Image: Dandelion coffee offers a herbal alternative to caffeinated hot drinks.  Image: courtesy of Studio KIWI

Coffee kick-starts many people’s day but we’re never really sure if it’s good or bad for us. Well the truth is it’s both, and neither. It’s complicated.

The humble beans are high in antioxidants, potassium, and caffeine making them great for giving nutrients and energy and boosting the body’s metabolism. But this mix of pros and cons has meant that, depending on the perspective, the drink has been named as a cause and a solution to all manner of conditions, including anxiety, hypertension, and poor digestion.

However, in 2015, the federal advisory committee of the US – one of the major coffee consuming countries in the world – updated its Dietary Guidelines for Americans, recommending that people drink three to five cups a day to help lower the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s.

Whatever the current thinking, the confusion is contributing to the rising numbers of people breaking away from caffeine, as seen by the growing sales of herbal and fruit teas. But for those who enjoy the rich, dark flavour of coffee, a delicate tea isn’t likely to satisfy. Herbalist Caroline MacDougall spotted the need for an alternative and founded Teeccino, which creates herbal blends including dandelion coffee. It brews like tea but tastes and looks like coffee so what exactly is it?

Brewing a plant-based coffee alternative

"We’re not trying to be exactly like coffee, we're trying to be a great roasted herbal beverage that has that mouthfeel and that experience of coffee."

“At Teeccino, we've really pioneered the making of coffee alternatives that you can brew like coffee instead of having instants, which aren't as satisfying,” says MacDougall.

Although traditionally brewed for centuries, in recent times dandelion has become the preserve of the health conscious on cleansing and detox diets. Simply take the leaves to make a delicate tea, or roast the large tuber-like roots to produce a darker tea that tastes similar to coffee, but without the caffeine. MacDougall says that alone dandelion can be a little lacklustre, but blending it with complementary ingredients makes for a ‘more complex flavour profile’.

“Dandelion root, when combined with other herbs that are also roasted and have coffee-like flavours such as chicory and also carob…you come up with a really fabulous, full-bodied, roasted beverage that can be as satisfying as coffee, and it has additionally a number of health benefits.” 

Teeccino’s dark roast is the closest to a classic coffee. In addition to the dandelion, a natural concentrate is added that contains extracts of ingredients such as chicory to recreate the familiar bitterness. If you prefer something milder, caramel, mint and nuts provide a softer flavour.

MacDougall says: “We’re not trying to be exactly like coffee, we're trying to be a great roasted herbal beverage that has that mouthfeel and that experience of coffee, and can brew like coffee so you can keep the same brewing ritual but it's its own unique beverage.”

Creating a small boost from a natural product

"We found an ingredient that was going to waste on the forest floor…we tried it ourselves and found that it was delicious."

Decaff coffee is often a go-to for people looking to reduce their caffeine intake, but as it still contains a small amount it isn’t an option if you’re sensitive to it. Plus, the extra processing means more chemicals so a step away from good intentions. Dandelion coffee contains no caffeine and requires no processing, but strangely, many people claim that is actually raises their energy levels. “Everybody when they first start drinking Teeccino started telling me ‘Are you kidding me? There must be caffeine because I’m getting an energy boost from it’," says MacDougall.

MacDougall believes this is due to the easily absorbable nutrients in the compound. “You can eat more potassium if you eat a banana, right, but then you have to digest it and get all the fibre and the sugar and everything else. In a liquid you have a lot of potassium and, frankly, we have more potassium in a cup of Teeccino than you do if you took Gatorade,” she explains. “We think that it helps to rebalance the electrolyte balance in the body and allows the body to make more energy.

“If you are having energy problems the direction to go in is not into more caffeine but away from caffeine to help your body rebuild its energy supply naturally,” says MacDougall, and it appears that this is true.

A scientific study in the US last year tested the effects of caffeine in coffee beans on the production of cortisol (a stress hormone linked to cardiac problems and strokes) and found that caffeine inhibits cortisol production; great news for heart patients, but less so for the average, healthy person. Normal amounts of cortisol are essential for managing your circadian cycle, or body clock. Spikes of cortisol in the morning and afternoon act as a natural perk me up, but drinking coffee soon after waking and post-lunch overrides this hormonal regulator, so you eventually become dependent on caffeine instead.

By lowering coffee intake, or even changing the time of day you drink it, you can help your body restore its natural energy management. As MacDougall says: “Support your body with nutrients and it will make plenty of energy for you.”

Herbologist MacDougall believes one of the best ways to get sufficient nutrients is through herbs and spices: “Most all the foods that we eat have been hybridised to some extent, which usually compromises their antioxidant nutrient profile from the wild ancestors that they came from.

“So where do we get real diversity in our diet? We get it from our herbs and spices because those are still, for the most part, exactly like they were when they were in the wild, and so you get this fantastic array of micronutrients and antioxidants.” 

From grass roots to coffee cups

To achieve a satisfying flavour profile, the majority of Teeccino’s ingredients are roasted and ground in their country of origin – dandelions from Eastern Europe and China, carob from Spain and chicory from France – which are roasted and ground in-country before being blended in the US with dates and figs from California. In its efforts to keep as much labour as possible in the country of origin, the company has even taken fair trade a step further. 

One of the more unusual ingredients in the dark and French roast is ramón – a bland seed found in Guatemala that when roasted has ‘marvellous combination of both coffee and chocolate notes in it’. MacDougall explains that seeing the potential for this natural flavouring, the company decided to take action.

“We found an ingredient that was going to waste on the forest floor and we figured that although we knew the history of it, that the Maya had roasted it and drank it, we tried it ourselves and found that it was delicious,” she says

Teeccino then worked with communities at the Maya Biosphere Reserve to start a local business harvesting the seeds. “They had forgotten that their ancestors had eaten it but now there's a woman's bakery in Guatemala that’s baking cookies and muffins using the seeds, and there's a whole cottage industry that’s sprung up because we started bringing attention to it,” she says.

Broad appeal for regular hot drinks consumers

"Teeccino’s main success has been to make this formerly niche health ingredient into an accessible, commercial product."

“A lot of our customers are still coffee drinkers but they either blend or they drink Teeccino in the afternoon and evening,” says MacDougall. “You can drink Teeccino, even though it gives you an energy lift, because it’s a natural energy lift, it won’t override your need to go to sleep. So if you need to go to sleep at night and you still want a nice after dinner drink, you can have a cup of Teeccino without any problem.”

There are several brands on the market offering dandelion coffee; you can buy it as roasted root chunks to grind at home, pre-ground versions and an instant, or if so inclined, you could even go to the trouble of making it yourself. However, Teeccino’s main success has been to make this formerly niche health ingredient into an accessible, commercial product.

The in-between beverage has the great advantage that you prepare it as you would any tea or coffee. You can brew the grounds in a percolator or stove top, or just opt for teabags. This adherence to the normal preparation routine means that people can enjoy and maybe even not notice the difference.