The story of chicory coffee is a rather interesting tale. It has a colorful journey right from its humble beginnings as a wartime commodity to the lifestyle beverage it is today. Chicory was cultivated in ancient Egypt and was very much a part of people's diets back then. However, its widespread use and camaraderie with coffee can only be traced back as far as the 1700s in Europe. Here in the United States, chances are you are familiar with the famous chicory coffee from New Orleans. In addition to Europe and the United States, chicory coffee is also quite popular in Asia - specifically South India.
The chicory plant belongs to the dandelion family. This purple flowered plant can be identified by its tough and hairy stem, and the leaves are often used in salads. The root of this plant is 2 to 4 inches thick, and when given a treatment similar to that of coffee beans, (drying, roasting and grinding) can be brewed into a drink with nutty and earthy flavors.
But, how did these two unlike plants find themselves, quite literally in the same cup? As the title suggests - necessity and economics. Limited access to commodities during the time of war made it a substitute for, or sometimes an additive to, coffee.
Of revolutions and rations
The story of chicory coffee has similar beginnings in Europe, America and India. It first became a beverage in Northern Europe when Fredrick the Great of Prussia, and Napoleon, both banned the import of food commodities, thereby depriving the people of their daily dose of coffee, amongst other things. Popular substitutes from their already existing diets were experimented with, and chicory seemed the best fit in order to stretch or even substitute coffee rations. For the French this combination of chicory coffee became a lifelong love and they continued with it long after the import bans were lifted.
Like the European story, coffee became scarce during the Union Blockade of the Civil War. It had already become a household staple in America and the absence of the bean forced people to innovate making chicory coffee the answer here too. After the Civil War ended, and regular trade returned, most of America went back to consuming pure coffee. The notable exception was the people of Louisiana, and in particular, New Orleans. True to their French roots, they continue to enjoy their coffee with chicory, along with cream and sugar.
In India, the British soldiers drank ‘Camp Coffee’ during the war. This product of Scotland was a mixture of water, sugar, coffee and chicory essence. It was offered as an alternative to the expensive “100% pure” coffee, especially in the times of scarcity. The Indian soldiers gradually developed a taste for Camp Coffee too.
The Indian story - a parallel chapter
In the 1800s the British colonizers established a thriving coffee export business in India, cultivating the lands of the Western Ghats. Most of the beans were exported but some did make their way into the local markets and households in the southern state of Tami Nadu, which shares a border with the erstwhile French Provincial capital - Pondicherry (Puducherry). Even though coffee was produced locally, it was still an expensive commodity. In India, most households tend to be large, and the greater the number of people, the greater the coffee consumption. Herein began the quest to find the perfect balance between being economical and brewing a great tasting cup of coffee. This led to experimentations with roast, grind, additives and brew methods. Having already been introduced to chicory by the French, it became the obvious choice also because it helped increase the yield. A little chicory went a long way. Its usage also quite literally boiled down to its added health benefits and the absence of caffeine. Most importantly, chicory gave the whole drink a richer body, creamier mouthfeel, depth of color and the perceived feeling of drinking a “strong” cup of coffee. It did however, leave a bitter aftertaste which can be countered by the addition of milk and sugar. This method of brewing led to the famous South Indian Filter Coffee. A cup of authentic South Indian Filter Coffee is most often blended with chicory, and is now a passion and an art form that defines coffee culture in most traditional South Indian homes.
Chicory coffee is an acquired taste - there are those who love it and those who fervently prefer their cups of 100% pure coffee. We endeavor to bring you the best coffee that India has to offer along with a glimpse into her coffee history, culture, traditions and modern ideas of taste, quality and transparency. Thus, we bring you our very own version of Chicory Coffee – the perfect blend of single estate coffee and nostalgic traditions. Enjoy it the way you like - hot or cold, with or without milk and sugar - we’ll share our favorite brew recipes soon.