In Europe, we’ve been drinking coffee in various guises since at least the 15th century; the first coffee shop in Britain popped up in 1650 in Oxford. For centuries, we were content with the simple coffee beans, hot water, sugar and milk combination, but the past few years have seen a proliferation of novelty brews.
Chai latte was a huge hit until news of its astronomical sugar content emerged; turmeric latte was named the ‘breakout star’ in Google’s Food Trends report of 2016; and we reached peak avocado with the hideous ‘avolatte’. But in the past 12 months a new trend has been brewing, one that proves millennials’ insatiable appetite for faddish food and drinks knows no bounds.
The latest concoction to delight and rile in equal measure is mushroom coffee. On supermarket shelves and in cafes, we’re increasingly being exposed to the drink, which is purportedly an anti-inflammatory, and is supposed to regulate blood sugar levels and boost metabolism. According to data collected by Hitwise, there has been a 471pc year-on-year spike in searches for “mushroom coffee”, with the bulk from those aged 25 to 34.
A typical example doesn’t feature commonly eaten mushrooms such as portobellos or chanterelles, but fungi like the chaga mushroom, a parasitic fungus from birch trees; reishi, used medicinally in traditional Chinese medicine; and cordyceps, which grow on insects. All three have long been used in skincare, and now they’re being made into coffee.
What fresh hell is this?!? pic.twitter.com/iBZlhYxgu5
— James Glynn (@jamesglynn) March 19, 2018
Mushroom coffee tends to be a blend of regular ground coffee mixed with a powdered fungus, which provides an earthy taste to the drink. To make it more palatable, it’s often sold with milk or a milk variant and a sweetener.
As a coffee lover (but mushroom hater), I thought I’d give one a go, and popped into East London Juice Co for a “‘shroom latte”. I regret to say I wasn’t overly impressed. The drink was too earthy for me, both in taste and smell, which overpowered what was probably very good coffee. The colour and texture were just like a regular latte; I just couldn’t shake off the fungal overtones, which strengthened as the drink cooled.
Admittedly, I’m probably not the best person to test mushroom coffee on, but I wanted to find out why it’s a growing trend nonetheless. “The last decade has seen a huge shift in people’s attitudes to, and knowledge of, health and well-being,” explains Catriona Spence-Ishaq of Roots Deli and Salad Bar in Edinburgh, where mushroom coffee will soon be stocked. “With this change comes the hunger to try new ingredients.”
Mushroom coffee has been consumed in Northern Europe since at least the 1940s. But it’s only now that there is “enough demand and appetite” for the unlikely pairing in the UK, according to Spence-Ishaq.
Sasha Sabapathy, founder of Glow Bar, highlights the nutritional benefits. “It’s really interesting how we are finally discovering how truly magical mushrooms are. The usual types we eat for supper are all packed with nutrients, but the real super ‘shrooms are the medicinal kind that have been used in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine for centuries.
“These mushrooms have a range of benefits, from anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting to memory-enhancing. They can be taken in a variety of ways, from tea to tonics, but are especially amazing in your morning coffee as they’re able to help counter effects like the awful caffeine crash or an upset stomach. I love taking our super ‘shroom cordyceps ‘bulletproof’ style, which makes it really creamy and delicious without the heaviness of a latte.”
Like Sabapathy, Philip Inzani, owner of Polo Bar in London, is planning on selling mushroom coffee at his 24-hour cafe. “Wellness is huge at the moment and we’ve noticed a huge gap in the cafe and 24-hour market for coffee and tea with health benefits. It’s usually city workers and young millennials after something with a nutritional benefit attached. We’ve had quite a few requests for mushroom coffee and we are certainly considering it.”
For every proponent, however, there remains a cynic. Novelty coffees are ten-a-penny these days, and though fungus-infused coffee (and tea) is causing a stir with health-conscious 20-somethings, Andrew Knight, founder of coffee roasters Andronicas, predicts the fashion will soon fade.
“Mushroom coffee is nothing more than a fad, and one I predict will go out of fashion very quickly,” he told The Telegraph. “In the name of research I sampled some and wasn’t a fan. The flavour is very earthy and quite savoury. Perhaps the problem for me is that I enjoy the taste of coffee. This is not one for coffee lovers, but each to their own.”
View this post on Instagram
So I'm on a mushroom coffee kick. Cordyceps mushrooms are adaptogenic in their anti-aging, brain health, and detox properties. They are also great for the libido…??? I made mine with cardamon, cinnamon, and frothed almond milk #adaptogens #mushroomcoffee #plantbased #plantbasednutrition #plantbasedathlete
Studies on the health benefits of the fungi used in mushroom coffee are promising. Chaga is thought to be rich in several vitamins, minerals and nutrients, including Vitamin D, potassium and B-complex vitamins. According to studies at the University of Malaya in Malaysia, anti-inflammatory compounds in mushrooms could help combat dementia.
But to nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed, there is insufficient evidence that a cup of steaming hot mushroom coffee will give you anything beyond the regular benefits of coffee. “It’s unlikely mushroom coffee will live up to all, if any, of the claims being made about it. If you enjoy it, enjoy a cup, but it’s not a miracle food. There’s very little research that it will have those effects, especially in a standard amount that an average person would consume.”
Back at East London Juice Co, which looks more like a lab than a cafe, and where ‘shroom lattes have been on the menu since 2015, founder Charisse Baker has a more down-to-earth approach to the drink. “There are positive studies on the health benefits, however there is a lot of hype. People are making extreme health claims, exaggerating loads.” Baker personally forages for the mushrooms used at her cafe, and her main motivation is flavour and sustainability.
Evidently, there’s a booming market for mushroom coffee. Whether for flavour, supposed nutritional benefits, or the need to be the first to try a latest trend, people are flocking to fungus. But it’s certainly an acquired taste: “You’d have to tell me that would save my life to make me pay for it,” said one friend (and mushroom lover) who helped me test some at home. As Knight says, each to their own, but I think I’ll stick to my regular coffee for now.