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I’m not a coffee drinker. In fact, I rarely even taste the stuff unless it’s coffee-flavored ice cream or coffee-flavored candy … or maybe a milkshake with a chocolatey mocha flair.
But I have plenty of friends who rely heavily on their morning cup of joe. There’s even a sign hanging on the wall in our office building that reads, “This office runs on laughter, love, and strong coffee.”
Coffee is one of those plants that will only grow in a particular climate and growing zone (zones 10–11). Not all of us are fortunate enough to live in tropical areas with plenty of moisture and just the right amount of warmth and daylight to grow every plant we desire.
However, there are plants you can grow in just about every growing zone that make an absolutely delicious morning beverage to help you get out of bed and get your day started on the right foot (without those caffeine-heavy jitters)!
The key to creating a successful coffee substitute is that you’re not looking to replicate the authentic flavor of coffee (everything will fail to some degree if you’re expecting an exact duplicate). Instead, aim to create a flavorful brew that satisfies the craving for an earthy, roasted flavor and early-morning energy boost.
You can create a pleasing, aromatic brew by combining flavors from two or three different roasted ingredients. The flavor profiles of each component will determine your signature blend’s overall taste. Add creamer and sweetener to your liking, and voila!—say goodbye to unhealthy caffeine and good morning to your new favorite functional beverage!
If you’re looking for a coffee substitute that you can grow on your homestead (or stockpile for when the SHTF), check out my herbal coffee suggestions below and create your own delicious designer blend.
Pro tip: All of the following ingredients should be dried and roasted before brewing. See the instructions in the dandelion section for starters, and repeat the process for whichever ingredient you choose to grow, harvest, and brew.
Dandelion root (growing zones 3–10)
Dandelions are one of those pesky weeds that everyone tries to eradicate from their yard. But did you know that every part of the dandelion plant is edible, and roasted dandelion root makes a delightfully refreshing coffee substitute? You will need to dry the roots in a dehydrator or let them air dry in the sun, then chop or break them into crumbs and roast them in a hot skillet over low heat until they turn a rich brown color.
Alternatively, you can roast the roots in a 350F oven until they darken. Stir every 10–15 minutes to make sure they roast evenly—and to keep an eye on the color so they don’t burn.
Once the dandelion root is roasted, run it through a spice grinder or coffee grinder in small batches to make a fine to medium grind with more surface area to release the flavor.
Approximately one teaspoon of dandelion root to one cup of water makes a delightfully earthy brew. Add the dandelion root to boiling water and keep over low heat for about 5–10 minutes. You don’t want it to boil, but it should stay very hot while it steeps.
After brewing, strain the solids out by pouring through a coffee filter. Add your favorite sweetener and creamer, and enjoy! (You can also serve this iced if you like iced coffee beverages.)
Chicory root (growing zones 3–10)
The chicory plant has beautiful blue flowers, but you’ll use the root to make your chicory root coffee substitute. Chicory root is loaded with inulin, a healthy prebiotic fiber that can help keep things running smoothly in your digestive system.
Chicory root has the added benefit of eye appeal, mimicking traditional coffee's rich, dark color and lending itself to various creamy caramel shades of lattes and mocha blends.
Sweet potato (growing zones 7–8)
This sweet tuber shows up in casseroles loaded with marshmallows at Thanksgiving and as a healthy baked side dish all year long. But sweet potatoes can also be part of a deliciously smooth brew you can enjoy in the morning or as an evening wind-down drink.
Combine dehydrated, roasted sweet potatoes with chicory or wheat for a dark brew that more closely resembles the rich color of regular coffee. Or combine it with dried turmeric root and ginger for a nutrient-boosted variation of golden milk.
Wheat berries (growing zones 7–10)
Wheat berries are the whole grain of wheat, minus the inedible husk. The same wheat berries that we grind into whole wheat flour can be dry roasted and ground into a nutty-tasting beverage.
Dry roast the wheat berries in a skillet over low heat, stirring frequently, until medium to dark brown (like the light to medium roast color of a coffee bean). Allow them to cool, then grind and add to boiling water.
Use about one tablespoon of ground wheat berries to one cup of boiling water per serving.
Burdock root (growing zones 2–10)
Another common weed, burdock grows in disturbed soil throughout much of North America (it is native to Northern Asia and Europe). Sticky burrs from the burdock plant cling to socks and animal fur alike—one drawback to growing this nutritious vegetable—so if you choose to plant some in your garden, keep it somewhat contained to prevent it from taking over and causing more trouble than it’s worth.
Burdock roots are long with a thin brown skin that can be easily removed with a vegetable peeler or the back edge of a spoon. The white root quickly begins to turn brown once it is exposed to the air, but this discoloration does no harm and won’t be noticable after it’s dried and roasted.
Acorns (growing zones 3–8)
Acorns are used as a food source by both humans and animals and star in Native American recipes such as acorn stew.
To process acorns into a beverage, you’ll need to add in an extra step beyond what I described above.
Before drying and roasting the shelled acorns, first boil them for about 20 minutes (or until the water looks like tea) to leach out some of the bitter-tasting tannins. Start a second pot of water boiling before the first 20 minutes is up, and transfer the boiled acorns into the second pot after the first pot’s water has colored.
Boil the acorns in the second pot until the water (again) turns color, then switch back to another pot of clean, boiling water. Repeat this process a third or fourth time if necessary—you’ll know they’re ready when the water remains relatively colorless.
Strain and dry your boiled acorns, then dry roast and grind them the same way as the dandelion roots. (The oven method is easier than the skillet method since acorns are larger than chopped dandelion.)
Rye, barley, and other grains (growing zone varies with grain type)
Grains such as rye and barley can be roasted and ground like wheat to make a coffee substitute. Just follow the skillet roasting method, and grind them when darkly colored and completely cooled and dry.
Sunchoke (growing zones 2–12)
Sunchokes are a member of the sunflower family and have chunky edible roots that look similar to ginger but have a mellow flavor (similar to a potato). Sunchokes are simple to grow and will easily take over a garden if left unchecked.
If you already enjoy sunchokes roasted, boiled, or pickled, why not try dehydrating and dry roasting them to create one more coffee substitute variation?
Thinly slice or grate your sunchoke tubers before dehydrating them, then chop finely and stir continually while dry roasting in a skillet to avoid burning the small pieces.
Carob (growing zones 9–11)
I used to have a carob tree growing in my front yard when I lived in the desert, in USDA growing zone 9. Unfortunately, my tree was a male, so I was never able to harvest carob seed pods to use in cooking. But the tree grew well in the heat with just the right amount of weekly watering, and I would encourage anyone who lives in zones 9–11 to add a pair or more to your edible landscape.
I love the flavor of carob, but since I can’t grow it in my current climate, I purchase carob powder (like this Chatfield’s brand) and add it to my herbal coffee blends.
Carob is naturally sweet, low-fat, and contains calcium. It makes a wonderful hot chocolate substitute when added to milk, too!
Figs (growing zones 8–10)
Figs are delicious fresh or dried, and they offer yet another option for a caffeine-free coffee substitute. Although most fig varieties flourish in zones 8–10, there are a few cold-hardy varieties that grow well in zones 6 and 7.
Simply dehydrate and chop your figs (black mission figs work best) before roasting them. You’ll need to make sure they’re super dry before you start, or the sugars may burn in the skillet even with constant monitoring.
Coffee alternatives you can buy
Would you like to taste test some of these herbal coffee alternatives beefore you devote an entire growing season to producing the plants? Here are some of my favorites you can purchase and try at home:
Dandy Blend is a combination of barley, rye, chicory roots, beet roots, and dandelion roots. It dissolves instantly in water (like instant coffee) and is a great way to explore the pleasures of root- and grain-based coffee substitutes.
Mushroom coffee isn’t exactly a coffee substitute; it combines the health benefits of dried mushrooms with the flavor and caffeine-boost from ethically harvested coffee beans in one deliciously nutritious functional beverage.
Coffig is an herbal coffee substitute made entirely from dried and roasted figs.
Orzo is an Italian roasted barley beverage that tastes great when added to hot milk.
Cafix is another healthy coffee alternative made from roasted barley, chicory, barley malt, figs, and sugar beets.
Pouring it all together
Although no coffee alternative tastes exactly like traditional coffee on its own, you can replicate the deeply roasted, slightly bitter flavor of coffee by combining flavor profiles and adding your choice of sweetener and creamer to create your own healthy brew.
By using plants you grow in your garden (such as wheat or chicory) or harvest in the wild (like dandelion or acorns), you can create a flavorful and sustainable morning beverage routine to boost your health and vitality.