About a thousand years ago, some Arabs trading on the East African coast spotted local inhabitants chewing a pemmican-like mixture of fat and herbs. Curious about the substance, they purchased some. The peanut-size bean turned out to be just the thing for keeping Arab sailors alert when on watch. The Arabs named it qahwah, meaning “keeps awake.” This seed of Coffea arabica, an Ethiopian shrub of the madder family, would go on to become one of the most valuable herbs on Earth. Coffee, the beverage brewed from the bean, now starts the day for millions of addicts around the world.
According to scientific research, caffeine, the xanthine alkaloid that is coffee’s principal active ingredient, stimulates the nervous system and can cause nervousness, irritability, anxiety, insomnia, and disturbances in heart rate and rhythm; it may also influence blood pressure, coronary circulation, and the secretion of gastric acids. These effects, coupled with coffee’s high price, have spurred herbalists to seek healthful, cheaper alternatives.
The most successful alternatives to coffee combine several ingredients to achieve a complex flavor. Coffee substitutes don’t taste exactly like real coffee but may be mixed with it to extend it and reduce the caffeine content or they may be blended into a satisfying drink that contains no C. arabica at all.
The roots of several familiar plants may be washed, sliced or chopped, and dried for use as a coffee substitute. When slow-roasted at 300°F until crisp and dark brown, they are ready to be ground and infused like genuine coffee.
A bitter blend of chicory (Cichorium intybus) and real coffee complements the spicy food that made New Orleans famous. Residents eschew the mild brew sold to tourists in favor of mixtures in which chicory’s acrid bite is the dominant flavor. To preserve freshness and flavor, some aficionados grind their own roasted chicory roots just before brewing.
Chicory emigrated from the Old World to colonial gardens as a medicinal and culinary crop. Although it is now a common weed at roadsides across North America, most of the chicory used in commercial coffee blends comes from varieties specially bred for coffee duty and raised in Europe. Roots gathered from roadsides may contain toxic substances from automobile exhausts or other sources.
Chicory’s sky blue blossoms, pinned to wiry stems that rise from a rosette of dandelion-like leaves, decorate the landscape in midsummer. Dig the roots before or after the plant has flowered to minimize bitterness. Because chicory doesn’t reseed aggressively, foragers should dig no more than a quarter of the plants in a given colony. Better yet, collect some seeds during September and October and plant them in the garden, where they delight the eye.
The ubiquitous dandelion (Taraxacum spp.) is even more widespread than chicory and just as famous as coffee stock. The rural poor traditionally stretched their supply of store-bought coffee with ground roasted dandelion taproots; some connoisseurs even consider the roots head-to-head competition for C. arabica. Roots gathered in late summer and fall are very bitter; those taken before the plant flowers are much milder.
In any case, the greatest challenge is collecting and processing enough taproots to get an appreciable quantity of final product, because they dry to about a quarter of their original bulk. (I look for plants bearing the largest taproots to cut down on the considerable work of digging and preparing them.) If you visit a freshly plowed dandelion-rich field, inverted plants can be collected by the bushel. Dandelions also produce exuberantly in well-cultivated sandy or loamy soil.
Nothing beats Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) for high yields. Neither Middle Eastern nor an artichoke, it is the tuber of a native North American sunflower. Once a mainstay of the North American diet, this vegetable hasn’t staged a comeback in the produce section though the plant remains a prolific weed of waste places, roadsides, and fields. A white-tubered variety, bred in Europe for commercial production and escaped from cultivation, in some places outcompetes a native variety that produces smaller red tubers.
The knobby tubers are crunchy served raw, tender when cooked, and deliciously nutty either way. They can also be dried, roasted, and ground into a coffee substitute. Sweetened Jerusalem artichoke coffee is an excellent blending ingredient.
Jerusalem artichokes may sometimes be found in grocery stores, but the ones you dig yourself—from around the neighborhood or from your garden—are fresher and certainly less expensive. Given a bit of moisture and ample sunlight, a few tubers quickly form dense colonies of plants up to 10 feet tall, but they also set cheery deep yellow sunflowers in late summer, and diligent harvesting keeps their imperialistic impulses in check.
Other common roots worth trying as coffee substitutes include beet (which adds rich, dark color and a hint of caramelized sugar to herbal blends), carrot and parsnip (which add sweetness), burdock (for color), and salsify (for bitterness).
When World War II disrupted shipping to Europe, Germany and the occupied countries suffered a near-total shortage of coffee. In response, German food scientists developed ersatz (literally, “substitute”) coffee made from roasted barley. Along with sugarless desserts and rutabagas, ersatz coffee recalls the sour taste of war for survivors of that era. Nevertheless, used creatively, roasted grains and seeds can be an excellent base upon which modern coffee blenders can build.
Most of today’s commercial coffee replacements contain roasted rye along with several of the roots listed above. Some also incorporate caraway, cardamom, or other spices. Coffee blenders in remote areas also collect and roast seed from wild grasses.
Seeds of some members of the pea family enjoy a high profile in traditional coffee blends. The sweet seeds of the warm-climate shrub carob (Ceratonia siliqua) are best known as a chocolate substitute, but when roasted and ground, they add smoothness to herbal coffees.
Other good coffee seeds include those of coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), which prospectors in California milled and roasted to stretch store-bought provisions. Although it is a buckthorn, coffeeberry’s roasted seeds lack the laxative effect that made the genus famous. Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva), a low-growing herb that blankets Rocky Mountain grasslands with big pink or white blossoms in the spring, was one of the most important medicinal herbs to the First Nations of present-day British Columbia, Alberta, and the American West, where it was used to relieve sore throats and help heal open wounds. Early white settlers discovered that its seeds made a pleasant coffee substitute with a mild sedative effect. Seeds and plants of coffeeberry and bitterroot are available from mail-order seed houses and nurseries.
Cacao (Theobroma cacao) has become so intimately associated with sweets that it’s easy to forget that this tree was originally cultivated to make a bitter stimulant beverage remarkably similar to coffee. The Aztecs called this brew chocolatl. Chocolatl proved too strong for Mexico’s European invaders to handle. In the mid-1500s, Pope Pius V had to declare it off-limits to nuns after whole convents became addicted to it. Eventually, cacao came to be used almost exclusively as the basis of the sugary substance we call chocolate today. Ground roasted cacao seeds, however, are widely available as unsweetened cocoa. Used in moderation, it adds rich flavor and a mild kick to herbal coffee blends.
Tedious to gather owing to their small size, juniper berries and beechnuts nevertheless are outstanding in coffee blends. Roasted juniper berries have a smoky, resinous tang that blends well with the sweetish spiciness of cloves, cinnamon, and/or coriander. Beechnuts must be husked (easily accomplished by shaking the dried nuts in a paper sack), then picked over before roasting. Infusions of ground roasted beechnuts have body and mellowness that some compare to hot chocolate; they are delicious straight or mixed with regular coffee or cocoa.
The Drug Drink
“The drug caffeine in coffee keeps many persons awake nights when they ought to be asleep. If you’ve found only that one annoying fault with coffee (there are others) isn’t it time to quit it and use POSTUM? . . . “There’s a Reason.” —1912 advertisement for Postum
As the inventor of Postum, America’s favorite turn-of-the-century coffee substitute, Charley Post, or C.W. (as he preferred to be addressed formally), profited handsomely whenever green coffee bean prices soared and people sought cheaper alternatives. Taking advantage of a new national health consciousness and adopting a scientific patter, Post promised that by drinking Postum, his coffee substitute, consumers would be on the “road to Wellville,” as he put it. His folksy but negative approach to advertising revolutionized modern marketing while appalling everyone in the coffee industry.
In 1895 Post first manufactured Postum, a grain-based coffee substitute. Soon he was advertising:
“Remember, you can recover from any ordinary disease by discontinuing coffee and poor food, and using Postum Food Coffee.”
Post, a man of his times, tapped into a fin-de-siecle American fear. The pace of change—with telegraphs, electricity, railroads, ticker tapes, economic booms and busts—seemed overwhelming. In addition, the typical American diet, heavy with grease and meat, was guaranteed to cause indigestion—dyspepsia was the most frequent medical complaint of the age. This heavy food was usually washed down with an ocean of poorly prepared coffee. By the turn of the century the typical U.S. citizen used an average of 12 pounds of coffee annually—nothing compared to the Dutch, the world leaders at 16 pounds per capita, but a great deal of coffee nonetheless. People frequently sought drug-laced patent medicine remedies for their stomach problems.
In this turbulent atmosphere Post’s new national product advertising, cleverly adopting much of the scientific patter and overblown claims of the patent medicines, was extraordinarily effective. Post further infuriated coffee men by writing inflammatory, pseudoscientific letters directly to consumers. “Coffee frequently produces indigestion and causes functional disturbances of the nervous system,” he wrote in one such letter. He asserted that caffeine attacked “the pneumogastric nerve (the tenth cranial or wandering nerve, the longest and most widely distributed nerve of the brain),” often leading to paralysis. “Coffee is an alkaloid poison and a certain disintegrator of the brain tissues.”
Post solicited testimonial letters by placing ads in popular magazines, promising “Many Greenbacks.” Post selected the best and rewrote them to make them more punchy. “I was a coffee slave,” began one such edited letter. “I had headaches every day.” When the woman quit coffee and imbibed Postum, all her troubles vanished. “The rheumatism is gone entirely, blood is pure, nerves practically well and steady, digestion almost perfect, never have any more sick headaches.” A nurse from Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, wrote: “I used to drink strong coffee myself, and suffered greatly”—until she switched to Postum, of course. “Naturally, I have since used Postum among my patients, and have noticed a marked benefit where coffee has been left off and Postum used. I observe a curious fact about Postum used among mothers. It greatly helps the flow of milk.”
A St. Joseph, Missouri, man attested: “About two years ago my knees began to stiffen and my feet and legs swell, so that I was scarcely able to walk, and then only with the greatest difficulty, for I was in constant pain.” His problem? Coffee. The solution? Postum.
—excerpted with permission from Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World, by Mark Pendergrast (Basic Books, 1999).
Robert Henderson of Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada, has spent most of his life chasing wild herbs and other backwoods lore in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. His book on suburban wild herbs will be available this winter from Chelsea Green Publishing.