When I think about The End of the World as We Know It, one thing I worry about is the availability of coffee.
I am sure this is a concern of yours as well. Assuming that you get through the Zombie Apocalypse, the EMP, the Rising Sea Levels, or whatever your personal big fear is, and find yourself among a group of scrappy survivors, I guarantee you some of them are going to want coffee. It might even become a hot commodity. Worth its weight in gold.
The Inspiration for this Project
The project documented in this post was inspired by S.M. Stirling’s The Change series. In the first book, Dies the Fire, the world of the 1990s is interrupted when all electronics, engines, and gunpowder suddenly cease to function. At that point the series becomes alternate history. The series migrates toward Game of Thrones style fantasy the longer it goes on, but the first few books especially are more in the post-apocalyptic genre, about people surviving and starting to rebuild society in the Northwest and in Northern California. And once they get a steady food supply going, their coffee substitute is “roasted, ground chicory roots.”
I could probably find chicory coffee at a co-op type food store, but I want to try to make it myself. That’s the only way I can learn about the process and find out if such a thing would be feasible.
Lessons from the Chicory Experiment
Chicory is a wildflower that grows all along the highways in our region at certain times of year. Though there is an abundant supply of it on the medians, that’s not the safest place to gather it in this pre-apocalyptic world where vehicles of all kinds are still whizzing by. So I had to seek chicory on a back road. In this picture, the plants with lavender colored flowers are chicory and the ones with white flowers are Queen Anne’s Lace.
Today’s weather is very humid, and it’s so hot that there is a heat advisory. Also, it turns out that chicory grows surrounded by thistles and extremely sharp-bladed grass.
Lesson 1: Gather chicory in the early morning, before the day gets hot. Wear cowboy boots, not flip flops.
I assumed that chicory would have a taproot similar to a dandelion’s, so I brought a small trowel. I couldn’t find my dandelion picking tool, so I brought a large screwdriver, which is almost as good for digging down beside the taproot to loosen the soil.
It turns out that chicory roots are similar to dandelion’s, but much larger, deeper, and woodier.
Lesson 2: I probably could have brought a regular garden shovel instead.
Here is the chicory I gathered. I have no idea how much “coffee” this quantity will make, but I’m hoping it will be enough for one cup. Finding out is part of the purpose of this experiment. I don’t have the time or energy to dig more due to having come at the wrong time of day. Clearly, I have a lot to learn as a hunter/gatherer.
Next step. Google the process just to make sure I don’t accidentally poison myself by skipping a step. (We won’t be able to Google stuff after the apocalypse, which is all the more reason to do it now.) The search takes me here. Hank Shaw is a “hunter, angler, gardener, forager, and cook” and he seems to know what he’s talking about. Uh-oh, he says you need to harvest chicory in the fall. But he seems to have harvested some in the summer with no ill effects. Onward.
Here are the roots after being washed. I need to cut them into thin slices, dry them for two or three days in the sunshine, and then roast them as directed. Cutting them yields mixed results. Some have a woody core so tough that I have to saw it, with dirt trapped between this core and the outer, soft layer. Others are softer, solid and cuttable all the way through, more like cutting a carrot. My guess is that Hank’s nice, plump “root chicory” is more like this.
Lesson 3: Wild chicory might not be the way to go. It might be smarter to cultivate it.
My roots have yielded this measly tray of chicory slices. Following the expert, I sun them on the back of my vehicle. They dry out for a few hours, and then promptly get rained on. I sop them up with a paper towel and move the tray to our sun porch.
Lesson 4: Obvious.
After two days of drying on our sun porch, the chicory slices had visibly shrunk and felt dry. I put them in a 350 degree oven for about an hour and a half. During this time, the house filled with a curious warm malty smell, as predicted on Hank Shaw’s web site. This was reassuring, because it meant that I was in fact roasting the right kind of root. On the other hand, my family complained about the smell.
Lesson 5: There is going to be a lot of complaining around our house after the apocalypse. But I kind of knew that already.
This is what the chicory roots looked like after about 90 minutes. They look done.
Next, I ground the chicory in a food processor …
… And put it in a one-cup coffee filter. As I had hoped, it was just the right amount for one mug.
As you can see, the roots don’t grind up nice and even like coffee grounds. There are some bigger chunks, and then there’s some powder that’s as fine as French Press coffee or even baking powder or something. Perhaps I could have gotten the chunks chopped up further if I’d been willing to grind them for longer, but as I was grinding, fine dust kept escaping from the food processor and coating the surrounding counter. I stopped when I figured the grounds would be sufficient. If you were grinding roast chicory in large quantities, there’d be certain to be a lot of dust.
If there were no electricity, I guess I’d be forced to crush it in my marble mortar:
I poured hot water over the grounds, and it worked great! A very creditable cup of something that looks exactly like coffee.
The wet grounds, and the liquid itself, smell very smoky. I’m going to try it black first, because after the apocalypse there is unlikely to be spare milk, let alone hazelnut creamer.
It tastes exactly as Hank Shaw describes it: “a brighter acidity than coffee and … ‘earthy.'”
I give a sip of it to my trucker husband, who ought to know about mediocre coffee.
Me: Does it taste like truck stop coffee?
Him: Truck stops couldn’t sell coffee if it tasted like this.
Well, it tastes OK to me. But I might be slightly invested, seeing as how I made it.
I add milk and continue to drink. It tastes most coffee-like when hot. As it cools, it begins to taste more and more like … smoke. Now I realize I’ve had this before. I think it was called “smoke tea.” It must have been chicory. I like the flavor, but I realize it wouldn’t be for everybody.
But the bottom line is: I did it! I did it! I dug up a common wildflower and forced it to yield a coffeelike substance. It was a bit of a project, but not hugely inconvenient and actually took less processing than I’ve heard real coffee takes.
Lesson 6: It is possible to make a coffee substitute from chicory, even if you have little previous knowledge or skills.