For chocolate aficionados, there’s a term for describing cacao that is small-batch fermented, roasted slowly, hand-peeled, and ground to be sold directly as a paste: It’s called ceremonial cacao, a nod to the cacao ceremonies performed by Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs, and other indigenous and historical cultures in Latin America. Cacao has been used in distinct ways throughout the various cultural groups in Latin America; today, many Mayans use cacao in ceremonies like births, weddings, and other celebrations, as a way to honor the interconnectedness of life.
Soon, Portlanders will have new place to sip ceremonial cacao directly on NE MLK: Soul Lift Cacao will open a cacao cafe in the former Goldrush Coffee Bar space, with drinking chocolates, smoothies, and cacao drinks all made with ceremonial cacao.
In Portland, a few cafes and chocolatiers serve versions of ceremonial cacao: Buddha Chocolate, for instance, makes ceremonial cacao for people to use at home. Soul Lift, however, is more interested in traditional cacao drink preparations, as well as things like drinking chocolate. Owner Nick Meador found respite in ceremonial cacao after years of living with chronic fatigue, but when he decided he wanted to start selling high-quality cacaos throughout the United States, he wanted to understand how he could do so without appropriating the traditions and culture surrounding ceremonial cacao. “I am not Mayan, so throughout my time working with cacao, I’ve wanted this to be a net positive impact,” he says. For him, that means highlighting the Mayan growers and roasters of cacao beans — and paying those producers 10 to 15 times the “fair trade” rate for cacao.
Meador sources his cacao exclusively from Guatemala; two of the sources Meador has worked with longest include chocolate collective Ruk’u’x Ulew and the Cruz family. Ruk’u’x Ulew is a collective of cacao producers in San Marcos la Laguna in Guatemala; the group sources beans from a family farm in Alta Verapaz. The Cruz family, who live on the Southern shore of Lake Atitlán, produce cacao and conduct cacao ceremonies and outreach; Tata Pedro and Nana Marina Cruz lead the family in cacao ceremonies as spiritual leaders. Nana Marina leads virtual cacao ceremonies through Soul Lift, to bridge the gap between producers and the actual product. “They get a say in how I share their products,” Meador says. “Even the language on my labels they approve; it’s a collaboration in every step.”
The producers’ various cacaos will appear on the menu primarily as traditional cacao drinks, meant to highlight the energizing effects of pure cacao and the flavors of the beans; theobromine, the chemical compound in cacao, is a mild cardiac stimulant, which Meador says impacts the heart-racing feeling people sometimes get drinking ceremonial cacao. “It’ll almost be like wine culture: I have five varieties of pure cacao, little variations of flavor or sensation,” Meador says. “Some are more energizing than others.”
The shop will also sell drinking chocolates, infused with herbs, spices, and coconut sugar, as well as “cacao teas” made with cacao nibs. The cafe will be completely gluten and dairy free, using things like oat milk, and those seeking coffees will find beans from Cafe Zamora, a Guatemalan-owned coffee shop sourcing beans exclusively from Guatemala. Meador is also working on a menu of smoothies made with cacao, including a blend with various berries; berries play well off of the natural sweetness of the cacao. “It’s the richest chocolate you’ll ever have, but Guatemalan (cacao) isn’t as dark as other (cacaos) people may know,” Meador says.
While Soul Lift’s cafe will be thousands of miles from the Guatemalan growers and producers who make the cacao for his cafe, he wants the premise of Soul Lift’s cacao cafe to center on the premise of ceremony — even if customers aren’t sitting down for a traditional cacao ceremony. “A ceremony can be just a moment of deep breath, a moment to pause and slow down,” Meador says. “It can help us feel more connected to ourselves.”
Soul Lift’s cacao cafe will open June 5 at 2601 NE Martin Luther King Blvd.
• Soul Lift [Official]