How Cereal Coffee Became the Ultimate Coffee Alternative…in 1879

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In the bustling modern world of espresso shots and matcha lattes, it’s fascinating to step back into the pages of history and explore how our ancestors viewed their morning brew. A remarkable article from 1879, published in The Housekeeper, a weekly women’s newspaper-style magazine, offers a window into this past. It centers around how cereal coffee became the ultimate coffee alternative.

What is Cereal Coffee?

Cereal coffee is a hot beverage made from roasted and ground cereal grains, offering a caffeine-free alternative to traditional coffee and tea1. Popular cereal coffees come from a variety of grains, each offering unique flavors:

  • Barley: Nutty and toasty, this classic is enjoyed brewed or instant in Europe and the Middle East.
  • Rye: Bold and slightly spicy, it provides a deep, dark roast.
  • Brown Rice: A lighter, subtly sweet option that’s gluten-free and easy to digest.
  • Chickpeas: An emerging choice with a creamy texture and nutty taste, noted for its protein content.
  • Sorghum: Known in Ethiopia as “Kafir coffee,” it offers a bright, citrusy flavor with prebiotic benefits.
  • Multigrain Blends: These combine grains like barley, rye, and chicory for diverse flavors and health benefits.
Sorghum is roasted and made into tea in Ethiopia

Overall, cereal coffee caters to diverse audiences seeking comfort, health, and affordability in a hot beverage without the downsides of coffee or tea.

The Early Views on Warm Beverages

In the late 19th century, warm drinks were more than just a comfort; they were deemed a necessity for civilized humanity. The article2 from The Housekeeper reflects a common belief of the time: the importance of choosing the right beverage to accompany breakfast. Horace Greeley, a notable figure mentioned in the article, preferred a simple cup of hot water with milk and sugar, avoiding tea or coffee due to indigestion issuesโ€”a problem many faced but often misattributed.

Warm drinks are a necessity to civilized humanity, and it is of the first importance that we should seek to determine what beverage we shall habitually use. The late Mr. Greeley made it a practice to accompany his breakfast with a cup of hot water, rendered more palatable by the addition of a trifle of milk and sugar. He expressed to us the belief that some hot or quite warm fluid was needed to give tone to the stomach at the morning meal, and to assist the digestive processes.

He could not employ tea or coffee without suffering the pangs of indigestion. This is true of multitudes, many of whom are unaware of the reason for their gastric uneasiness. They continue to swallow the very fluid which destroys their comfort, vainly imagining the while, that a stronger dose will give nature an extra jog, and accomplish some benign result.

The truth is simply this: one half the human race cannot use an infusion of the tea-plant, nor that of the browned coffee berry, and at the same time maintain reasonably good digestion, and strong, sound nerves. These infusions have a wonderful power to stimulate, and an equal power to depress. Under their influence, the brain and nervous system are elevated, exalted, raised, refined. When their short-lived influence ceases, the facility of descent to a lower than the original plane, is startling. It is the brilliant ascent of the rocket, and the dark, and gloomy fall of the stick. It elevates only to narcotize and destroy.

Cocoa and its products have been largely used as substitutes for the well-nigh universal tea and coffee, but they have proved heavy and somewhat difficult of digestion, by thousands. It is a pity that this fragrant bean could not be more generally employed, as it is rich in that element which exists neither in tea nor coffeeโ€”we mean nutriment. But the majority declare it to be โ€œsleepy stuff,” and although its use is happily extending, it can never become the universal beverage.

Probably the cereal grains are the source to which we must go for the perfect food beverage, in which nutriment and flavor shall be scientifically blended. This is the thought which has actuated the Health Food Company in the preparation of their Cereal Coffee. It is a strictly scientific preparation, compounded of the gluten of wheat and barley. In its manufacture, the starch of the cereal is carefully excluded, and only the nitrogenous gluten is employed.

The barley portion is carefully browned, so as to impart to the infusion a pleasant, parched flavor. The portion derived from wheat is thoroughly cooked, so that its nutritive qualities are speedily imparted to the infusion. Steeped in a mixture of milk and water, a nourishing fluid results, having a flavor not wholly unlike that of Java coffee, and containing more than ten times as much food-value.

If we compare this rich beverage with that obtained from real coffee, we discover that the Cereal Coffee would be worth $3.00 per lb.โ€”equal in nutriment to ten lbs. of old Java at 30 cents per lb. Chicory, and peas, and beans, and rice, and corn and rye, and sweet potatoes, and a host of other substances have been browned and infused in boiling water as substitutes for coffee; but they have all failed, because they have all been based upon starch in various forms. Real coffee contains little starch, and any successful substitute for it must be quite free from that tasteless and nearly useless food-substance.

The Cereal Coffee of the Health Food Company appears to fulfill every indication, and to meet the precise want. The beverage produced from it is a powerful supporter of human life, and is an appetizing and delicious adjunct to the daily bill of fare, while leaving the brain and nerves uninjured by any noxious stimulating power. Lacking the tannic acid and the powerful narcotizing principle of tea, it neither deranges digestion, induces constipation, nor lowers the vital tone, as does that potent agent for evil. The browning and parching processes being conducted in vacuo, create no deadly, empyreumatic oils such as always exists in browned coffee and its substitutes.

The Rise of Cereal Coffee

Cereal coffee emerged as a solution to this dilemma. Unlike its more famous counterparts, tea and coffee, cereal coffee was seen as a gentle yet nourishing alternative. Made from roasted grains like wheat and barley, it was often marketed as a caffeine-free option, ideal for those who suffered from the adverse effects of caffeine or in regions where tea and coffee were scarce or expensive.

Nutritional Benefits and Marketing

The 1879 article highlights the nutritional aspect of cereal coffee, emphasizing its content of “nitrogenous gluten” while excluding the starch found in other substitutes. This focus on health benefits was a key marketing strategy, as cereal coffee was not just a beverage but a “powerful supporter of human life,” rich in nutrients yet gentle on the stomach and nerves.

Cereal Coffee in Modern Times

Fast forward to today, and the appeal of cereal coffee remains, especially among those seeking caffeine-free alternatives or embracing a more natural diet. Modern brands often highlight similar benefits as their historical counterparts: the absence of caffeine, the presence of nutrients, and the gentle effect on digestion and the nervous system.

The Legacy of Cereal Coffee

Cereal coffee’s journey from a 19th-century health beverage to a modern alternative choice reflects broader changes in our understanding of nutrition and health. It’s a testament to the enduring quest for beverages that are not only enjoyable but also beneficial to our well-being.


As we sip our morning drinks, be it coffee, tea, or a cereal-based brew, it’s intriguing to think about how these choices connect us with generations past. Cereal coffee, a product of its time, continues to find relevance in our world, reminding us of the timeless pursuit of health and enjoyment in our daily rituals.

  1. โ†ฉ๏ธŽ
  2. Cereal Coffee: From the Housekeeper. Halls J Health. 1879 Aug;26(8):25. PMID: 36489059; PMCID: PMC9211737.
Avatar Of Kelsey Todd
With over two decades in the coffee industry, Kelsey is a seasoned professional barista with roots in Seattle and Santa Barbara. Accredited by The Coffee Association of America and a member of The Baristas Guild, he combines practical expertise with a profound understanding of coffee's history and cultural significance. Kelsey tries his best to balance family time with blogging time and fails miserably.

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