The Intriguing History of Chicory Coffee

Chicory coffee is a unique beverage with a rich and intriguing history. Not just a “cup of joe,” this brew combines coffee with ground, roasted roots of the chicory plant, resulting in a drink with a distinctive, slightly bitter taste and a reduced caffeine content. Despite its somewhat niche status in the global coffee industry, chicory coffee has etched its mark in several cultures, most notably in New Orleans, where it is a treasured part of the city’s culinary tradition.

Origins: From Roman Times to 17th Century France

The use of chicory stretches back to ancient Roman times, where it was employed for its medicinal properties. However, the practice of using chicory root as a coffee substitute originated in France in the 17th century. Coffee was a luxury commodity, and when supply was interrupted—such as during naval blockades—creative Frenchmen turned to chicory root. It grew abundantly and could be roasted, ground, and brewed to resemble coffee.

The Napoleonic Influence

Chicory coffee’s popularity soared during the Napoleonic era in the early 19th century. Due to the “Continental System,” Napoleon’s attempted blockade of British trade, coffee imports to France took a hit. In response, Napoleon encouraged the brewing of chicory as a coffee substitute to become more self-sufficient. This era established the roots of chicory coffee in French culture, and it became particularly popular in regions like Nord, near Belgium, where chicory was plentiful.

Crossing the Atlantic: Chicory Coffee in America

Chicory coffee made its way to the United States with the arrival of French immigrants. However, it was during the Civil War that it became widely known. As Union naval blockades cut off the port of New Orleans, coffee became scarce and expensive. The locals turned to chicory as a coffee substitute or additive, reminiscent of what had happened in France during the Napoleonic era.

Even after the war and the return of traditional coffee supplies, the unique flavor profile of chicory coffee had won over many in the South, especially in New Orleans. The blend of chicory and coffee became a staple of the city’s culture, and is still a beloved tradition today, often served “au lait” style—half coffee and chicory blend, and half hot milk.

From Crisis to Specialty: Chicory Coffee Today

In the 21st century, chicory coffee is no longer viewed as merely a coffee substitute. It’s now enjoyed by many for its unique, robust flavor and lower caffeine content. Beyond New Orleans, it is available in many gourmet and health food stores around the world. Some people prefer it for its potential health benefits, as chicory root is a good source of inulin, a type of prebiotic fiber that promotes gut health.

From a humble plant used as a surrogate for real coffee, chicory coffee has evolved into a beverage enjoyed by many around the globe. It’s a testament to the human capacity for adaptation and innovation, turning adversity into a lasting and cherished tradition. Whether you’re a coffee connoisseur or simply an adventurous palate, chicory coffee is a brew that’s rich, not just in flavor, but in history as well.

American Royal Tea is launching a special blend of our own chicory and coffee on September 6, 2023. Pre-order your coffee today! (King Oliver Chicory Coffee is a small batch, made to order dark roast blend that is ground for a paper or reusable filter.)