Coffee Alternatives Are Trending, and Here’s What to Know about the Different Options
For everyone who craves coffee rituals minus the effects.
Caffeine consumption is an ancient habit. Some of our ancestors ritually chewed the seeds, barks and leaves of certain plants — long, long before diners were slinging cups of mud and Keurig machines whirled and hissed out liquid gold into our funny cat mugs. Today, many of us are still chasing that quick and reliable burst of energy and elevation in mood: around 80% of the world’s population consumes a caffeinated beverage daily, and in 2018, we collectively drank 9.7 tons of coffee alone (that’s a lot of cat mugs).
But the earth’s coffee crop is on shaky grounds: shipment delays and poor harvests due to climate change have contributed to higher costs. All this, combined with the struggle to make coffee sustainable, have opened the door to the exploding world of coffee alternatives. And many coffee drinkers are welcoming the opportunity to shake up their routines with options that contain less or no caffeine at all. Here’s how to navigate the world of coffee alternative options. For a few of our most favorite picks, head over to our story, The 7 Best Caffeine-Free Drinks If You're Trying to Give Up Coffee.
What to Know about Adaptogenic Coffee Alternatives
What they are: Also known as functional beverages, these drinks are made from adaptogens: herbs that are used in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine to help the body fend off stressors like chemical pollutants, physical overexertion, anxiety and more. They can withstand droughts and temperature drops, and the thought is we might glean some benefits by adding them to our diets. Here are some varieties you might see in coffee alternatives.
- Ashwagandha is an evergreen shrub that can be found in Africa, the Middle East and India. In Ayurvedic medicine, it has long been used for energy boosts and anxiety and stress reduction.
- Ginseng root is used as an energy pick-me-up and was once abundant in parts of North America. Today, Asian Ginseng is sometimes enjoyed with hopes to boost immunity or simply help with a headache.
- Maca is newer to the Western market. Resembling a turnip, maca can withstand cold and harsh environments; perhaps some of its compounds might help us find balance too.
How to enjoy them: Adaptogens have played a role in medicine around the world for thousands of years, but consult a trusted healthcare professional before adding any to your wellness routine, especially if you take medication or are pregnant or nursing. Interested in trying an adaptogenic coffee but not sure where to start? Take the online quiz at Rasa (an adaptogenic beverage company) to determine which blend is best for you. Or try a sample pack of every mix — all formulated by an herbalist.
Everything to Know about Mushroom Coffee
What it is: Some mushrooms are adaptogens too (sorry, not the ones on pizza!); a few have found the spotlight in coffee alternatives — lending their active compounds to mimic the alertness that coffee brings, but with an added dose of calm. Here are the mushrooms getting much of the buzz.
- Lion’s Mane looks vaguely like a furry head of cauliflower in the wild — there are currently research trials to determine its efficacy in improving cognitive function (there’s not enough evidence as of yet).
- Reishi mushrooms are almost leathery looking, and their compounds tout immunity-boosting effects (again, the evidence is very thin).
- Chaga grows in clumps (sometimes massive) on birch trees and needs to be harvested straight from the wild to protect its sought-after active compounds for lowering cholesterol.
How to enjoy it: Be sure to discuss with your doctor before trying any of these mushroom compounds. Pregnant and nursing people should not eat or drink them, and do not forage for them in the wild without a guide who knows the area and what’s safe to eat. Considering starting a shroom brew routine? The the morning ritual kit from MUD \ WTR may be a good place. Enthusiasts report that the blend tastes like hot cocoa and masala chai had a baby; it can be enjoyed hot, iced and as a latte — just to name a few. Each cup has 1/7 the amount of caffeine as coffee and the company has a coffee detox program to help make the transition.
What to Know about Caffeine-Free Imitation Coffee
What it is: “Imitation” coffee isn’t exactly a technical term. But it describes a category of beverages made from grains or herbs designed to look, taste and be prepared similarly to coffee. They’re for the individual who craves the coffee brewing ritual and the comfort of a warm cup of brew – but wants to consume zero caffeine (even decaf coffee has some caffeine in it).
Don’t Forget about the Original: Tea
How to enjoy it: Join a monthly tea club service like Tea Runners to help narrow down your tastes: each month, a selection arrives; after sampling, buy your favorites in bulk. Learn how to whisk up some matcha at home. Or sample some revered tea from around the world, such as Castleton Premium Darjeeling First Flush tea from India (the leaves are the first plucked of the season) or the Pu-erh (poo-er) teas from Yunnan, China: the leaves are sometimes fermented for decades (or longer), then formed into bricks or small cakes that are steeped. The flavor is wild and funky and unlike anything else.
What it is: We’re guessing you know what tea is, but there are a few things about it that you might not. Although coffee is more popular than tea in the U.S., tea consumption is beaten only by water in the rest of the world. Compared to coffee, tea offers less caffeine — here are the stats (per cup/8 ounces): coffee clocks in at about 95 mg of caffeine, followed by black tea at around 47 mg and then green tea with approximately 28 mg. However, tea has some tricks up its leaves: L-theanine is an amino acid that helps metabolize caffeine slower and over a longer period of time. Both coffee and tea contain L-theanine – tea just has more – making its stimulating effects potentially gentler and more stable than those of coffee.