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What is Chicory and why is it mixed in coffee?
Coffee culture has a long history with coffee alternatives and additives. It seems that nearly since it’s discovery, people have been trying to replace, alter and enhance it. In Mark Pendergrast’s book Uncommon Grounds, he names more than 65 things that have been used for coffee additives. Some of my favorites are brewery waste, burnt rags, and dog biscuits.
“The list of coffee adulterants indeed is amazing: almonds, arrowhead, asparagus seeds and stalks, baked horse liver, barberries, barley, beechmast, beetroot, box seeds, bracken, bran, bread crusts, brewery waste, brick dust, burnt rags, burrs, carob beans, carrot, chickpeas, chicory, chrysanthemum seeds, coal ashes, cocoa shells, comfrey roots, cranberries, currants, dahlia tubers…” (Uncommon Grounds, 60) You get the picture.
Of all the things that have been added to coffee over the years, chicory, a blue flowered plant native to Europe, is probably the most familiar and successful. The leaves of the plant are sometimes use as salad greens. The chicory root is roasted, ground and used to produce a bitter “coffee substitute.” It is probably most well known in New Orleans style coffee which can be up to 40 percent chicory.
History of Chicory and Coffee
Napoleon’s Continental System is credited as the originator of chicory’s popularity. The Continental System was an embargo on trade with Great Britain which led to scarcity of many *nonessential items, coffee included.
The scarcity of coffee in Napoleon’s empire led to experimentation with various coffee replacements. Of these replacements, the most widely available and coffee-like was chicory. When the embargo ended, the people of France still enjoyed chicory and began adding it to coffee and making it into blends.
The French taste for chicory traveled across the Atlantic to the French controlled port of New Orleans. Half a century later, the Union blockade of New Orleans and other Civil War factors created a scarcity of coffee throughout the Confederate world. Chicory once again rose to the top as one of the most appealing and practical coffee substitutes.
In the early to mid 1900’s there were many blends throughout the United States that contained a great deal of chicory. This was because it was cheaper than coffee and, with a lot of coffee quality being very poor, it was hard to tell the difference. As United States coffee consumers pushed back on adulterated coffee blends and roasters were required to make note of additives on their packaging, coffee and chicory blends became a nearly insignificant portion of the coffee market.
You can still find chicory coffee in New Orleans at places like the iconic Cafe Du Monde and you can usually find a blend or two in most grocery stores. It seems with the spread in popularity of Blue Bottle’s pre-packed Iced New Orleans Style coffee, chicory’s popularity could once again be on the rise.
What does Chicory taste like?
After reading a little about the history of chicory and coffee, I was curious to get my hands on some and experiment. I purchased a pound of imported chicory from Sweet Marias and also acquired a can of Cafe Du Monde Coffee and Chicory blend (Which I now wonder what I am going to do with).
I decided I would try some different blend ratios and brewing techniques.
Straight Up Chicory
I first decided I would try my imported chicory as a coffee substitute. I wanted to see how it stacked up to coffee and get a baseline for what it tasted like before I started blending and tasting. The dry fragrance of the chicory reminds me of black licorice while the wet aroma is reminiscent of a cheap spiced tea bag.
French Press (17:1 water to chicory ratio)
Not finding a lot of information on brewing with chicory alone, I decided I would brew it the same way I brew coffee. I used my French Press method and the result was a harsh, bitter, undrinkable cup of nastiness. It was thick, syrupy and had some sour notes. It was clearly over extracted.
Pour Over (17:1 water to chicory ratio)
When I used my Bee House dripper and prepared the chicory via manual pour-over, the result was a much less appalling cup. It was one dimensional, thick and peppery with muted bitterness. The thing that struck me the most was it’s complete lack of sweetness and balance. In contrast, even a very mediocre cup of coffee would seem complex, nuanced and a prized beverage.
Cafe Du Monde
Pour-Over (17:1 water to blend ratio)
If you have read the blog much, you should know that I try to steer away from coffee snobbishness. That being said, I did not find this coffee to be pleasant. It comes in a cool orange can. I must admit that I found it somewhat charming that you need a can opener to get to the coffee.
Imported chicory mixed with French Roast
I am pretty sure my dislike for Cafe Du Monde’s blend was not entirely chicory’s fault. After all, the coffee is pre-ground and sealed into a can. This almost certainly guarantees that the coffee is stale and thus not presented at it’s best. Furthermore, I don’t really know the quality of the coffee or the coffee to chicory ratio we are dealing with in the first place.
Making my own chicory and coffee blends seems like a better way to experience the impact of chicory on a cup of coffee. I was able to try my French Roast blend without chicory (the control) as well as with different ratios. Here are the three configurations I tried:
- French Press (2:1 coffee to chicory ratio)
- Pour Over (2:1 coffee to chicory ratio)
- Pour Over (10:1 coffee to chicory ratio)
The results were a little surprising. I did not find the 2:1 ratios to be too overwhelming and, on the flip side, I could distinctly taste (and smell) the chicory at a 10:1 ratio.
I did not mind the blends on their own. The chicory adds another dimension of flavor and enhances some of that smoky, bitter French roast taste.
When I tasted the blends next to a cup of the unblended coffee, I definitely preferred the unadulterated cup on all tasting points. The mouthfeel, flavor profile, and overall cohesiveness of the cup was better without the chicory. The bitterness of the chicory stood out and made the blend seem harsh compared to the smoothness of the control coffee. There was also a lingering unpleasantness that tagged along with the chicory coffees.
Blue Bottle Coffee Roaster’s New Orleans Style Iced Coffee Recipe
I did want to try Blue Bottle’s recipe for New Orleans Style iced coffee before any final conclusions were made. I tried to locate a carton of this legendary concoction but was unsuccessful.
I did not make the coffee on the same scale of the online recipe, I just used my French press and reduced all the ratios and volumes 80%.
Twenty four hour later, I was pleasantly surprised with the result. This was a fantastic beverage. I think the distinctive bitterness of the chicory was an asset in this case. The sweetness of the milk and sugar really played nicely off the bitterness of the coffee and chicory.
To be fair, I did not try the blend against a control as I did with my other brew methods. I only have so much time and one French press. For further study, I may have to compare this method with the Cafe Du Monde coffee, a control coffee, and a blended coffee.
What did I learn from my foray with this bitter root?
- You may want to give chicory a try if you like dark coffees.
- Chicory can enhance a darker coffee if you are looking for that “strong” smokey taste.
- It definitely adds another dimension to iced coffee that I enjoyed.
- Sometimes the dimension it adds to other brews can be a detractor
Have you had experiences with chicory? Leave a comment below if you have an opinion or recipe to share.
*I used the word nonessential somewhat flippantly here. We all know coffee is pretty much an essential