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What is chicory, and what is its role in coffee?

Written by Phil

A coffee enthusiast and traveler, Phil primarily spends his days thinking and writing about coffee. He also writes for where he explores ideas of culture, psychology, and travel, and occasionally dabbles in horror.

One of my students said he had been practicing baking with chicory the other day, and the topic of coffee came up. The first question I had: What the heck is chicory?

Chicory is from the dandelion family. The root is baked or roasted, then ground and added to coffee grounds. The mix gives coffee a woody taste that enhances darker roasts and strong blends.

So then what’s the relation with coffee exactly and how did it begin?

When did people start putting chicory in their coffee?

As the story goes, back in 1808 during Napoleon’s time in France, he created a massive continental blockade to choke England, which resulted in major coffee shortages in France.

Luckily for the French, chicory is native to their homeland and has a similar flavor to coffee. It had been long used for other culinary practices, so they figured they could use it to stretch the dwindling amounts of coffee available.

So it went until coffee was back on the market in abundance. Afterward, the majority of them cut out using chicory and went straight back to the strong stuff; it should be noted that chicory doesn’t have caffeine.

However, the practice continued in small pockets, and somehow made the leap over to some French colonies, most notably Louisiana. That’s why you can still find chicory-infused coffee in New Orleans to this day.

In 1860, France had exported 16 million pounds of chicory, going to show just how popular it was becoming. Of course, Americans have always been quite industrious, so some took to cultivating it in North America.

That was in 1860; for those of you who remember their grade school history class: when did the civil war start?

That’s right – the very next year.

Why do some Southerners put chicory in their coffee?

The Union naval blockades did a great job in cutting off supplies from being received by the South. As it happens, this is the same reason why chicory had originally been used in France. Due to the blockade, scarce goods were rationed, one of which would have been the increasingly-scarce coffee.

I remember a story about a military commander which (I believe) took place in the civil war where soldiers were told to abandon their grain stores in favor of keeping their sacks of coffee because grains could be easier to replace, and coffee was seen as a consumable that could bestow bravery and vigor. And so they did.

Chicory root was also fairly easy to come across and had a strikingly similar flavor to that of coffee. So, in the spirit of making do with what was at hand, soldiers would do as the French did when they really needed a coffee fix: cut chicory into their coffee to stretch what little they had left, or substitute it entirely.

Unlike the French, once coffee became readily available again, some Southerners really liked the flavor, and it stuck. Most notably, it can be found in the New Orlean’s coffee brand Cafe Du Monde.

What sort of coffees might use chicory?

In New Orleans, it seems that chicory coffee is all the rage. On the Cafe Du Monde website, they suggest using their particular blend of coffee in a cafe au lait, which is often equal parts percolated coffee with heated milk.

You may be wondering: isn’t that a latte? Nah, lattes use shots of espresso have a higher milk ratio.

It seems people don’t suggest using chicory coffee in an espresso machine for making shots, which seems to have something to do with damaging the machine. Others seem to think it’s perfectly ok, so… use at your own risk.

New Orleaners also enjoy their coffee with something called a beignet (ben-yay), which is a kind of fried fritter, sometimes filled with fruit. The more common form you’ll find today is a piece of dough that’s been fried and covered with powdered sugar. I mention this in case you want the full New Orleans coffee experience.

The other style of coffee that goes well with chicory coffee is Vietnamese-style coffee. Their coffee is defined by its use of robusta beans – twice as caffeinated and twice as bitter – with sweetened condensed milk.

The problem: the North American palate is not a huge fan of super bitter coffee, so we mostly have straight arabica or blends of the two available.

It’s for this reason that Vietnamese immigrants have taken to using chicory coffee in the brewing of one of their favorite beverages, also relying primarily on Cafe Du Monde’s blend.

Honestly, I’ve been living in Beijing, China for the past few years, and haven’t been able to try Cafe Du Monde’s blend. If you find it, please let me know how it is!

How to make a good cup of chicory coffee

Big surprise, it follows similar rules to brewing a good cup of coffee: the fresher the better. That applies as much for the chicory root as it does the coffee itself. Of course, if you just want to try it in any form, then Cafe Du Monde should do.

Unfortunately, most tinned coffee is… well, let’s say “less than fresh”. So, how should you go about finding fresh chicory?

Grocery stores don’t normally stock it, but it might be found at bulk coffee stores, Whole Foods, Indian, or Asian grocery stores. If all that fails, there’s always online, but you’ll have to be lucky anything close to fresh.

A final shot in the dark would be specialty coffee stores, but my bet is that they probably turn their nose up at something that can often be seen as a way of making coffee cheaper or diluting its natural flavor.

Are there any health benefits to adding Chicory?

Yeah, it seems there are some possible upsides.

It should be warned up front that some people can have allergic reactions to chicory, so maybe test a little bit in a safe environment before going whole-hog on a roller coaster.

But for the rest of us, the benefits could be worthwhile. It adds some extra nutrients, which include:

  • Manganese
  • Vitamin B6
  • Potassium
  • Vitamin C
  • Phosphorus
  • Folate

As for the direct health benefits of consuming chicory may include:

  1. Lowering Blood Sugar
    1. It contains inulin, which is a fiber that’s been demonstrated to help manage blood sugar levels in both humans and animals.
  2. Reducing inflammation
    1. Some animal studies have shown that it has anti-inflammatory properties
  3. Improve Digestive Health
    1. Again with the inulin fiber: it’s a prebiotic that promotes the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, which is good news as we learn more about how the gut biome significantly affects the rest of the body. Then again, if you’re not consuming the root itself, the effect will definitely be lessened if not outright canceled.

Finally, if you are trying to lower your caffeine intake or eliminate it outright, then you can choose to either cut it into your coffee or replace coffee altogether, as the American soldiers and French citizens did before us.

So that’s probably more than you’ve ever thought to ask about chicory! I know I had no idea about any of this before, but if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go out and see if I can find some chicory root myself!

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