Beyond the Bean: Five Coffee Substitutes to Try

From Colonial Times to Present Day - What People Drink Instead of Coffee

Beyond the Bean: Five Coffee Substitutes to Try

From Colonial Times to Present Day - What People Drink Instead of Coffee

When people can’t drink coffee, they go to amazing lengths to find something – anything – to fill the void. Over the course of history, people have had to restrict their coffee habits for any number of reasons. In Colonial America, for example, coffee was an expensive luxury – as was tea – so colonists turned to plants found around them to create coffee substitutes they could enjoy. Many of the concoctions they came up with are still used today – or can be used. These are some of the best-known coffee substitutes from history and the present day.

Chicory Root

Chicory, a relative of the dandelion, is a hardy, semi-woody herbaceous plant that thrives just about anywhere. Its pretty blue flowers are a common sight along roadsides and in open fields, as well as in vacant lots in many cities. It is widely cultivated in Europe as a coffee substitute. Historically, people have turned to roasted chicory root as a substitute for coffee during economic crises and coffee shortages.

  • In 1766, when Frederick the Great banned coffee in Prussia, an innkeeper came up with a beverage brewed from roasted, ground chicory root. By 1795, there were more than 2 dozen factories in Brunswick making chicory.
  • During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers adopted chicory as a coffee substitute when a Union blockade shut down the port of New Orleans, the second largest importer of coffee, cutting off the supply of coffee to the troops.
  • To be fair, though, chicory root was already well-known as a coffee additive or substitute in New Orleans, where many of the settlers came from French stock. Chicory in coffee was popular in France at that time.
  • In the UK, a Scottish entrepreneur developed Camp Coffee, a caffeine-free blend of coffee essence, ground chicory root and sugars, in 1876. It has long been a popular beverage, but it enjoyed a spike in popularity in the 1970s, when a coffee shortage caused the price of coffee to nearly double.
  • Chicory root is often blended with coffee to add a deeper, richer flavor. Coffee with chicory is a classic New Orleans beverage. The very popular Cafe du Monde brand includes roasted chicory with the coffee grounds.

Interested in brewing chicory for yourself? You can find instructions on how to harvest and prepare wild chicory root as a coffee substitute at the Permaculture Project.

Dandelion Root

The bane of many a groundskeeper, dandelions also offer a well-known coffee substitute. Like chicory, the coffee magic is in the root rather than the leaves or the flowers. While dandelion coffee doesn’t have quite as lengthy a history as chicory coffee, its use does date back to the mid-1800s. Also like chicory, dandelion boasts an impressive list of possible health benefits, including the lack of caffeine. In addition, many reviewers feel that of all coffee substitutes, dandelion coffee is the one that tastes the most like coffee.

To Make Dandelion Coffee

The most difficult part of making dandelion coffee is harvesting the dandelion roots, a task best done in the fall. If you’ve ever tried to uproot dandelions from your lawn, you already know that pulling up those long taproots is no easy task. You’ll also want to take care to avoid plants that may have been treated with pesticides or other chemicals. Once you’ve pulled up the roots, trim away the leaves and stems, clean the roots well, and slice them into small chunks. Spread them to dry in a single layer – a food dehydrator will help with this. Finally, spread the dried dandelion root in a single layer on a baking sheet, and roast in the oven at 350 F for about 20 minutes. From there, steep the roasted dandelion root in hot water until it’s the desired strength. You can add chicory root and other herbs to it for added flavor.

Or you can skip all that and buy a commercial dandelion coffee blend like Dandy Blend, which mixes dandelion and chicory roots, rye, barley and sugar beet root for a gluten-free coffee-like beverage.


Postum deserves its very own separate category, if only because its history stands out from most of the other coffee alternatives. Made from toasted wheat, bran and molasses, this coffee substitute was created by none other than C.W. Post, the breakfast cereal guru. In fact, Postum was the first product introduced by the Postum Cereal Company in 1895. Post touted his new grain beverage as an alternative to the caffeine-laden breakfast beverage of choice,with advertising that promised none of the side effects associated with the evil coffee bean. It was originally popular among those who avoided coffee and caffeinated beverages for religious reasons – Post was a Seventh Day Adventist – but developed a new following during World War II, when coffee rationing reduced the amount of coffee available to civilians. In 2007, Kraft Foods, which had acquired General Mills (formerly Postum Cereal Company), decided to discontinue Postum. Fans of the vaguely coffee-flavored beverage rose up in protest, mounting a campaign to “Bring Back Our Postum.” In 2012, the Postum brand was bought by Eliza’s Quest Foods, and Postum returned to supermarket shelves. Unlike many other grain-based coffee alternatives, Postum is gluten-free, and certified Kosher and Vegan.

Roasted Grain

Many of the best known coffee alternatives are made with a mix of roasted grains, roots and a sweetener. While some use wheat, there are plenty of gluten-free alternatives on the market made from rye and barley, generally mixed with chicory or dandelion root and a sweetener. The most popular include:

Note: Be sure to check the ingredients label to be certain that they’re gluten-free as ingredients and methods sometimes change.


Yes, figs, the juicy, sticky-sweet fruit that most people associate with Fig Newtons. Coffig is a coffee substitute made with just one ingredient – 100% non-GMO figs. It’s caffeine-free and gluten-free, and has high reviews from folks who have tried it.

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