Cacao Lab: Kingston Gets a Ceremonial Cacao Boutique | General Food & Drink | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Cacao Lab: Kingston Gets a Ceremonial Cacao Boutique 

Cacao Drinks, Bonbons, and Ceremony

Last Updated: 03/26/2021 5:54 pm
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The tale of Kingston’s recent transformation is succinctly illustrated in a single storefront: In the former Dunkin’ Donuts location on Wall Street, you can now find Cacao Lab, a ceremonial cacao boutique. This is not your mama’s chocolate shop. Here you can order a hot, frothy cup of cacao ($6.50), which you can customize with the addition of immune-supportive and brain-boosting foods. The shop, which opened in February, is the first brick-and-mortar for Argentine-born siblings Florencia and Federico Fridman’s Cacao Laboratory brand, which was built around e-commerce and in-person experiences until now.

Florencia participated in her first cacao ceremony with a Mayan elder when she was in Guatemala years ago studying metaphysics—topics like lucid dreaming and astral projection. “I just totally fell in love with cacao,” she says. “It felt like there was something so familiar to the feeling. I felt this sense of alignment.” She brought it back to her brother in the States, but outside of its native, spiritual context, it was a harder sell. She put her interest aside and went back to work in the service industry.

Then, at the end of 2016 during a trip to South Africa, Florencia remembers feeling a clear calling to work with cacao—and to do it with her brother. “He already had a lot of experience with helping brands bring their vision forth,” she says of her brother Federico, who has a production company and a marketing firm. “He thought this would be a really good model to explore: How do we create a brand that is supporting indigenous nations and also bringing awareness around sustainability, bringing it into a rights of nature economy?”

A month later, the pair went down to Guatemala to a Cacao Convergence conference. “When we went down to Ecuador and we sat for the ceremony, I understood,” Federico says. “It felt like we needed to do this. This was the type of company that needed to exist.” The cacao they brought back from that trip was their first product to market.

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After extensive traveling and taste-testing, the Fridmans have since switched to sourcing an heirloom cacao strain called Arriba Nacional from an agroforestry cooperative of farmers in Ecuador, which they visit annually.

The insistence on the word cacao over chocolate belies both the purity of their product and their commitment to decolonizing and decommodifying a ritual indigenous food. After being harvested, the cacao is fermented for four to seven days, roasted, peeled, and ground into paste. Made from the whole bean—both fats and solids—this cacao paste has up to 50 percent fat for a creamy, rich texture. Cocoa powder, by contrast, is made solely from cacao solids, while commercial chocolate, mostly from the fats—cocoa butter. “When you separate the fat from the solids, you lose a lot of the nutrients,” Florencia explains. With no additives, emulsifiers, dairy, or sweeteners, Cacao Lab’s organic, sustainably grown cacao comes in hard blocks that you cut with a knife.

The Cacao Ceremony

In Mayan culture, cacao ceremonies usually take place around a sacred fire, guided by a spiritual elder. “For them, everything works in cycles,” Florencia says. “They work with a calendar that lets us understand how nature is moving in rhythms, and also what our connection and relationship to that is.” Mayan for “drink of the gods,” cacao is believed to connect you to your heart in Mayan culture. “Cacao is at the center of ceremony that connects you to unconditional love, stillness, and gratitude,” Florencia says.

On a scientific level, it is quite literally a heart-opener. As a vasodilator, cacao allows up to 30 percent more oxygen to flow to the heart, brain, and skin. It also contains chemicals like theobromine and magnesium, which activate the mind while relaxing the muscles, joints, and nervous system. “Cacao releases serotonin in the brain and endorphins in the body,” Florencia says. “It contains a chemical called phenylethylamine or PEA, which is the same molecule our brains release when we fall in love. That is why we feel so connected to our hearts.”

Florencia has spent several years studying with Mayan elders in order to lead cacao ceremonies. When COVID sent everyone into lockdown, she held free virtual circles for her online community every day for 90 days. Post-pandemic, the Uptown Kingston location will be a space for community cacao rituals. In the meantime, if you’re craving connection, you can join the bi-weekly virtual circles or book a one-on-one ceremony with her.

Wondering what to expect? The ceremonies generally open with a blessing, then participants set their personal intentions as they drink the cacao. While waiting for the cacao’s energizing effect to settle in, Florencia speaks about the history of cacao and its physical benefits, as well as the energy and significance of that given day in the Mayan calendar. This is followed by a short period of breathwork and, finally, a sound meditation. When I go to interview her, she is lightly playing a steel Ahau drum, similar to a handpan, which she uses in ceremony. The sound is bright and soothing. “It is supposed to take the sound of the sun and manifest it,” she says.

Slow Down & Sip Awhile

Focused around slowing down and holding space for gratitude, the cacao ceremony finds an unlikely home in a former chain coffee shop. “This was a Dunkin’ Donuts before—that is the epitome of on-the-go culture,” Florencia says. “We’ve designed it so that when you walk in you see ceremonial space that is inviting you to slow down. Behind the elevated ceremonial space, with its floor cushions and low table, there is a hand-painted mural of a cacao tree by Brooklyn-based Peruvian artist Caro Arevalo. “The drinks are inviting you to reflect. Because people may have questions about the different ingredients, it gives us a story to tell. Indigenous nations work around storytelling.”

In the shop, the soft whir of the melanger is a soothing background noise. Inside the machine, two stone plates grind the cacao paste, refining it and evening out the texture. The mechanical process heats up the cacao, while releasing lactic acid and other volatile compounds that would detract from the flavor. (For at-home cacao brewers, you can either use a pot and a whisk or a blender for a similar effect.)

When you order a cup of cacao, you have the option to add immune-supportive and brain-boosting foods like maca, rose, or cardamom, mushrooms like reishi and lion's mane; and aromatics like wild orange and peppermint. Included with your order comes a vegan bonbon, available in alluring flavors like lavender ganache, lemon basil, and dulce de leche. (You can also buy these treats separately for $44 to $50 a pound.)

The sweet treats are Federico’s domain. Experimenting in the kitchen has been his way of relating to cacao since the beginning. “I just needed to understand it,” he says. “I’ve had so many frustrated afternoons. After that came greater understanding. This is my meditation.”

While your cacao is being prepared, browse the selection of handmade clothing from Mayan communities, jewelry from the Sapara nation, and packaged cacao. The Sacred Elements Blends add herb and spices to the mix to harness the elemental energies, like the grounding moringa and chipotle chili Earth blend. The packaging includes an invitation to set an intention, a guided meditation, and space to journal. “Everything is designed so that you can guide your own experience,” Florencia says.

Though perhaps wary at first, the public has warmed to Cacao Lab quickly, and a month in they already have regulars. “People have been very receptive,” Florencia says. “When we were in New York, people would come to ceremonies because they already knew about cacao. But here, people are walking in not sure what to expect. Many of them have never thought of chocolate as being a plant that has all of these benefits and so much history. It’s a special crowd that comes in here. Have you seen Chocolat? It’s like that, but everyone is nicer.”

Cacao Lab is open Friday through Monday, 12:30-4pm.

Cacao Lab

295 Wall Street, Kingston

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