Wild Coffee Alternatives
For Those Times When You're Too “Jangled
By Christopher Nyerges
You’ve heard all the pros and cons regarding regular coffee. Some are good, some are not good. Even if you’re a regular coffee drinker, there are times when your body wants something else, something warming and filling, but with none of the “speed” of coffee. Fortunately, there are many coffee alternatives. You can drink them straight, or with honey and cream. Some you can buy, some you have to make yourself.
You might want to experiment with as many of the following that you can find in your area so you learn their individual flavors and aromas. Then, try some combinations. Then experiment with different roasts, that is, roasting darker or lighter.
Just about everyone who makes their own “backwoods coffee” has a favorite blend and “recipe.” Try several of these as you experiment until you find what you like the best.
Acorns grow worldwide, falling from the trees in the autumn. Generally, you find them the thickest during September and October. They are bitter in the raw state and so must be peeled and then “leached”—boiled or soaked to remove the tannic acid. Once the bitterness is gone, there are many things you can do with the acorns.
If you want to use it in your “coffee” blend, then grind it coarsely. Roast it as dark or light as you generally like coffee. However, in all cases, the darker roasts (those that are nearly black) can be borderline carcinogenic, depending on the material being roasted. This is due to the fact that you are nearly burning the material, and in some cases, excess heat causes certain oils to be produced which are not good for you to consume. I generally roast to a brown color, sometimes dark brown, but I never let it approach black.
Burdock root also has many other uses besides a coffee substitute. It is generally preferred to use the first year root, though the tougher second year roots can be used as well. Wash the root, and then grate it or cut it into slices. Slowly dry in your oven, and then grind coarsely. Then roast it to your desired darkness, and mix with your coffee blends.
Collect the berries in the fall when the fruit have turned nearly black. Then you need to remove all the seeds, which is easiest done by simply rubbing all the seeds between your hands in a dishpan, and then washing away the pulp.
When you have just seed, let it dry, then roast it until it is brown. Grind and percolate as you would ordinary coffee.
Coffee: Healthful or Detrimental?
“BUT ISN’T COFFEE BAD FOR MY HEALTH?”
Much has been said and written about the benefits vs. the detrimental effects of coffee. But what is the “bottom line”? Are there beneficial qualities? Does it harm me? Should it be abstained from? Is it okay to drink coffee in moderation?
These and similar questions are not easily answered because, in the tests and statistical data, researchers and doctors do not use—or attempt to define— a consistent standard for what is meant by “coffee.”
Coffee has also been accused of causing, or contributing to, cancer, heart diseases, hypertension, hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver. Dr. John Timson of the University of Manchester in England, while admitting that coffee is mildly addictive, states that, at present, there is no hard scientific evidence that links the use of coffee to any of the above-mentioned diseases.
Unfortunately, in virtually all studies done on the health effects of coffee, researchers indiscriminately lump all “coffees” together. But no two cups of coffee are alike. And it is not likely that any standard will ever be established for coffee research. Why? Because brewed coffee contains not only caffeine, but various acids, oils and alcohols, the qualities of which vary depending on the way the coffee beans are handled from farm to cup.
According to Dr. Neil Solomon, “Caffeine is a strong stimulant with drug-like properties and is considered to have an unfavorable effect on nutrient absorption.”
The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has placed caffeine on their Generally-Recognized-As-Safe list. Caffeine acts as a stimulant to the central nervous system. If used in excess, it contributes to nervousness, irritability, sleeplessness, anxiety, and heart palpitations.
According to Timothy Hall, a teacher with the L.A. Unified School District who has given numerous lectures on coffee, there are at least 30 factors which affect the beverage called “a cup of coffee,” all of which must be taken into account if one is to draw a useful conclusion about coffee’s “good” or “bad” effects.
According to Timothy Hall, one cannot answer “Is coffee good for me?” until one has explored the following questions. In some cases, definitive answers to the following may be hard to come by, if not next to impossible. Some factors, how-ever, are completely within our control.
What is the type or variety of coffee plant? Of the two primary types of coffee—Arabica and Robusta—Arabica is considered the better of the two. Where and how was it grown? How was it fertilized?
The elevation, quality of soil, and the amount of water received during growing all affect the quality of the fruit. This is why coffee connoisseurs have individual preferences regarding the country of origin.
What was the quality of care in picking, cleaning and storing the beans?
What was the method of roasting?
The depth of darkness of the brown in coffee color is due to the proportion of cresylic acid (cresol) present after the beans have been roasted. The darker the roast, the greater the tar content.
What was the grinding procedure? How hot did the beans get during the grinding process? Though not everyone will notice the difference, any grinder, which grinds at a high temperature can result in the loss of aromatic oils. One solution is to grind with a hand mill. An-other solution (when using an electric mill) is to only grind enough for a few cups at a time, since prolonged grinding may result in excessive heat. How much time elapsed between grinding and brewing? Remember: if you smell it, you’re losing it. If you don’t plan to use your grinds immediately, then put them in a covered container and place in the refrigerator.
How was the coffee handled and stored between the grinding and brewing?
How much coffee grounds are used in relation to water? Obviously, a cup of coffee made with one scoop of grounds is vastly different than one made with six scoops of grounds. A person with stomach disorders will have difficulty with the stronger brew.
What is the quality of the water? (After all, the primary constituent of “a cup of coffee” is water.)
What was the temperature of the coffee grounds, and the temperature of the water, when you began to brew?
What were the temperatures when you finished brewing?
Fusel oil, released into the water whenever coffee grounds are boiled, causes bitterness; however, fusel oil is not released into water at less than boiling temperatures.
What was the level of cleanliness of the coffee maker?
Old coffee stains are a combination of “dirt” and oxidized insoluble fats. When fat oxidizes, it becomes rancid. Rancid fat “flavors” all coffee that is brewed in coffee pots that have not been scrubbed spotless.
What type of coffee maker was used (vacuum, drip, percolator)?
(Space doesn’t permit us to review every coffeemaker on the market however, so let the buyer beware.)
Did I brew the grounds using the percolation, infusion, or decoction method? Infusion refers to adding the grounds to the water and letting them steep. A camper might do this. Decoction refers to actually cooking the grounds—even boiling—to make a strong brew. Though this might be acceptable in a prison camp when one is trying to extend the available grounds as far as possible, it is the least desirable choice. Percolation—pouring the hot water through the grounds—is the best option.
What type of materials did I use in the making of the beverage? Stain-less steel, glass, aluminum, porcelain, and plastic all affect the quality (and the flavor) of the finished product.
What have I added to the finished product? Sugar? Salt? Egg? Vanilla? Cinnamon? Chocolate? Honey? Sweet-’n-Low? Saccharin? Cream? Milk? Powdered milk? Half and half? Cloves? Cardamon? Coffee-mate? Brandy?
Was the coffee instant?
Instants are made two ways: spray dry or freeze dry. Both are begun as a very concentrated brew made with cof-fee grounds and superheated water. In the spray dry method, the concentrated brew is sprayed into a chamber where hot, dry air is pumped. The air removed the moisture, leaving bubble-shaped particles behind; the particles are then ground into powder. In the freeze-dry method, the concentrated brew is first frozen, and is then introduced into a vacuum chamber which removed the moisture, leaving a solid mass; the mass is then reduced to granules.
Instants vary due to the varying strengths of the initial concentrated brew, and differences in drying methods (temperature, etc.). Though the quality of instants may vary, most coffee-lovers will only drink instant when the circumstances dictate simplicity, or if nothing else is avail-able. A detailed comparison of the quality of instant coffees was done by Consumer Reports magazine, a copy of which may be obtained by writing to the magazine.
Is the coffee decaffeinated? The chemical formerly used to remove the caffeine was trichloroethylene (found to cause liver cancer in laboratory mice). Currently, methylene chloride is used, a chemical under study by the National Cancer Institute. A non-chemical method of decaffeination that has been gaining is popularity is the steam method.
What type of cup is the coffee served in? How long after brewing is the coffee served? What do I use as a stirring device?
How many cups do I drink at one sitting?
Of the factors under our control, the quality of our thinking (as we brew the coffee) has a direct effect on the finished product. Also, the way in which we drink the beverage has an effect (i.e., slow thoughtful sips vs. hurried gulps).
Hall asserts that in his tests, the quality of one’s thinking has proven to be the most important factor. States Hall, “If you brew your coffee with precise intent, you can alchemically transmute those common grounds into a veritable elixir.”
AN ALCHEMY EXPERIMENT
Here are a few guidelines if you’d like to begin alchemically changing “a cuppa coffee” to “wonderful elixir.” This is the procedure that Timothy Hall was taught by his mentor, R. E. White of WTI in the mid-1970s.
Begin with meticulously clean utensils. Stainless steel, French porcelain, glass, or copper are preferred; softer metals (e.g., aluminum) should not be used.
First, measure the needed amount of water (spring water is better than the chlorine and fluoride-laden city tap water) and set on the stove to boil.
Next, prepare your filter. An ideal filter is a simple cloth bag sewed into a cone, using the densest cotton flannel. These are reusable indefinitely—far superior to commercial paper filters. The bag is suspended over your cup, or a second pot; the coffee grounds are measured into the bag (a fine grind works best).
Another ideal system is a French ceramic pot with a ceramic cone that fits into the top, and a gold-plated reusable filter. You measure your grounds into the filter.
When the water has boiled, stand squarely and strongly on both legs; breathe deeply; then, slowly pour the water in a clockwise circular motion over the grounds. While pouring, visualize and fell the energy of Love flowing from your heart, down your arm, and into the beverage. We call this “chi,” and much has been written about this “chi” energy in books on Chinese healing and martial arts. You may need to “imagine” the feeling at first, but with practice you will find it easy. It sometimes feels like a mild electric shock.
If you wish to add anything to the resultant beverage, try raw honey and raw cream.
One of the main problems with ex-tensive coffee ingestion is that it either removes or destroys the B-vitamins from the body, resulting in a slowly cumulative degeneration of the sheaths of the body’s nerve fibers. This is what causes the “nervousness” with heavy coffee-drinkers. Honey, cream and B vitamins, when added to the diet, help to offset any harmful effects.
When the above process is done thoughtfully and lovingly, the process is somewhat analogous to the Japanese tea ceremony. And it can result in a truly fine elixir.
Please try this method of “elixir- making” in your own Alchemical Chamber (aka “kitchen”) and let us know your results.
So is coffee “good” or “bad”? As always, it depends on the way you interact with it.
Coffee says: “As you care for me, and as you treat my fruits, so shall I be able to provide sustenance to you, my dear humans. Ignore me, and I have nothing, or little, to offer but ‘cheap thrills’ of your lower aspects of autonomic nervous system.”
Coffee also says: “Compromise and/ or adulterate me and you’ll not only have something of little value, but your choice to exploit/adulterate me will change my potential beneficence into an exploitation/adulteration of your own body and brain.”
As is nearly always the case with such matter of “health,” all is choice, choice, and choice, and consequence of choice.
The flavor and aroma in this case is very much like regular coffee, but a bit on the weak side. With a bit of honey and cream, it really can pass for coffee, but without any caffeine.
Carob is the pod from a large tree native to the Middle East. The pods mature brown, and can be eaten right off the tree. They are sweet, and rich in calcium and B vitamins. When ground and roasted, and percolated into a coffee-like beverage, it will have a sweet and heavy aroma and flavor. It will be only slightly reminiscent of regular coffee, but you will like its flavor. You should also break open the pods and remove all the hard seeds before you grind the pods.
Chicory roots have long been used in the South as a coffee substitute. Some people really like chicory, and others say it is too bitter. It’s all a matter of personal preference.
Ideally, the roots should be dug before the plant flowers. Wash them, and let them dry. Then break them up, or coarsely grind them, and roast them. The dark French roast is very popular with chicory, but I find it quite acceptable with a mild brown roast. Percolate as you would ordinary coffee grounds, and serve with honey and cream.
Chicory is also commonly added to regular coffee grounds as an extender. In fact, you could “extend” regular coffee with any of the substances mentioned here. This is a good point to remember if coffee is hard to get for whatever reason.
Dandelion is just second to chicory as a coffee substitute. Follow the instructions for chicory. Though it is somewhat better to collect the dandelion roots before the plants flower, as a practical matter it is easier to locate the plants when you see all the yellow tops. Either way, the roots make a good coffee, and the flavor is better than chicory, in my opinion.
GRAINS (BARLEY, WHEAT)
Various grains have long been roasted and percolated like coffee, or added to various coffee blends. Barley and wheat are popular, and several commercial alternative coffees have these grains.Most of the wild grass seeds would work as well. Experiment and see which ones you prefer. Keep notes as you try the various wild grasses in your area, so you can repeat the “recipe” the next time, and share it with your friends.
Sow thistle roots tend to be smaller and more tender than dandelion, to which it is related. Nevertheless, treat these roots as you would dandelion, and either use them alone or mixed with other wild plants.
These are by no means the only roots and seeds you can use to make your coffee alternatives. But these are the ones that have a long history of being used that way, and this should get you started.
Sure, teas are an okay alternative to regular coffee, but sometimes the teas don’t quite do it. When you want something heavier, something with body, that’s when you can try any of these roasted roots or seeds for a satisfying alternative to the caffeine-coffee.
You can buy coffee-alternatives at the market, or you can simply utilize these wild roots and nuts and seeds, which are almost always ignored by “civilized folks.” When you make anything yourself, the benefits are much more than “saving money.” You realize that—in each small way—you have choice and you have control. As you become more attuned to the wild bounty of the natural world, your eyes open and the world becomes a different place. It is only through several generations of brainwashing that we’ve arrived at the place where one is embarrassed to pick up weeds or acorns or carob pods. And just imagine—the folks who are laughing at you (or pitying you) as you collect from nature’s crops are prisoners of their own thinking. I’m generalizing, but they work all day to pay for the car that they must have to get to the job which is needed to pay for the car to get to the store to buy the food that they believe is the only “real” food, and thus it continues.
By learning to collect your own food, your own herbs, your own “coffees,” you have freed yourself just a little more from “the system.” But that is, as they say, another story.
In a sense, doing these activities of self-reliance force you to think along different pathways than convention. We thus become more integrated with nature’s rhythms, and there is a positive effect on our health, our emotional well-being, and our interaction with our local environment.
We do not dismiss such “simple things” as insignificant. We have heard it said somewhere (a quote from a wise man, no doubt) that we need not worry about the “big things,” but that we should concern ourselves with little things and with the details, that life is all details anyway. Such “little details” are the stuff of the thread of Archimedes, and we believe that by tracing such threads back to their source, we can truly “find our way back home.”
I think I’ve had too much regular coffee for the day; it’s now time for me to make a pot of carob-dandelion coffee!
Nyerges is the author of Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, How to Survive Anywhere, Extreme Simplicity and other books. He has led ethnobotany walks since 1974. He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90401, or www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.