What is Chicory?
Scientifically known as Cichorium intybus, chicory is a flowering plant found in parts of Europe, Africa and North America. Visually, it’s characterized by blue or occasionally white or red blossoms and green leaves that, when eaten, have a bitter taste. It’s related to the dandelion, and its family includes common salad greens, like endive and escarole.
Yet, purely in the New Orleans sense, the medium-brown, ground substance you can brew with your coffee doesn’t come from this part of the plant. Instead, the chicory’s root can be ground and roasted.
Growing in more loamy soil, the chicory features a substantial tap root system that grows in search of water, sometimes as much as five feet from the plant. The typical chicory root measures two to four inches in thickness and can grow up to seven inches long. A root, in turn, can weigh as much as three pounds.
To create ground chicory, the root is then cut into pieces before it’s dried in a kiln. Afterwards, with the root losing as much as 20% water content, it gets roasted in a process similar to coffee. This shrinks the root down even further.
As this occurs, the chicory caramelizes, taking on a dark brown color. Its traditional bitterness becomes sweet in the process. In using it as a coffee substitute, ground roasted chicory has no caffeine and none of the oils that coffee beans do. It also offers a significantly higher soluble fiber content and a deep, rich taste.
Commercially, chicory is grown and harvested in France, South Africa and Nebraska in the United States, where they’re uprooted like sugar beets. Aside from as a coffee substitute, the leaves may be cut for salads or used as feedstock, while the ground root can serve as a sugar substitute due to its sweetness.
Chicory Usage Over the Centuries
Recorded usage of chicory dates back to the Ancient Egyptians, who ground up its leaves, root and flowers for medicinal purposes. In fact, the name “chicory” is assumed to be a derivative of the Egyptian word “Ctchorium.” Not just restricted to Ancient Egypt, chicory leaves were consumed in salads by the Greeks and Romans around this point in history.
Although records from the 16th century indicate chicory plants were consumed by animals in parts of Europe, its origins as a coffee substitute are less defined. Usage may have begun on a small scale in Holland, but more widespread adoption can be traced back to the Prussian Empire in the 18th century. Attempting to decrease coffee consumption, Frederick the Great restricted foreign imports to reduce the local supply while supporting beer as a core piece of German heritage. In response, individuals wanting the flavor and caffeinated sensation coffee brought explored various grain- and fruit-based alternatives, until settling on chicory.
A similar practice took hold in France in the early 19th century. Attempting to block foreign goods while strengthening local industry, Napoleon Bonaparte implemented the Continental System, more commonly referred to as the Continental Blockade. That system remained in effect until 1814. With coffee imports restricted, the French found that grinding and brewing chicory created a similarly flavorful beverage.
This occurrence spurred a new area of industry in France, the growth of chicory for mixing into or substituting coffee. Over the next few decades of the 19th century, France exported as much as 60 million pounds of chicory per year. The crop also reached neighboring countries like Germany and Denmark, which had also picked up the practice.
As France established territories across the globe during the 17th and 18th centuries, the practice of adding chicory to coffee spread to the colonies. This included parts of modern-day Canada, particularly the Acadian region. Citizens of that region then took this practice to New Orleans, the Caribbean with its coffee plantations, and Indochina, where French colonialists likely mixed it in with the locally grown coffee.
In North America
Chicory coffee in the U.S. is primarily viewed as emerging from the Civil War. While the events designed to cut off the port of New Orleans spurred this into motion, chicory coffee turning into a New Orleans culinary tradition is a result of a confluence of factors.
From the 16th to the 18th centuries, the French established settlements throughout North America, including in Haiti, Canada and New Orleans, and that entailed setting up coffee plantations in the Caribbean. Through this presence, the French utilized New Orleans as a pathway to import coffee into North America. At that point in time, coffee drinking in the British colonies started taking off in response to the tax placed on tea imports. As a result, New Orleans became the continent’s second-largest coffee port by the mid-19th century, seeing imports from as far as the Middle East arrive. The Big Easy also experienced an influx of both French and Acadian immigrants, who brought the practice of chicory coffee with them.
With the Civil War beginning in 1861, Union forces enacted a naval blockade on the port of New Orleans, which halted all shipments of foreign goods. Similar to the Continental Blockade in the 1800s, locals attempted to recreate the taste of coffee through a few methods, including grinding up acorns or beets to brew. As a result, descendants of French colonists living in the Bayou region revived the practice of chicory coffee, where its earlier, deeper taste helped it catch on. Chicory was also relatively affordable and could be grown locally. In turn, it was mixed in with coffee beans to extend the area’s limited supply.
Following the war, traditional coffee consumption resumed, except for in New Orleans, where the practice of mixing chicory into coffee never quite disappeared. Today, it’s part of the local flavor and a way to add depth to an already invigorating and complex beverage.
Get a taste of the Crescent City’s history from New Orleans Roast’s Dark Roast & Chicory coffee, made with the top 1% of Arabica beans and ground chicory. Or, add this roasted root to any coffee with a five-pound bag of 100% Pure Ground Chicory.