What Does Ceremonial Grade Cacao Mean?

Dear Cacao Lovers,

In recent months, I’ve received multiple questions asking what the term ‘ceremonial grade cacao’ means. There seems to be a lot of confusion around this, and I’d love to share my own perspective with those who are seeking clarity.


Known Origins Of The Term

As far as I understand, and as far as my research has been able to show, the earliest use of the term ‘ceremonial grade cacao’ comes from the work of the late Keith Wilson, who defined it as: “cacao or chocolate that has the quantity and balance of compounds and energies to properly support the Cacao Spirit, or any other energy, including your own creativity, in partnering with you.”

It’s important to note that this concept of ‘ceremonial grade cacao’ does not exist in the indigenous Asháninka communities that we work with in the central highlands of Peru. As far as I know, the term originates with Keith, an American cacao enthusiast, from his work with cacao in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, in the late 1990s.

What I personally love about this definition is that it is entirely subjective, and so the responsibility lands with each person to feel into the energetic qualities of each cacao variety to see how it resonates with them. These subjective explorations have happened naturally over the past decade, which is why so many of us have tried cacao from various sources, eventually discovering that one variety or another blesses us with our own perfect energetic harmony.


Personal Revelation by Plant Spirit

My trust in this process of personal revelation by plant spirit is the reason why I regularly share stories on our Instagram page celebrating cacao from other sources, and why I have never made claims that our cacao is the best, the strongest, the finest, the most potent, the original, or anything else that would position this sacred plant medicine in any kind of hierarchy.

It was on Keith’s original Blogspot website (still accessible online) that I first encountered the term ‘ceremonial grade cacao', and it was his definition that I had in mind when I began posting on Instagram in 2016 with the account @ceremonialgradecacao.


An Industry Standard

In recent months, I have received many questions about what it is exactly that makes a cacao ‘ceremonial grade.’ I understand that in Western cacao communities, there are currently people advocating for a redefinition of this term, based on the contexts and value systems that they are working within.

I understand how such an approach to create an industry standard could be one way to ensure that the cacao that reaches us in the UK is ethically sourced and has been regeneratively grown.

However, I also think that the creation of a branded standard could mean that although cacao has been cultivated and revered for at least 5,000 years, and has been growing globally for hundreds of years, we would be applying narrow, contemporary concepts of ‘ceremonial grading’ to multiple cultures, countries and cosmologies who hold quite diverse beliefs about how cacao should be grown, processed, prepared and consumed.


Centering Harmonious Collaboration

At Cacao Love, Diane and I propose a different approach: one that centers the harmonious collaboration between us as global cacao lovers and the families that are most intimately working with cacao every single day - the growers, producers and leaders of our cooperatives.

We ask ourselves, what do we value as lovers and distributors of cacao?

And we ask our indigenous cooperatives and families, what do you value in your relationship with cacao?

In exploring these questions together, we find the intersection of our values - the crux of our collaboration - and the heart of our personal definitions of ceremonial grade cacao.

If we can agree that ‘ceremonial grade’ refers to a subjective quality, we can then, as a separate exploration, express what we value about the objectively verifiable approaches to farming, production and exchange that is specific to each source.

It goes without saying, of course, that we consider ethical sourcing, farming, processing, and reciprocal exchange to be incredibly important within the subjective quality of how a cacao ‘feels’ when it is consumed as a sacrament.


For our Peruvian cacao, we value the following:

• Our cacao is grown on small, family owned plots of land as part of a diverse forest ecosystem. Many of us didn’t grow up as part of a healthy and harmonious extended family, and so it brings us joy to know we are supporting such heart-led communities in our exchanges.

• The families who grow our cacao are able to live entirely from their forests in the central highlands of Peru. To live in such a way is personal dream of our own, and so our growers are a constant and living source of inspiration to us.

• Our farmers belong to the first all indigenous cooperative to be founded in Peru, that became the template that future organisations used in creating their own businesses. Many coops around the world are founded and led by people from outside the indigenous communities they employ. We love that this coop was the beginning of a new way of structuring cooperative work in Peru, where all decisions are made by the community, for the community.

• The manager in charge of bean selection, roasting and grinding to paste is a young educated woman, and represents a new generational wave of women taking on leadership within Peruvian cacao production.


Our Peruvian cooperative values:

• Growing cacao as a way to continue to create a solidarity economy: sharing profits, harvests, and economic gain with those in the community.

• Growing cacao as a way to continue to celebrate Asháninka cultural traditions and family structures, and share time and joy together. Cacao brings in a regenerative income source with a relatively low labor input, granting growing families the spaciousness and possibility to stay in their homes in the forest rather than rushing to the city to work as taxi drivers or waiters.

• Growing cacao as a way to reconstitute their communities after repeatedly surviving persecution and genocide in Peru over the past 200 years.

• Growing cacao as a way to protect indigenous lands by creating economic opportunities that do not decimate the forests. In recent times, rare trees have been cut down and exported at alarming rates, and today, narcotraffickers - who often pollute river waters with their chemicals, and accidentally set forest fires - are often looking to recruit local indigenous workers into their operations.

• Growing cacao as a way to maintain cultural, economic, spiritual, and ecological solidarity amongst their families and communities.


Organic and Fair Trade

Our cacao also has organic and Fair Trade certification, although we aren’t convinced that these paid-for third party verifications bring a discernible value to our cacao, and so we choose not to share this branding on our website.

However, if you resell our cacao and would like to apply for your own certification, we are happy to give you everything you need to begin that process.


A Worldwide Ecosystem

Cacao from different sources will inevitably share different values to those we have shared above, and we believe that this natural diversity deeply enriches the worldwide ecosystem of cacao that is used ceremonially.

For example, some growers believe that metal tools should never touch cacao during preparation, or that the entire grinding process should always be done by hand. The Asháninka families we work with don’t share these beliefs, and so rather than imposing external objective standards to award indigenous farmers with the label of ‘ceremonial grade,’ we propose that we honour and respect the many different ways cacao is worked with across Central and South America by simply sharing what we value about each unique approach.

I hope this reflection helps to bring some clarity to one of the discussions that is ongoing today in the world of cacao.


Please do continue to ask us questions!

We are always happy to share what we know, and will ask our growers to help us respond to any questions we can’t answer ourselves.

With love,
Gavin x


Share your thoughts!

We would love to hear your own thoughts and reflections on this exploration, and we are always happy to answer any questions you might have!

Value is required
Thank you!