what is ceremonial cacao?


"Ceremonial-grade cacao" is a term commonly used to describe a particular quality of cacao "paste" or cacao "licor"/"liquor", actually a solid form of crushed cacao seeds which can be prepared with different ingredients to create a ceremonial beverage for ritual purposes. Strictly speaking, there is more to it than this however - every stage of the farming and production of the cacao requires rituals, invocations, blessings, and indigenous peoples must be at the heart of it since it is their ancestral medicine, their cultural heritage, and they are the ones who know cacao best.


Cacao is essentially the most pure, raw form of chocolate, and comes from the seeds of a tree, Theobroma cacao,  which is indigenous to South and Central America. The cacao tree produces large, colourful pods containing fleshy pulp and large seeds, commonly known as cacao beans because of their size, though they are really a seed or nut, and they form the basis of chocolateCacao's status as both literal and symbolic food for the gods inspired its western scientific name, "Theobroma cacao" - in ancient Greek, "theo" = god  and "broma"= food"; "cacao" came from the Mayan word "ka'kau". (this also of course gives Theobromine, a cardiac stimulant, its name - it's found almost exclusively in cacao.) 

The Maya knew about cacao's curative properties; but, as with the ceremonial value of this plant, the nutritional power was unknown in the west for a long time, perhaps because until very recently, in most of the world, cacao was only consumed in its most processed form, after being fermented & heated, which destroys most of its nutrients, and then heavily processed. 


When we talk about "cacao" we're talking about products made from the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree. These seeds grow in pods on the trunk of the tree (these fruit pods start life as flowers). The pods are filled with a sweet white pulp and purplish brown seeds - often called beans though technically they are seeds or nuts...In the early stages of processing, the seeds are separated from the pulp and dried in the sun - as they dry, some fermentation occurs (this brings out the chocolatety flavour). Depending on the process, there may be some light roasting of the cacao beans - this is typical of Mayan ceremonial cacao for example. They are hand-shelled to remove the papery skins, and then ground down & crushed into a liquid paste either by hand, the traditional way, or by machine. This then rehardens into a solid mass of cacao, containing both the cocoa solids and the butter. This is the cacao paste / licor, used to prepare ceremonial cacao drinks.

"Ceremonial grade" cacao is basically cacao in its form of "cacao paste/licor" (as opposed to more processed forms of cacao in which the cacao butter has been separated from the solids)... But there's more to it than that: to consider the cacao paste "ceremonial grade", and to work with it in sacred rituals, it must also be ethically sourced in a range of ways: there is nothing sacred about exploitation and harming of humans and other creatures, plants, land or waters. And within the Mayan tradition, it goes further: specific rituals and blessings and ceremonies are carried out throughout the growth and harvesting of the cacao trees, and without these the cacao paste is not considered to be truly "ceremonial" grade.

I work with cacao paste which is:
- organically cultivated: so that no humans, other creatures, people, plants, land or waters are harmed.
- ethically cultivated and harvested/farmed - fairly traded, with no slave labour (there's a terrible irony in the fact that child slavery is a particular issue in the global chocolate industry)

- cultivated/harvested by and financially profiting indigenous peoples directly. For many years, I worked with ceremonial cacao grown by indigenous communities in the Amazon: buying their cacao is a way to support an ethical, sustainable industry, rather than the cocaine, oil or logging industries many are forced to work for in order to survive.
As I have been continuing my cacao studies more recently with Mayan teachers from the Q'iche', Kaqchikel, Q'eqchi' and Tz'utujil nations in Guatemala, I began to work with Mayan-sourced cacao since these people have the deep ancestral connection to cacao as a sacred medicine, and indigenous Mayan communities in Guatemala continue to face great threats.


I first heard of plant spirit medicine ceremonies because of my longstanding interest in indigenous peoples, and my wish to somehow support their rights and freedom to continue to live in their own culture. When I embarked on the path of sharing cacao I was always clear that I needed to do so in a way which also supported indigenous peoples, since I was sharing their medicine. 

I've tried several varieties of cacao from Central and South America; for the first years of my cacao path, I was working with cacao sourced from indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon; this was in harmony with my original cacao apprenticeship training, with a teacher whose own experience was with Amazonian master plants; and the cacao itself is wonderful!

In recent times, as I have found myself more drawn to cacao's Mayan cultural heritage,  I now work with ceremonial cacao from two indigenous cacao collectives in Guatemala.

Here are 3 producers/sources of ceremonial cacao I can highly recommend: Ruk'u'x Ulew and Ka'kaw Chinimital from Guatemala, and Forever Cacao's Peruvian Ashaninka cacao. Read on for more info including sourcing...
RUK'U'X ULEW ("Heart of the Earth") - Mayan cacao from Guatemala: 
If you are in the UK, I highly recommend
Ticiyotl Medicinal Arts on etsy as the best UK-based source of this cacao I have found! Ticiyotl is owned by a Mexican herbalist based in London ("Ticiyotl" is the Nahuatl (ie Mexique/Aztec) word for "medicine") but the cacao she sells is produced by a Mayan women's collective in Guatemala: Ruk'u'x Ulew, founded by the lovely Cecilia Mendoza Chiyal (who also teaches a class on cacao production for the Mayan Wisdom Project's cacao training and wisdom academy courses).  learn more about Ruk'u'x Ulew and their cacao here.
 (and if you are not in the UK, you can find other international sources via their site. In the USA, I think Soul Lift Cacao are your best source.) Cecilia's collective produce the rich, intense and wonderful small-batch organic cacao I now share in group cacao circles and one-to-one sessions. It is produced from wonderful heirloom cacao beans; every batch is hand roasted, peeled and milled, delicious and vibrant. A lot of love and care goes into the production of this cacao and it comes through in the taste.

KA'KAW CHINIMITAL - Mayan cacao from Guatemala:
I can also recommend the cacao cultivated and produced by the Chinimital del Ka'kaw indigenous collective - three of the teachers on the Mayan cacao training I undertook are members of this collective, and they are all so deeply immersed in the farming, the history, mythology, traditions, rituals and production of cacao -  this is truly authentic sacred, ceremonial cacao, harvested from an ancient forest and produced using only the most natural, traditional methods - not one piece of industrial equipment  is used, no plastic ever touches the cacao (each little "tortilla" of cacao comes in a beautiful hand-woven textile bag).  The cost of this cacao is, as you'd imagine, more than other varieties but this reflects partly the huge amount of work which goes into the farming and production of this cacao, and also the many charitable projects which sales of this cacao contribute to, in Mayan communities throughout Guatemala...You can buy this cacao via the Mayan Wisdom Project's online shop and they ship worldwide - I believe they have a European as well as a North American distributor. 

And last but most certainly not least...(because these are all wonderful varieties of cacao!)...

For many years, I shared ceremonial-grade heirloom Criollo cacao from Forever Cacao, a small, ethical company in Wales who buy direct from the Ashaninka indigenous communities in the Rio Ene region of the Amazon in Peru. This family-business was the first to ship ceremonial cacao to Europe; you can learn more about their work here. This was the first cacao I ever consumed in ceremony; it's also the cacao I was initiated with during my apprenticeship training - this cacao will always hold a special place in my heart, and buying it 

 supports an ethical, sustainable industry, rather than the cocaine, oil or logging industries many in the Amazon rainforest are forced to work for in order to survive.


I felt very torn about making a change from Forever Cacao after several years of bonding deeply with their wonderful cacao (and they are such a lovely small family business); but when I embarked on a second cacao training, in 2022, this time rooted in the authentic Mayan cacao tradition, I connected directly with indigenous cacao teachers and cacao farmers and producers for the first time; as I learned more about the depth of cacao's history and significance to the Maya, it felt essential for me personally to connect with Mayan cacao. 


In its purest form, besides having a subtle energetic quality which assists inner journeying, cacao is rich in nutrients; it's one of the most complex foods (as long as you consume the raw rather than heated & fermented form). 

Cacao contains the following compounds:

* tryptophan - a powerful mood-enhancing amino acid, essential for the production of serotonin (the "happy hormone" - so it can work as something of a natural antidepressant.

* anandamide - the "bliss chemical", an endorphin produced after exercise

* phenylethylamine (PEA) - which we make naturally when we're excited, & when we fall in love; it helps us stay focused & alert.

* theobromine - a stimulant, almost unique to Theobroma cacao, theobromine is gentler than caffeine: it doesn't stir up the nervous system, it stimulates the heart & cardiovascular system. Ancient Mesoamericans were well aware of cacao's properties as a heart tonic in this respect and used it medicinally as well as ritually. (A lot of heart & blood-related rituals involved consumption of cacao.)

* caffeine - stimulates the nervous system - cacao only contains a fraction of the amount found in coffee though, so people (like me!) who find coffee too much tend to find cacao much gentler on the nervous system. 

Cacao is also high in the following nutrients:

* antioxidants (highest levels of any food - more than blueberry, acai, pomegranate, goji & red wine combined)

* magnesium (great for supporting organs such as the heart, brain & muscles which need lots of energy; magnesium helps relax muscles & is essential for nerve & muscle function (so a great complement to your yoga practice!), improves blood circulation & gut peristalsis so it's great for digestion & elimination.

* iron, manganese, & copper - all essential for healthy blood formation - and chromium, which helps balance blood sugar. * zinc & vitamin C - great for boosting the immune system  

In a typical chocolate bar, you'll be eating a highly processed remnant of what was once cacao, after a lot of fermentation, heat-treatment, and processing to separate the cacao/cocoa solids from the fat (ie cocoa butter) - the brown solids are then mixed with cheaper fats, milk and lots of sugar...It's a very diluted form of what, in its pure, raw, unprocessed form is one of the most complex & nutritious foods on the planet.

​​Curious to learn more about cacao & cacao circles?

What happens in a cacao medicine circle?

History & Indigenous roots of cacao