OK, so it’s not technically coffee, but it’s close enough and I love it
Life isn't fair. While some of us can't imagine functioning without caffeine, others have to avoid it at all costs. For some people with a sensitivity to caffeine, so much as a whiff of coffee can cause anxiety, tremors, heart palpitations, and trouble sleeping. Even decaf coffee, which still contains low levels of caffeine, can trigger symptoms in some people, including myself.
Living in a world full of caffeine fiends, as we do, it's easy to feel left out. I've spent the better part of a decade—a long, exhausting decade—without coffee. In the past few years, as my caffeine sensitivity has worsened, I've even managed to wean myself off of decaf, too, after it started causing problems.
But I recently came across something that could answer the prayers of anyone who's ever had to pretend that they genuinely fancied a third cup of peppermint tea for that 9 a.m. meeting after three hours' sleep: acorn coffee. That's right. Coffee made out of acorns.
The small catch is that acorn coffee isn't coffee at all, technically speaking. It's made entirely from acorns, looks like coffee, smells a bit like coffee, and the taste—which is quite pleasant—isn't a million miles away from coffee. And the best part is that it's 100% caffeine free.
I tried acorn coffee on a recent trip to the Freixo do Meio farm in Alto Alentejo, not too far from Lisbon, Portugal. The farm, which also makes acorn jam and acorn cake, is one of the few suppliers of acorn coffee in the world.
To make the coffee grounds, the acorns are dried, baked, and then passed through a mill, which is also used to make flour. Sven Johannsen, who's in charge of tourism at the farm, told me the acorns for the coffee come from two types of oak trees, stone oak and cork oak. The stone oak gives the coffee its natural sweetness, while the cork oak give it its bitterness that people usually compare to coffee. And it has the earthy taste you'd expect to find in something made entirely from a nut.
"The bitter taste has its origin in the tannins, which we find not only in the peel, but also in the fruit of the acorn," Johannsen says. The finished infusion contains every part of the acorn.
To make a cup of acorn coffee, Johannsen says you "Heat up a liter of water and mix around four to five tablespoons of acorn powder," like how you'd make instant coffee. And, just like coffee, it can be drunk on its own or with a splash of milk and a little sugar.
One difference with drinking acorn coffee, besides the taste, is that it's slightly healthier. "The acorn infusion is considered a food, while coffee is a drug we consume in small doses," as Johannsen puts it.
The oak tree and its acorns are becoming increasingly interesting to those involved in the fight to find sustainable food sources, because they're not hugely dependent on water, fertilizer, and pesticides. But acorns have been an ingredient used throughout history.
Some studies have found that acorns were a staple in the Palaeolithic hunter's diet due to their high calorie content, as well as being a good source of vitamin C, magnesium and calcium. Acorns were also used as a food substitute during food shortages in World War II.
It might not be strong enough to get us out of bed in a morning, but I'm going to give acorn coffee a go. It won't ever have the taste of regular coffee, and nor does it pretend to—just like I don’t pretend to ever be fully awake and alert.