New Brew: Chicory Stout

It’s a new month, and you know what that means:

Time for a new brew!

Our latest specialty beer hits our fridges this weekend. For November, Ed’s crafted a Chicory Stout. To make it, he took two ounces of roasted chicory root and made a cold infusion by placing them in 1.5 L of water for 24 hours. Then, during the last 15 minutes of the boil, he added this cold infusion to the wort.

Chicory’s an interesting plant because although it’s a member of the endive family, its roasted roots taste an awful lot like coffee. In fact, through history, that’s mostly how chicory was used: as either a coffee replacement or adulterating agent.

Yes, an adulterating agent. Adulteration of food and drink was rampant during the Victorian era. Flour was whitened with chalk and bulked out with plaster of Paris, bean flour, and sawdust. Used tea leaves could be saved, dried, dyed, and repackaged as fresh. There were even unscrupulous brewers (the horror!) who used bitter chemicals, some of them poisonous, to cut down on hops.

Through the nineteenth century, coffee became increasingly popular in Great Britain. However, it all had to be imported. Luckily, Britain enjoyed a close trade relationship with Brazil, as well as coffee-producing colonies of its own. One slight problem: by the 1850s, the duty tax on coffee was 75% of the market price, making it very expensive. Chicory, which has a similar taste, sold for less than the duty and so was frequently cut into the mixture to keep costs down. Of 96 “coffee” samples examined at the time, only 7 were pure coffee.

Looking at minutes from an 1854 session of the House of Lords reveals a preoccupation with the economic implications of chicory. Since more chicory used meant less duties paid, it was estimated that adulterating coffee had cost the Office of the Exchequer some £336,000. However, other lords argued that the poor would just cut chicory into their coffee themselves, and that the real issue was one of labelling.

One of the interesting things here is that no one seems terribly surprised by the prevalence of adulteration. Indeed, some were so used to adulterated products that they actually preferred them. As Britain’s empire expanded, the tastes of its populace sometimes outpaced their ability to meet them. While some lords and coffee growers argued that consumers ought to at least know what they were buying (coffee or a coffee/chicory blend?), in this case, monies lost seemed to take predominance.

After all, unlike sawdust, chicory isn’t harmful. In fact, it’s still used as a coffee substitute by those who prefer a caffeine-free option. Those coffee-like flavours blend wonderfully with the rich, burnt-grain notes of our Stout. It is quite noticeable, particularly on the swallow. The beer has a less rounded mouthfeel than the silky-smooth Sweet Stout we had last month, but I’m interested to see how the beer ages, since it was very, very young when I tried it.

The Chicory Stout is available only at the Black Creek Historic Brewery for a limited time – until it runs out! Hope to see you for a visit soon!

– Katie