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The Important History (and Future) of Chicory Coffee

Earthy in more ways than one.

by Trad Sevin | September 09, 2020

Have we fully exhausted our resources on Earth? Perhaps. Have we fully harnessed those resources to exceed their full potential? Not a chance.

When we reinvent ourselves, we reinvent our surroundings. Likewise, coffee has evolved alongside us, and of the most enduring transformations in coffee’s history is chicory coffee, and the café that launched this herbaceous drink into the mainstream. Fragrant, earthy, and quite resourceful, chicory coffee has always been ahead of its time. Maybe it’s time for us to take note.

There are many ways you can use the chicory plant as a coffee substitute for coffee beans. You can use the roasted chicory root to brew regular coffee or even use a raw chicory root, ground chicory extract, or a roasted chicory powder to make a cup of pure coffee in your own coffee maker.

When Napoleon held court over France, the French utilized this native root as a coffee substitute for coffee. Though not the first to experiment with adulterating coffee with herbs, the French adopted this brew as their own, taking it with them to the shores of Nova Scotia.

As the Acadians made their way down to New Orleans, they brought their chicory customs (and beignets) to a city brimming with coffee culture. The seaport of New Orleans was already a major gateway for South American imports, and the chicory only added to the existing traditions. Finally, in 1862, Café Du Monde set up shop in the French Market, serving chicory coffee and beignets. After so many years, the coffee is still hot.

Burt Benrud, Vice President of the Café Du Monde company, has seen the original location withstand hurricanes, fires, and now pandemics. “We have a lot of momentum,” Benrud said. “We’ve been serving coffee for over 150 years, and this too shall pass.”

During the American Civil War, soldiers rationed with coffee by introducing chicory to their daily consumption. Between 1861 and 1865, coffee was dubbed a luxury item, and further restricted in the South by Union governance. Major seaports like New Orleans were cut off from receiving imported goods, and chicory root coffee became the new normal. With this perennial root, the coffee adopted a lighter, almost chocolate flavor to alleviate the bitterness. A wartime necessity indeed, but also an unlikely combination that paved the way for future distinctions like Café Du Monde and Vietnamese coffee.

“We use chicory straight from France,” Benrud said "The chicory has natural sugars that gum up in the grinders, so in order to avoid issues in the grinder, we blend them at certain particle measurements.” New Orleans is synonymous with chicory coffee, specifically au laits, and its strength to fascinate locals and visitors alike has stood the test of time.

“Coffee is like wine,” Benrud explained. “But we serve a blend of coffees, and we’re always looking to achieve a consistent taste, which is why blends tend to be more reliable.” A simple coffee recipe has now advanced to cold brew to chicory blend coffee to au lait coffee drinks with milk.

Coffee plays on the heartstrings of reliability throughout our history, as it manages to carry us when it’s difficult to walk. Mark Pendergrast, in his revised edition of Uncommon Grounds, regards the crutch of coffee during both world wars, and its unwavering endurance for soldiers in the battlefield and the families back home.

“The military supplied defense workers and troops with as much coffee as they could drink,” he wrote. “Far from the comforts of home, the GI would do just about anything for a hot cup of coffee... even if it was made from instant powder.”

In a similar fashion, the East German Coffee Crisis of the '70s transformed the global coffee market to open Vietnam and reinvent the East German economy. Through poor governance and spiked prices, coffee became a metaphysical entity in divided Germany, with West German relatives supplying their Eastern kin with whatever coffee was available. To get things brewing again, an adulterated potion called Kaffee Mix was introduced.

The mixture was equal parts coffee and substitute, which was anything from chicory to pea flour. Of course, the product didn’t stick, and East Germans rallied for better coffee. In response to such high demands, Eastern Germany strengthened trade routes with countries like Ethiopia and Vietnam, offering machinery in exchange for coffee. Vietnam was already a seasoned coffee land by way of French colonizers, but the coffee crisis brought Vietnamese farmers onto the global stage. Back when the French landed in Vietnam, they brought with them (you guessed it) chicory coffee.

So, will chicory and other substitutes continue to make an appearance? In a world seemingly stressed by a constant cultivation of natural resources, where do we draw the line? Benjamin Myers, President of The Chain Collaborative, a nonprofit that works to strengthen community leaders and sustain the visions of local coffee professionals, believes the future of our industry rests on two pillars of real change: perennial and diversity.

“These are touchstone words that we can lean on as building blocks,” Myers said. “Nature works with perennials in diverse mixtures. Complex ecosystems do not collapse, only monocultures.”

Authentic mixtures go a long way, as we’ve seen with chicory coffee blends. The need for community support and innovative approaches has never felt more urgent, especially during a pandemic. “We’re getting an opportunity to explore an isomorphic window into a post-carbon future through the virus,” Myers explained. “What information can be harvested during this time to diversify our standard operating procedures to be less dependent on carbon?”

Myers also leads a New Growers Program with Frinj Coffee, based in Los Angeles. When we think of coffee farming, we don’t always imagine Southern California as a top contender. But with initiatives like Frinj, it seems California’s coffee industry nearly rivals the wine side of things.

“We currently have 64 farms, and my hope is to continue to develop multi-strata food forests that employ regenerative agricultural principles in California that are central to building soil and minimizing water and nutritional inputs with a coffee emphasis,” Myers said.

As with Café Du Monde, we keep our craft looking clean, and measure triumphs by our ability to stand up and dust off the powdered sugar.

As we grow into a more remote state of existence, we reflect on our methods and how we can utilize a newfound normal, whatever that means. As with Frinj, we find unique locations (like 18˚ above the tropics?) to plant our seeds. As with Café Du Monde, we keep our craft looking clean, and measure triumphs by our ability to stand up and dust off the powdered sugar. And then there’s chicory root coffee; ever growing, ever sweet. It’s only fair that we seek to supply that which supplies our needs, and, no... the coffee’s not running out, but how much is too much?

“We have about ten years to make major changes to our environment,” Myers estimated. “We need to start focusing on regenerative processes, from politics to economics, that can only be found in nature’s genius.”

The Black Frost of 1975 decimated global coffee production, sending waves of stagnant harvests from Brazil to Eastern farmlands for years to follow. As with any catastrophe, however, a sort of renaissance was birthed from the frost as specialty coffee took flight. “As prices rose, the percentage gap between inferior and quality coffees narrowed,” Pendergrast wrote. “... consumers began to realize that for only a little more money they could buy coffee that really tasted good.”

So, what’s our next renaissance? How do we approach coffee in a smarter, more conscious manner? Change begins when the mundane ends, when things just aren’t working like they should. If we’re unsure what the call to action sounds like, we ask the experts. “This isn’t a climate change,” Myers said, “This is a climate crisis.”