The search for suitable coffee substitutes is often a journey of a thousand disappointing steps. Along the way, one must deconstruct the powers a caffeinated, hot beverage holds over life and liberty.
Coffee lends its image to all walks of American life. It conjures images of the cowboy’s campfire licking a scorched tin pot of joe, and a 20-something striding through a vacant mall clutching the Unicorn Frappuccino blended crème from Starbucks. Uncomplaining, it accepts America’s baggage; our vanillas and pumpkins and Cinnabon syrups.
It seems as though there’s a coffee identity out there for everyone — except those who don’t drink it. What are you if you don’t drink the stuff? Who are you?
It’s a question an increasing number of our population are asking as they choose to abstain; perhaps to curb the jitters or to save money. It’s possible rising fuel prices have forced some to choose between gas in the tank or “gas in the tank.”
For all those weary, huddled masses I have scoured the globe (i.e., a local Harmons grocery store) looking for the best coffee substitutes. Consider me your veritable beverage sherpa; the Guy Fieri of the Deseret breakroom; armed with a COVID-decimated palate, a hot water spout, and a drawer full of discarded take-out spoons.
The half-life of caffeine is about five hours. That means if you drink a latte in the morning, a significant amount is still in your system around bedtime. Ralph Waldo Emerson reportedly said, “the first wealth is health.” The first “health” in my experience is quality of sleep, and I want to be wealthy!
So I began my search with no-caffeinated options.
Rating: 2/4 wet cat foods.
[(💦🐱🥫) (💦🐱🥫) 🙀 🙀]
It smells like the memory of wet cat food right out of the gate. Once you add seven times more powder than the suggested serving size it starts to develop the flavor of wheat bran fermented in a mop bucket overnight. If aliens had to re-create coffee without trying it first, this is what they might come up with. Pero dared to ask: “Can we burn water?” and they succeeded. It tastes like burned water. But, you have to admit: sometimes burnt water is exactly what you crave.
Rating: 1/3 canoes floating the River Styx.
[🚣 🌊 🌊]
Like Pero in terms of cat-food smell but frothier. Frothy cat food. Also like Pero, it tastes like Grape Nuts Flakes fermented in a retirement home mop bucket. The chill of death runs down your throat with the hot liquid, like a water park for the damned. I recommend it.
Rating: 4/10 cannibals.
[🧟♂️ 🧟♂️ 🧟♀️ 🧟♀️ 👨🌾 👨🌾 👨🌾 👩🌾 👩🌾 👩🌾]
This product was birthed from the twisted minds of three Silicon Valley tech bros who, I have to assume, decided food shouldn’t be fun anymore. The result: a perfectly balanced blend of macro- and micro-nutrients in drinkable form. Slurp!
Nota bene: The founders insist that Soylent should not be compared to the famous Soylent Green, a fictional protein shake made from humans, for cannibals in the movie of the same name. The founders doth protest too much.
I purchased a month’s worth of the pancake batter in college to experiment with an all-liquid diet (think “WALL-E,” and don’t ask questions). After a week of my wildly misguided pure liquid diet, family and friends hid my powder stash and staged an intervention. The experiment was over.
For a quick morning shake, Soylent’s great though!
Rating: 2/3 graminivores.
[🦬 🦌 ☠]
After every cross-country race in high school, our team would hit up the local Jamba Juice and watch a frantic teen trim a mini lawn of wheatgrass to squeeze into shots. If you like gardening on a microscopic level, if you like the taste of sod, if you can only hydrate a thimble at a time — wheatgrass shots are for you.
Rating: 3/4 pregnant people.
[🤰 🤰 🤰 🙅]
I can’t speak ill of Ovaltine. She’s the girl next door: You never had chemistry but your parents wanted to set you up and life got in the way. Life, in this case, is the embarrassment of drinking Ovaltine in public, because it’s for children.
[…licks sticky Ovaltine fingers
Rating: 3/7 risky activities.
[🧗 🏇 🏋 🤹 🤹 🤹 🤹]
The Utah-based company’s chai latte flavor has the consistency of moon sand. It is sweet in an alarming sort of way and gives you a vague sense of danger — likely an effect of the “Power Sleep mineral complex” that gives Perk Chill its chill. Admittedly I have no idea what that is, but my mother’s friend Beth sometimes tells me I’m complex.
As a child, I was afraid of quicksand. Now I’m afraid of Perk Chill. But for some reason, it’s packed with protein! So that’s fun.
Crio Bru Cacao
Rating: 21/22 beans.
The Deseret News break room, where I conducted this taste test, unfortunately, did not have coffee filters, and Crio needs to be bru-ed. Alas, I was forced to sip the cacao (cocoa?) mulch using my teeth as a filter. It smells like chocolate, looks like pho, and tastes like jungle bark. With a splash of dairy alternative, this may be a winner. And, indeed, my editor says this is his go to, so I’m obliged to say something favorable about it.
Rating: 4/5 of your closest rat friends.
[🐀 🐀 🐀 🐀 🦫]
Your coffee friends will laugh and say “he’s drinking bile again!” and you’ll have to shrug it off. Once you lose the respect of your peers, however, you will find that decaf tastes pretty much the same, in my opinion. Here’s another opinion: only liars can taste the difference; write that down.
Maybe you still want the jazz accompanying caffeine addiction, just not the coffee. I got you.
Rating: 2/5 scientists responsible for this disaster.
[🧑🔬 🧑🔬 👮 👮 👮]
For too long, my YouTube was inundated with adverts lauding a drink powder with one-seventh the caffeine of coffee. Before I could get my fix of avalanche compilations on YouTube, Shane No-last-name would hawk his “mud-in-a-cup” at me with his dead eyes peering through my monitor. I’m not mad. It sounds like I’m mad. I’m not. I myself am a hustler.
The powder doesn’t taste terrible, though it does taste … not good. MUD/WTR sends a kit including a rechargeable frother with your purchase (how fool’s gold glitters!). The frother is necessary because most of the powder is significantly heavier than water. The first sip of the beverage reminds you of shroomy rain puddles, and the last is a mouthful of silt.
After consumption, a sense of solemn euphoria washes over you. It’s difficult to tell whether it’s the much-lauded “ayurvedic herbs” working, or simple relief that you won’t have to drink MUD/WTR again for another 24 hours. Trust me, come sunrise you’ll be jonesing for that frother again.
Rating: 2/4 celebrity couples.
[👫 👫 🧑🤝🧑 🧑🤝🧑]
The fluffy tea powder creates a bright green drink that is the cartoon version of itself somehow. It’s high in caffeine and brings to mind the algal fur of a damp sloth. The taste transports you to a foggy seaside Japanese forest, your tongue snaking along spongy trails and tickling the hanging mosses.
Travis Barker, the former drummer of Blink-182 and spouse of Kourtney Kardashian, recently showed Architectural Digest his “tranquil Calabasas abode.” In Barker’s house-sized kitchen, a little kettle and various accouterments can be seen in the corner of his sprawling marble countertop. The little containers of matcha powder, nutmeg, cacao, cinnamon and the tiny bamboo spoons for each, were the one sign of human life in a sea of decorative props.
“I actually make the best matcha,” Travis stated.
“The best!” Kourtney affirmed.
If that doesn’t make you want to try it, I don’t know what will.
Rating: 3/3 life lessons.
[🧏♀️ 🧑🏫 🧏♀️]
Maté has been consumed in South America since before Europeans arrived. It’s a tea made with chopped leaves from a type of holly plant.
On a mountain-climbing expedition, I became exhausted and oxygen-deprived. We were 19,000 feet up, clinging to a glacier, and the summit was another thousand feet away. I was tethered to an Ecuadorean ex-military officer wearing a prosthetic leg from his time sweeping land mines in remote jungles.
He offered me a drink from his thermos, he said it was maté with algo secreto. He winked from under a woolen cap. I’ve never climbed a mountain faster. Though secret ingredients are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, I’d recommend maté.
Rating: 1/4 boulder-sized kidney stones.
[🪨 🥴 🥴 🥴]
I said, “Soda can’t be on this list, you can’t ‘prepare’ a soda.” Boy was I wrong. I’m talking:
- Dr. Pepper + vanilla + peach + half and half.
- Coke Zero Sugar + pineapple + peach puree + fresh lime + coconut cream.
- Mountain Dew + pineapple + fresh lime + raspberry puree + a hummingbird’s kiss.
These are all Swig recipes. Dirty soda joints like Swig and Sodalicious are sprinkled all over Utah, Arizona and Idaho. I parked myself in one such drive-thru, was accosted by high schoolers on bicycles, and waited in a Chick-fil-A-esque line before receiving my 24 screaming ounces of soda potion. There are ways to make this a daily ritual, but it might have to include tearfully squeezing out boulder-sized kidney stones. Take my money.
DIY Medicine Bowl
Cost: Priceless (your life).
Rating: Off the charts.
In college, deep in the heart of an all-night study sesh, I brewed a concoction so foul it’s probably still eating away at my stomach lining. You microwave a bowl of Red Bull, steep some tea bags in it, and crush up ibuprofen to mix in. I’ve said too much already. Please don’t drink this.
What drinks won my fancy? After dragging my mouth through the dirt of poor coffee substitutes, Crio Bru and classic decaf are the only drinks I would consider inviting into my palate again. They are definitely sustainable habits if you so choose. The caffeinated pick is by far maté — cheap and tastes good.
From this experiment, I realized coffee is as ridiculous a drink as any other. It has uncomfortable side effects, the taste can be a turnoff and it’s expensive. Some studies suggest hot drinks may increase the risk of throat cancer. Others have said coffee helps you live longer. But maybe a peaceful morning ritual is what really makes the difference, and cutting out the caffeine can only help. I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. But in the end, you can drink anything if you add enough sugar, froth it with gumption and close your eyes.