my non-coffee evolution — and the cacao solution

People love coffee. It feels like a groovy, grown-up thing. Bitter may not be a kids flavor, but I always love the smell of my mother’s coffee. (Hi, Mom!)

I tried to like it. At my first corporate job, I went in every day to get coffee. At first, I thought, I’ll adulterate it with sugar and chocolate, and then slowly wean myself to the purity of black. I quickly realized that any weaning would go in the other direction. The coffee was just messing up my hot chocolate. And hot chocolate was not something I felt socially inclined to spend money I didn’t have on. I was sad, but I had not found my way to addict myself to coffee.

Coffee is not a sin

As a naturopathic doctor, people often fear I’ll try taking their coffee away. But coffee actually has many health benefits, in the form of antioxidants and compounds that help balance insulin levels — which are necessary for balanced blood sugar and avoiding diabetes.

Coffee as medicine is not for everyone. The caffeine can be problematic in our age of overwork and underrest, giving people a false sense of energy that is ultimately harmful by convincing the caffeinated to continue burning candles from every end until they just. burn. out. Recovery is more difficult from that place. There is no free energy except that which is made by sleep, good food and water, reasonable amounts movement and joy.

Coffee can also be too acidic for some stomachs, although there are ways around this through additives and special brewing techniques.

As a doctor, I do object to coffee as a way to suppress appetite — and thus getting our basic food systems out of whack, undermining our appetite and satiety signals. The solution to so many problems is healthy routine, which we accomplish with food, not instead of it.

As much as I would like to like coffee, it’s still not the morning ritual for me.

An old new alternative

And then came Oaxaca. On a family trip where we stayed with friends who own Casa Ollin Bed and Breakfast, I made a discovery for myself (one that was well known there but foreign to me.) Each day at breakfast, we’d get a choice among coffee, tea, juice and hot chocolate.

As a naturopathic doctor who understands the negative consequences of sugar on health in general and myself in particular, at first I eschewed the hot chocolate — made locally to the house recipe. Then one day I gave in, and was happily surprised. It made me feel well girded for the day, with no jangliness or sugar crashing. it didn’t exacerbate the cold I had on the first trip.



By the second visit, our hosts told us where to get it prepared for us in town. They generously gave us their secret, lower-sugar house recipe (and honestly, even less sugar would still work for me.) My stepsister and I both brought home enough to last for a year.



And I did make that batch last. Even with what I shared with friend back home, my gallon of hot-chocolate cubes stretched the full year we’d expected to wait before returning. But then, of course, the pandemic. So I didn’t get an opportunity to replenish.

Enter brewing cacao

In the end, I caved to the Instagram ads and am now trying brewing cacao, touted as a coffee alternative that’s not your mother’s hot chocolate. It’s just straight cacao, no sugar. It’s affirmatively and declaratively not hot chocolate. But you brew it like chocolate — in my case using a French press, something I should have owned well before now if only to easily strain herbal teas. But I digress.

The beans come from different countries in Africa and the Americas, and are available in different roasts that will be more familiar to coffee afficionados than they are to me. The first batch I’ve bought includes a Ghana French roast (too much like coffee), a Nicaraguan medium roast (chocolate with a good bunch of bitter) and a Ghana light roast that’s chocolatey in smell and taste with almost no need of sure to bring out the cacao flavor.

I’ve had these in the house for a week, getting the lay of the land.

What I got:

  • Ghana light roast
  • Ghana French roast
  • Nicaraguan medium roast
  • Maya light roast, flavored with cayenne, cinnamon and a little vanilla oil
  • A French press.

Two of the flavors (the Ghana medium and Nicaraguan French roast) came as part of an introductory pack. I got the other two because they sounded good, and it seemed worth trying more things as a test.

What I’ve found:

I’m not really ready for something like traditional coffee. I just like this better when it’s a little more like hot chocolate. But the different flavors are affirmatively interesting; I don’t dislike any of them. It’s just a question of how much mylk or fat or sweetener I need to add in order to like it. Here’s what’s working so far for me:

  • Adding collagen powder and homemade coconut milk for creaminess, with yummy local honey to taste.
  • I found maple syrup just a little too sweet, and really felt its effects on my blood sugar in unpleasant way.
  • The lighter roasts need less or no sweetener to be palatable to my taste.
  • My experiment with adding coconut oil was just weird. I’ll be butter would be better.
  • French roast hit me too much as coffee. I’m sure I’ll find friends to take it off my hands.

I bought my cacao from Crio Bru, but it is absolutely not the only company. Others to investigate include Cacao Sol, Chocolate Alchemy, or Choffy. Mountain Rose Herbs offers recipes and resources to make your own blends.

In the end, I’ve come to believe that just because certain habits may have health benefits — coffee, wine, brewed cacao — that doesn’t mean they’re necessary. If you’re already into them, that’s one thing. But if you’re not, it’s good to enjoy them on occasion without turning them into a regular ritual. And it turns out that I’m not a this-kind-of-habit person. And I’m okay with that.

But if you’re interested in switching things up with your habits, and maybe adding or switching to cacao for your hot morning bitter antioxidant beverage, try using this to scratch your chocolate itch while retaining full control over sugar. And if you think of it, let me know how it works for you.



Cover photo by Pablo Merchán Montes on Unsplash.