What Makes Chicory Coffee Unique?

From light roast to dark roast, from Brazil to Ethiopia, there are countless different types of coffee for fans to enjoy. There's even a type of coffee that isn't coffee at all. "How can it be?" you ask. Introducing: Chicory. It tastes like coffee, and smells like coffee, but isn't made from coffee beans at all. In form, it's actually more similar to tea. (Flyest Tea Co. sells a roasted chicory root offering called "Not Coffee.") According to Orleans Coffee, chicory is the root of the Cichorium Intybus plant, subspecies Sativum. (Fun fact: Its sister plant is Endive, which also produces leafy green escarole.) According to Healthline, chicory belongs to the dandelion family and is a similar flower characterized by a light purple flower. The flower's tough root is the chicory part, which gets harvested, cut into smaller chunks, dried in a kiln, then roasted and ground into powder.

Chicory first hit North American shores sometime during the 1700s, per The Spruce Eats, but it's enjoyed as a coffee substitute by fans all over the world. The biggest growers of chicory are South Africa, France, and the state of Nebraska, but it's also popular in India. In the book "Hippie Homesteaders: Arts, Crafts, Music and Living on the Land in West Virginia" by Carter Taylor Seaton, Appalachian artists grow chicory on their property and enjoy it stirred into standard coffee. So, what's all the hype about? And what makes chicory coffee unique?

All the flavor and none of the caffeine

Aside from being a root, there's one key distinction that separates chicory from standard coffee. Unlike your normal cuppa joe, you won't find any zip to speak of in a cup of chicory coffee. Per Orleans Coffee, chicory contains zero caffeine. It also doesn't contain any of the aromatics or oils found in standard coffee, giving chicory a naturally sweeter, less bitter flavor. Healthline describes chicory's flavor as woody and nutty. Jesse Sutphen of New Orleans' Silver Whistle Café says, when stirred into coffee, the taste of chicory takes coffee to another level. While the flavors remain distinctive, the complementary presence of chicory root "highlight[s] and intensif[ies]" the natural flavor of coffee, Sutphen explains, via Southern Living.

Appearance-wise, chicory and coffee are nearly indistinguishable. Chicory's coffee-like brown color comes from the natural caramelization of its fruit sugars, which happens during roasting. Chicory powder also has a comparable grain size and texture to coffee grounds. Both are also commonly enjoyed with warm milk. But, unlike coffee, chicory is much more soluble. Coffee grounds yield 20-25% total matter that can be extracted through steeping, while chicory yields 45-65%. For best steeping results, Healthline recommends using 2 tablespoons of ground chicory per cup of hot water. Per The Spruce Eats, you can brew chicory using any normal coffee-brewing method, from a French press to your old reliable coffee pot.

From France to the French Quarter

It would be impossible to talk about chicory coffee without mentioning the unofficial chicory capital of the world: New Orleans. While chicory boasts fans all over the world, Louisiana is its most assiduous fanbase. According to Orleans Coffee, one of the earliest records of chicory being used as a coffee substitute comes from the French Napoleonic Wars, when Napoleon Bonaparte executed the "Continental Blockade" in 1808. Per Britannica, the blockade was intended to prevent any British ships from entering French harbors, but it effectively severed France from its coffee imports. Enter: Chicory. It offered a similar taste and a lower price tag, but without caffeine. So, folks began stirring it into their morning cuppa joe to stretch the beans a little farther.

Once the blockade ended, French fans continued stirring chicory into their normal coffee for the added flavor and health benefits. (Per Healthline, chicory root is a good source of fiber and the prebiotic inulin, both of which aid in digestion and gut health.) By extension, areas influenced by French culture — like New Orleans — picked up the habit as well. The American Civil War rolled around shortly thereafter (in 1861, via History). Like France, coffee supplies suddenly became scarce in New Orleans as well, driving chicory's popularity home in the U.S. (per The Spruce Eats).