A concentrated chocolate brew that is said to induce mind-altering experiences is taking over San Francisco.
The cacao drink is made from raw cocoa beans mixed with chili or cayenne pepper and a sweetener. People say it tastes like bitter coffee cut with dirt.
When consumed in “ceremonial” quantities (over 40 grams), the mixture produces a wide range of reactions, from feelings of connectness and ecstasy to hallucinations, according to devotees. For centuries, the Aztec and Mayan peoples used the cacao drink as a natural remedy to relieve fever and faintness and improve digestion, among other ailments. Its effectiveness as a hallucinogen has not been established in scientific research, however.
In San Francisco, the cacao drink is gaining popularity with the New Age crowd. While you won’t find techies sipping on cacao in coffee shops, ceremonies centered on the bean seem to pop up on the calendar of healing collectives, tea houses, and yoga studios on a regular basis.
Palomi Sheth, a holistic wellness coach based in San Francisco, has been experimenting with cacao since she first tried it on a medical mission trip to Peru years ago. She became close with a cook who offered a cup of the cacao drink to her one morning after breakfast.
Sheth remembers a warming sensation coming over her body. Her cheeks flushed, and her heart raced. A feeling of openness grew in her chest. “It was magical,” Sheth said.
She asked the cook to teach her how to make the brew and learned to perform the ancient Mesoamerican rituals around serving it. Sheth credits the cacao drink with helping her survive marathon study sessions and the blues through medical school.
For her birthday this year, Sheth spent half the day standing over the blender in her kitchen, grinding cacao beans and pouring the mixture into jars and water jugs. That night, 100 of her friends rotated through her apartment. Sheth led a ceremony that involves setting an intention — a common practice in meditation and yoga — and serving the brew. They drank in unison.
The group reflected on their bonds until the late hours of the morning. “They had never felt so connected,” Sheth said.
Web searches for cacao have steadily risen in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2015, according to Google Trends, though those searches certainly extend beyond the bean’s recreational use. (Some might just want to watch this memorable “Portlandia” sketch, for instance.)
The Center SF, a tea shop and community center located in the Alamo Square neighborhood, hosts semi-regular “cacao ceremonies” led by musician and a self-proclaimed medicine man. The events offer the cacao drink as well as “an opportunity to connect with one’s true purpose.”
The duo behind another group, the Kula Collective, travels up and down the West Coast in a campervan and holds cacao ceremonies in yoga studios along the way. The website describes using the cacao drink to “open clear channels between” the body, the heart, and a divine spirit.
The cacao drink’s popularity extends into San Francisco’s tech community. Sena Shellenberger, a program manager at Google[X], prepares her own cacao and leads ceremonies in the Bay Area. According to her website, she also offers coaching for cacao enthusiasts who want to become facilitators. A review on her website describes the work as “transformative.”
There is little scientific research to suggest the cacao drink can cause psychoactive effects, though a ceremonial dose of the elixir may be enough to trigger warm and fuzzy feelings. One study found that its main active ingredient — theobromine, which translates to “food of the gods” in Greek — may increase heart rate and make users feel high. Cacao also contains tryptophan, which makes people feel calm and relaxed when ingested in high amounts.
More research is needed on the effects of drinking concentrated amounts of cacao.
Sheth hopes that as cacao ceremonies gain mainstream traction, people take the time to learn and honor the ancient traditions around it. She continues to perform the sacred rituals in preparing and serving the cacao drink and consumes it out of large Mason jars, often daily.
“It doesn’t look strange,” Sheth said. “It’s the Bay Area — people are drinking all kinds of sludge.”