If I’m not mistaken, late nights were created on the third day, right after coffee, as a good excuse to order a venti with an extra shot of espresso. But many of us don't need excuses—it’s safe to say people just love drinking coffee, myself included. Coffee lovers are willing to spend needless amounts of money to get what can only be described as really, really expensive magic bean sweat. With such a profound cultural devotion to the stuff, it’s hard to imagine the tired existence one might experience without it. And yet, many of us do, for various reasons.
In fact, here’s a little tidbit of info you can quote at your next dinner party: Shakespeare’s London was coffeeless. In fact, up until 1616, London had no caffeine, period, since none of those foodstuffs had made their way to England via the global trade yet. (That includes chocolate. How sad.) If you wanted a good jolt of energy to wake you up in the morning in the 16th century, you’d just avoid the Shakespearean playhouse.
Coffeeless 16th-century London aside, coffee has long been energizing and inspiring artists, revolutions, and college students… but it has also given the world many an anxiety attack. I love coffee: I love the way it makes you feel after a cup after a long night, or when you sip a bit too much in one go and feel like you can lift a car clean over your head, and it’s the one thing that kept me awake enough to make it through college. But I don’t like the feeling when you have one too many espresso shots and you’re moving so fast that you might phase through the space-time continuum like a quantum particle.
Like with all great things, coffee has its pitfalls, which is why coffee alternatives have grown in popularity over the years. Like other stimulants, coffee can induce stress, panic, and anxiety in those with a low tolerance—including me. So I gave it up (along with alcohol) in 2020, and now, I drink black tea on work days and decaf on the weekend. I used to gawk at the idea of decaf coffee—sounds like nonsense on par with non-alcoholic beer, or Sundays without that listless feeling of impending doom—but one thing I realized was that ultimately, it’s not the caffeine that really matters. Caffeine, it turns out, is not the soul of coffee; trust me. It’s more about the ritual and the mood, not just a jolt of energy and heart palpitations.
So it was a natural fit for me to test out some coffee substitutes, many of which had flooded the market in recent years, promising everything from a tasty facsimile to a mood-bending hit of adaptogens. So here are some of the best coffee alternatives I've had the luxury of trying, ones that won’t make you feel like a trembling rocket blasting through your day.
MUD\WTR is a dirt-like powder that, like many of the newer coffee alternatives, includes a blend of mushrooms including chaga, reishi, and cordyceps, which are said to help support energy levels and overall well-being. You have to mix the powder, which is a chai-cacao combo that tastes like a cinnamon-y mocha, with hot water (not boiling water). MUD\WTR is probably the most accurately titled product out there. If you don’t stir it properly into your hot water, you'll find that there will be a layer of mud at the bottom of your cup. (This is why MUD\WTR comes with a rechargeable stirrer that they call the MUD Whip.)
I, unfortunately, am not a morning person, so mixing the MUD\WTR first thing after waking up turned out to be dangerous. I made the mistake of sticking the MUD Whip into boiling liquid while the stirrer was on, sending hot water and, well, mud all over the place. Though this wasn’t the intended purpose of MUD\WTR, it did successfully wake me up.
Having said that, I enjoyed MUD\WTR immensely. Sporting one-seventh the amount of caffeine as coffee, it offers a good amount of energy that feels pretty consistent without plunging you into the deep end of a caffeine high.
Goldmine Adaptogen Powder
What are adaptogens? you may be wondering as I drone on about all of these wellness bevs and their magic mushrooms. The term refers to various herbs that purportedly help the body destress, some of the most popular of which include ginseng, ashwagandha, maca root, and a variety of mushrooms traditionally used in Eastern medicine and now beloved by Eat Pray Love Gwyneth Paltrow types. The ones included in these coffee alternatives are said to help cancel out the negative effects of caffeine—the crazy rush, the crash, and the shakiness. Goldmine is more of a coffee additive than a coffee alternative, and just like with MUD\WTR, it integrates chaga, reishi, and cordyceps mushrooms.
I tried the Adaptogen Powder, which features the slogan "Ease Stress. Feel Better." At first, I honestly wasn’t a huge fan of this stuff. I added it to my tea... and the smell, which was like mid-afternoon wet pavement (if the sunshower was acid rain), reminded me why I don’t often add stuff to my tea. When I sipped it, it made me realize that I should never add stuff to my tea.
But I decided to give it another try, with a more pronounced effort at stirring. While it tasted very earthy, the drink itself grew on me and I actually really like it. I do like more bitter things; I guess I like things that match my personality.
Chagaccino gets its name from the chaga mushroom—mushrooms seem to be the new coffee, I guess! Also, I liked the motto they had on their box, “Live Long, Die Pretty,” which is the sort of thing I think we should all ascribe to.
Chagaccino comes as a packet, which you're supposed to add to coffee, according to the serving suggestion, which, as a coffee alternative, I felt was not particularly as alternative as I wanted it to be. A primary ingredient of the stuff is monkfruit, which is a stevia-like sweetener; the other ingredients are just chaga, cacao, and cinnamon, resulting in a pseudo chai tea latte vibe. I would suggest having it with decaf or with black tea; it was great with tea and coconut milk. As someone who has said his farewell to highly caffeinated beverages, Chagaccino was a treat—but it's more of an add-on rather than a replacement.
Four Sigmatic Ground Mushroom Coffee
Unlike the other drinks mentioned above, Four Sigmatic actually does have coffee in it, but, like the others, it also has mushrooms—namely chaga and lion’s mane—that the brand claims help with keeping energy levels smooth and steady. It comes in a variety of different applications; you can get it ground, as a Keurig K Cup, or in instant coffee form. The ground coffee with lion's mane was very smooth and very flavorful, and if you follow the directions on the package, then you’re in for a delicious cup of alternative coffee.
This felt and tasted the most like a regular old coffee out of all the bunch. It does give you quite the lift, but not the type to cause a negative effect on my anxiety levels. Four Sigmatic says it’s a “balanced brew for brain and body,” and to be fair, it was pretty balanced.
But, one thing I must stress. The instant coffee was fairly disappointing, which I guess is no surprise since instant coffee generally sucks and as a rule, should be taken as the title suggests—instantly. There’s no savoring. All I’ll say is that I would suggest opting for the ground coffee.
Teeccino French Roast Herbal Tea
My palate has changed over the years. At first, I was all in for the sweet stuff. (Remember that caramel macchiato phase we all went through in like, 2006?) But near the end of my coffee days, I could go with black coffee or just with a splash of coconut milk, no sugar. So I was interested to try Teeccino, a caffeine-free coffee substitute that you steep like a bag of tea, meant to emulate coffee in flavor alone without any of the pick-me-up bodily effects. There are actually a variety of similar teas on the market, such as Roastaroma—ones that are supposed to stand in for that beany, burny, warming coffee flavor.
Made with roasted chicory, barley, and carob, Teeccino’s French Roast was surprisingly very coffee-like in taste. I love efficiency, which is why I’m all for Soylent and other types of meal replacement drinks, so the idea that you could make a decent cup of coffee using an herbal tea bag is the sort of idea that I personally feel deserves a Nobel Prize in chemistry.
The directions suggest steeping for two to five minutes for one teabag, or, if you want a more bold taste, steeping two tea bags. One was good for me. As a coffee person who used to disparage any use of coffee without caffeine, I must say, this was a solid cup of decaf that may not give you a jolt of energy, but it will create that "good morning, time to get down to business" mood that only coffee can—a positive for people who always wake up on the wrong side of the bed.
Blume Matcha Coconut Blend
It’s not fair to call this an instant kind of coffee or a coffee alternative, but in terms of its function, it is very similar. Anyone who loves a frothy, energizing matcha latte will love Blume. Like with the other coffee alternatives, this one is said to help you stay steady and energized without all that agonizing rollercoaster-like plummeting. It's vegan, sugar-free, and organic, with just three ingredients: matcha, powdered coconut milk, and moringa, a plant packed with vitamins and antioxidants which is also purported to be anti-inflammatory and great for your skin and hair, among other things.
You add to hot water, stir, and add ice (if you like iced drinks). It was delicious, but it's important to note that matcha can have pretty similar levels of caffeine to coffee; it just tends to be stretched out over a longer period of time for a more steady and long-lasting effect. If you're super caffeine-sensitive to the point where tea is out of the question, this is probably not the stuff for you, but if you're more trying to hack your energy levels throughout the day, this could be a great option.
As a side note, when opening the packet, you may find not only green powder, but white powder as well. My first reaction was that this was some huge smuggling front. But don’t fret, it’s just powdered coconut milk.
Celestial Seasonings Roastaroma Herbal Tea
Best known for its trademarked Sleepytime tea which has been a super-popular nighttime beverage for nearly a half-century, tea brand Celestial Seasonings also offers Roastaroma, an herbal blend that is formulated to taste just like coffee, without any of that pesky caffeine. Blending a base of "roasty" chicory and barley with roasted carob, cinnamon, and allspice, this one's for the flavor, not the kick. This coffee sub attempts to be just what you are looking for. In just a few short minutes of boilin' and steepin', you can have something that looks and tastes fairly close to coffee, especially with a little milk and sugar.
After pouring the hot tea into my cup, I got a good whiff of the tea's eponymous Roastaroma, which is eerily similar to that of coffee, though with a strong component of barley and cinnamon. The mouthfeel and taste is fairly close to what I can only describe as a watered-down cup of joe. Until you try a tea that hopes to mimic coffee, you may not realize, as I hadn't, that coffee has a completely different body than tea. I recommend keeping some in the cupboard for those days you want something comforting in that toasted, bittersweet way. I may replace my decaf coffee with this stuff.
FreshCap Mushroom Coffee
FreshCap isn't actually an alternative to coffee—it's an instant mix that blends organic coffee with adaptogenic mushrooms such as lion’s mane, chaga, and ashwagandha that can purportedly help support cognition and immunity while mitigating the negative health effects of stress.
I tried the brand's Mushroom Coffee, which is an instant coffee mix that’s ready in minutes. Like MUD\WTR, FreshCap also offers a nifty handheld mushroom mixer, which effortlessly stirs your coffee so you don't have to. Of course, I’ve learned that an integral part of my personal coffee-making process is to spill some all over the place. I am starting to suspect this is faulty design, not on the part of the coffee manufacturers, but the big manufacturer (of me) in the sky.
The smell was very aromatic and reminiscent of any generic instant coffee mix. The taste was surprisingly premium, though, due to the mushrooms, came with a hint of an earthy endnote. It also didn't need any milk or sugar—it was enjoyable all on its own. I found the energy I received was steady and I didn't feel those jitters that I usually get whenever I drink coffee.
Another product (or elixir, as they call it) I tried was FreshCap Focus, a tea-like instant drink that offered a different experience altogether. Featuring rosehips, spearmint extract, and lion’s mane, it supposedly helps enhance focus during the “afternoon lull.” When mixing, I found the smell to be unappealing. The taste was sort of like if you chewed spearmint gum while smelling rose petals. I'm not really a floral flavors guy, and honestly, I found it disappointing compared to the mushroom coffee. But that being said, if the intention was to help you focus, it helped me focus—on why anyone would want to drink spearmint gum.
My overall fave? Today, I decided to combine MUD\WTR with Chagaccino to get a sense of what would happen. The result was a delicious combination of MUD\WTR’s cinnamon-and-ginger, earthy ruggedness with Chagaccino’s sweet monkfruit chai punch. It was a pick-me-up that felt both steady and sure, like an old old man easing into a nice warm bath (to paraphrase George Costanza). For me, this is the magic ticket.
With more coffee alternatives hitting the market all of the time, the selection can be overwhelming, but these are some of the best I’ve had. As a recovering coffee addict who has both been able to drink it black and known the horrors of a caffeine spiral, I can attest that these are worthy of a good shot.
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