The hunt for a decaf coffee that isn't decaf coffee is on.
Why decaf? Much like the non-alcoholic beer/spirit world is taking off in light of the soggy pandemic years, cutting caffeine is also having a moment. This might be a residual effect of the rise of "nootropics" in coffee before the pandemic hit; all that brain hacking has many people reconsidering conventional beverages.
However, a caffeine-free option that also tastes good is the third rail of the coffee world, which is why there's yet to be a decaf option in the Writer's Block Coffee catalog. Rather than try to find the impossible, I've taken to exploring coffee alternatives instead.
Decaf coffee gets a bad rap. Is there a better alternative, or is decaf the best of the worst?
Let's find out in the first part of a two-part series (unless I find more candidates).
Keep in mind that I'm not singling out any particular brands. I'm only sampling a category and making some generalized impressions. If something seems like a fit, I'll investigate further.
Taste Test #1: Cocoa Bean Coffee
Verdict: Good, but not the right fit for Writer's Block Coffee.
Cocoa bean coffee is a natural first choice. Who doesn't like chocolate?
This kind has all the characteristics of pure cocoa powder, but with a French grind.
I'll brew this in a French press. The proportion is 1/2 cup cocoa to 32 ounces of water, a typical volume for a French press. Unlike coffee, the water should be boiling for the pour.
Freshly ground coffee will have a nice bloom at the top of the French press right after the pour.
This isn’t much of a bloom, but it’s cocoa, not coffee. There wasn’t a gas valve on the bag, either, as you’d expect with roasted coffee.
The kitchen smelled like baking chocolate cake while this steeped. There lodged no complaints.
Now for the pour. Remember the chocolate pond Augustus Gloop fell into in the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie? That’s what it reminds me of.
Taste test results: a limp profile with a bittersweet bite, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This tastes like half of an incomplete whole. It needs creamer or something sweet to complement it.
In goes some 2% milk and vanilla syrup. Wow, that is good. Really nice. It reminds me of a mug of hot chocolate, but that raises another issue.
Why wouldn’t someone just buy hot chocolate if they wanted hot chocolate? Even if there are big fans out there, hot chocolate is seasonal. Coffee has the benefit of being popular all year long. That’s a high hurdle to clear from a merchandising standpoint.
Decaf coffee, in all its underwhelming glory, slides neatly into the coffee category as an alternative without reinventing an entire market.
So who is this cocoa bean coffee for? Probably people who want to reduce their caffeine consumption, but are tired of the usual options. It's more a novelty than a true, every-morning replacement.
I’d drink this straight, though, because I like the bittersweet flavor. Should it enter the product catalog at Writer’s Block Coffee? No. This category is not the right fit.
That said, this is a cool coffee alternative to try out. I’ll be finishing this bag.
Taste Test #2: Mushroom Coffee
Verdict: Pleasantly not at all like drinking a mushroom, but still not the right fit for Writer's Block Coffee.
I went into the mushroom coffee category with high hopes. If someone went through all that trouble to turn mushrooms into a coffee alternative, there must be something to it.
I looked for a “plain” mushroom coffee, but it was hard to come by. This one is rose scented/flavored, which I figured would be the closest to plain. Caramel and vanilla flavors would blow out the underlying 'shrooms.
The bag doesn't come with a gas valve, as expected. More unexpected is the claim of “herbal coffee,” which is a bit of a marketing trick, a la soy “milk.”
This is a mushroom “adaptogen blend,” meaning it’s supposed to help with a wide range of immeasurable ailments, like stress.
If mushroom coffee joins our catalog, we will not be making those claims. The woo-woo factor likes to give itself a lot of credit, and that's not what we're about.
Now for a look inside. It looks a little like herbal tea.
Opening the bag, you’re hit with a mix of earthiness, floral sweetness, and......Tang? There's not a hint of mushroom aroma, which was pleasantly surprising.
Maybe that's because mushrooms aren't the first ingredient. Heck, they're not even in the first six!
Once again, I’ll be using a French press for the testing. It’s the standard. This mushroom coffee is more potent than normal. It’s 3-4 tablespoons for a 32-ounce press.
The head after the pour isn’t to the level of freshly ground coffee, but it is thicker than the cocoa bean coffee. Probably has to do with the finer grind.
Now to steep for three minutes. It smells floral, with serious herbal tea vibes.
The water in the press turned jet black right away. I put 4 tablespoons in. This really is potent stuff. Definitely has a coffee-er look to it than I expected.
The plunger is easier to work with the smaller “coffee” input. Time to pour. Before I taste it, can I just mention again how much this looks like coffee? You could fool someone on looks alone.
Tasting notes: Weak body, very floral, clean aftertaste. This is rose scented, so that second point makes sense, but the profile itself is eclectic. This lands somewhere between herbal tea and coffee. Strip away the rose part, and it’s a little like instant decaf crystals from 30 years ago.
This is good on its own merits, but it won’t be joining the Writer’s Block Coffee catalog. The cocoa bean coffee was better. I’ll finish the bag, because as a big herbal tea fan, I actually enjoy this. From a merchandising POV, though, the market is bigger than me.
The hunt for great decaf continues!