astringency in the finished chocolate. Target moisture level is approximately 7%, which ensure that the dried cacao beans do not break in transport.
Our cacao is dried on elevated drying beds in greenhouses or direct sunshine. By contrast, industry standard is to use carbon intensive gas powered dryers, or to use tarps laid on the ground, which doesn’t allow for even airflow around the beans, risks contamination with rocks and dirt, and energetically symbolizes the cacao is of little worth.
Once drying is complete, our cacao is hand sorted to remove any cacao that doesn’t meet final quality standards. Any secondary or tertiary grade cacao is sold to the local markets, and even cacao that falls off the drying beds is swept up and sold along with rocks and dirt to less discerning buyers, who bulk up cacao orders with up to 10% non cacao material. Our cacao of course is only pure cacao and has no contaminants.
As the fermentation process has so many variables, there is a naturally occurring variation in fermentation rate and the range that we shoot for is 70-90% well fermented. To achieve this range, it is common to blend lots of cacao that fall outside this range. For example a lot that is 90% well fermented could be blended with a lot that is 60% well fermented to achieve an overall rate of 75% well fermented in each bag of cacao. This blending process helps us achieve more uniform flavor across each 130lb sack of cacao.
Once cacao completes inspection and is bagged in one hundred thirty pound or similar size burlap sacks, its journey has only just begun. Our partners ensure the cacao beans are transported to port using dedicated trucks, even if there is not a full truck load available to ship. Though this might cost more, it avoids commingling our cacao with other cargo that could contaminate it, such as sacks of coffee or barrels of oil. This is what happens when cacao is treated as a commodity rather than as medicine … would you want your cacao tossed haphazardly in the back of a truck with other chemicals in it? Believe it or not all these things can happen so exquisite attention to the handling of the cacao is needed. Similarly once at port, our partners pay for expedited premium brokerage so the cacao does not languish in port warehouses where again its quality could be affected. Our organic certification also ensures the cacao is not fumigated with toxic chemicals when it enters the country (unfortunately, cacao grown organically but not certified is almost always fumigated). So step by step, we rely on effective partnerships to keep the cacao safe during transit on its way to us.
Cacao Sourcing Summary
We offer complete transparency in our cacao sourcing with our annual impact report (stay tuned; our new report will be available soon, thank you for your patience!), which details the farm gate price we pay to farmers, the price the fermentery or association receives, and the price we pay to our cacao brokers, among many other important metrics. The highly monopolized chocolate industry hides these details, but we believe transparency is essential in food systems, especially with international partnerships. Rather than relying on third party certifications designed for industrial food systems, we rely on in person visits and partnerships to direct trade with the communities we work with, for far superior quality and social and environmental impact. There is nothing better than our eyes on the ground to truly validate the cacao we purchase is tended to lovingly. And there is nothing better than spending days and nights with the families we work with to understand the many complexities affecting their communities, and to understand how we can best support each other. Ultimately we strive to offer you, the cacao consumer, an unparalleled assurance and connection to where the cacao comes from in an industry rife with poor practices.
Cacao Spiritual Hygiene
Once the lovingly and carefully tended cacao reaches our studio, we do our very best to tend to it and further activate its fullest healing potential. From the beginning we’ve used a dedicated building for working with cacao so it’s energy never gets mixed with other products, as is common in many shared commercial kitchens. Since we designed our own space, we painted the walls with an inspired cacao mandala and colorful patterns, rather than a stark white kitchen space. Our all electric facility is 100% powered by local solar and geothermal renewable power. We regularly clear the workspace with sage and or palo santo. We also regularly make offerings with cedar and tobacco. Our altar at the studio anchors our vision for people connecting with the cacao we share in a respectful, sacred way. We also bless all orders going out for healing and will add special blessings upon request. Over the years we’ve prayed for many layers of spiritual protection that shield our space for creating only the highest vibration medicine.
We pay attention to the unseen as we examine the entire process of physical transformation as a simultaneous alchemical transformation progressing through the four elements (see diagram). We take care of our people well so that we all are stoked to be working with making cacao, every day. In our non-cacao kitchen and lounge we cook and eat healthy so we can be sensitive and clear to the energy of the medicine we work with. We sit in our own ceremony in order to regularly heal ourselves for all of our relations. We also sit in our own ceremony for guidance and direction in how to make and share cacao in a good way. Through having a clear container and prayer, the cacao we source actually selects us to work with it, and we intuitively feel when we receive a cacao sample that we are supposed to share onwards.
Cacao Making Practices
Transforming raw cacao beans into ceremonial cacao discs is a many step process, throughout which care must be taken to preserve the cacao’s energetic integrity. The first step is roasting the cacao beans, which activates them, brings out their flavor, and dries out the remaining moisture. For ceremonial cacao we use only the minimal heat needed to bring out the natural flavors in our premium cacao. In contrast, much industrial cacao is processed with high heat, to achieve uniformity and mask off flavors from low quality inputs. We believe the “raw” cacao marketing craze was an overreaction to these industrial practices. Cacao actually does quite well with heat, and from the beginning we’ve chosen to stick with the wisdom of indigenous cacao practices we encountered that always toast cacao to bring the alchemy of the fire element into the chocolate making process.
Next, the roasted cacao beans are cracked and winnowed using a strong air current to remove the lightweight in-edible shell from the heavy pieces of cacao beans. This process results in cacao nibs, which are then ground in several stages. The grinding process liberates the cacao butter naturally present in cacao nibs. Cacao butter is liquid at body temperature, so just low heat with prolonged mechanical grinding over the course of a day will transform the nibs into completely smooth 100% cacao with an average particle size of about 20 microns, which is too small for the tongue to register texture. Typically, chocolate makers will add cane sugar at this stage of the process, to grind it with the cacao, but our 100% cacao has no additives besides certain superfoods for some of our super cacao blends. Chocolate candy makers also often add dairy in this stage, but our process is entirely vegan, because dairy actually inhibits some of the beneficial health effects of cacao.
The fully ground liquid cacao goes through another process called conching, which is a complex process using vigorous agitation, air flow, and heat over time, to transform the flavor of the cacao. With 100% cacao this is particularly important, as it helps volatilize bitter and astringent compounds that are by products of the fermentation process, like acetic acid. While these compounds are present in cacao nibs, only a small percentage of them reach the tongue when ingested; however when the same cacao nibs are finely ground into smooth 100% cacao, the exponentially higher surface area means that these compounds overwhelm the tasting experience if not removed through proper conching.
Lastly, the finished cacao needs to be transferred, tempered, deposited, and cooled into cacao discs. When we transfer the liquid cacao, we use stainless steel brewery piping. We never pour liquid cacao into plastic buckets or bags, as is common practice in chocolate making. We also avoid soy lecithin, which is an unnecessary additive added to most industrial cacao to make it flow smoother through pipes and machines. We also make small batches that are freshly shipped to you, rather than deliberately aging the chocolate for flavor or accidentally doing so by distributing through long supply chains.
Prior to depositing our cacao discs, we use a continuous tempering process that through precise control of temperature seeds the liquid cacao with the crystals we want in our finished product, for best melt resistance and appearance. Rapid cooling after we deposit the discs forces the liquid cacao to solidify in a crystalline structure based on the crystal seed we’ve selected, rather than cooling more slowly and creating an unorganized mix of crystal, which causes the finished chocolate to appear drab and soft. Since it is quite rare for chocolate makers anywhere to temper pure 100% cacao, we had our tempering machine custom built with upgraded components to handle thicker, unadulterated chocolate.
Once the chocolate discs are deposited and cooled, we package them and send them to our cacao lovers immediately. The chocolate discs are a novel innovation that make preparing cacao for ritual as easy as possible. They are easy to melt and they make it easy to measure out a dose, compared to a needing to get out a cutting board, knife, and scale to break apart a big chunk of chocolate before preparing your cacao drink.
Ultimately this entire process is a transformation of a single ingredient, without anything added besides the highest quality superfoods or anything extracted as is done for cocoa powder. We strive for 100% cacao that is actually quite enjoyable by using selection of the best ingredients and the art of process to achieve superb texture and flavor. And we take care in every step, avoiding shortcuts such as microwaving our cacao to melt it, something commonly practiced by chocolatiers making truffles and confections. To us making ceremonial cacao is a slow food process, and we know that the care taken in every step of the transformation from bean to disc impacts the quality of the healing work that can be done with the cacao.
Cacao In Your Hands
Lastly, education is a big part of our mission. We’ve been working with cacao for almost seven years on a regular basis, and are excited you want to learn from this amazing medicine also. We’re excited that you are interested in a healthy thriving lifestyle, in ritual and ceremony, in connecting with and stewarding nature, and in building resilient communities. You hold the last step in ceremonial cacao, which is why we do everything that we do.
If you want to go deeper into where ceremonial cacao comes from and how it is made, join us for Cacao Sourcing and Transformation, now available online here.
Explore Further:What is Cacao Ceremony | Delicious Cacao Recipes | Cacao Health Benefits | Decolonizing Cacao | Creating Cacao Ceremonies