Joe Alternatives: A Cup of Hot Brown, Hold the Coffee


Cafe au lait at Cafe Du Monde. [Photograph: gwen on Flickr]

Desperate times sometimes cause people to do seemingly crazy things, and having to live caffeine-free for one reason or another is no exception. Almost as long as there's been coffee there have been coffee substitutes, for better or (mostly) worse. From roasted acorns (no, really) to barley, to wheat bran and molasses, folks without access, without tolerance, or without religious allowance to drink the real stuff have found their way to enjoy cups of alterna-brews of all types.

Here's the lowdown on some of the most popular jitter-proof replacements throughout history.

Caffe d'Orzo

Oddly enough, this toasted-barley espresso alternative remains incredibly prominent in what is arguably the birthplace of high-octane joe: Italy. Coffee bars all over the country brew this stuff alongside regular shots, and though traditionally baristas gave the stinkeye to anyone with the nerve to ask for decaf anything, d'Orzo shots now barely raise a brow in the average bar as more people become conscious of their caffeine intake.

Its nutty, roasty flavor might not fool a true coffee connoisseur, but if what you need is a break from the fast lane, a barley-based latte might be among the lesser evils, so to speak. At the very least, it's an interesting way to get at least one of your daily servings of whole grains...right?


Though it sounds a bit like a medical condition, Postum was actually an exceptionally popular coffee "substitute" first marketed by General Foods in 1895 (and kept alive until 2007 by subsequent owner Kraft Foods), made from wheat, wheat bran, molasses, and corn-based malodextrin. The "substitute" there is in quotation marks because the mixture was never intended to taste like the genuine article, but was instead more of a simulation of the experience of drinking coffee: A rich, warming beverage that could be sipped with equally reckless abandon by the caffeine allergic, women with "nervous tendencies," and stimulant-free Mormons (the product's largest consumer).


Probably the most famous of all substitutions, chicory is actually pretty versatile: It can either act as a stand-in for that hi-test brew, or simply blend with it as a filer to cut costs. The roasted root of the endive plant (yes, that delicious bitter lettucey leaf), this smoky-sweet stuff is notoriously N'awlins, and remains a huge part of the iconic coffee experience at the legendary Café Du Monde. Born out of necessity because of coffee scarcity in civil war–ridden France, a transplanted taste for chicory helped Cajun and Creole folks throughout Louisiana survive lean caffeine times due to either unexpected dips in coffee production or periodic exorbitant spikes in bean prices. Now, of course, getting a fresh, hot cup of the stuff is practically half the reason food-minded folks visit New Orleans. (The other half, of course, is the beignet they inevitably dunk in it.)

Have you ever found a coffee substitute you enjoy? Me, I'll probably just stick to tea on my off days: That one chicory experience was enough for a lifetime as far as I'm concerned.