A concentrated chocolate brew that is said to induce
mind-altering experiences is taking over San
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.”