What is Barley Coffee, aka caffè d’orzo?

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In a small Italian village surrounded by hills and vineyards, a tradition emerged. At sunset, with the sky turning amber and gold, villagers met in the central square holding steaming cups. They weren’t drinking regular coffee, but barley coffee, a drink created during wartime scarcity. This aromatic brew, rooted in history and necessity, has been passed down through generations and has become a symbol of sustainability and health in today’s society.

What is Barley Coffee?

Barley coffee is a hot beverage made from roasted barley grains, not coffee beans. It originated in ancient times, possibly as early as the 8th century in the Middle East, and gained popularity in Europe during periods of coffee bean shortages. Today, it’s a beloved drink in countries like Italy (known as “caffè d’orzo”) and Latin America (“café de cebada”).

  • It’s naturally caffeine-free: making it a great choice for people who are sensitive to caffeine or want to avoid it altogether.
  • It’s rich in fiber and antioxidants: which may offer potential health benefits like improved digestion, reduced risk of chronic diseases, and blood sugar regulation.
  • It has a toasty, nutty flavor: that’s similar to coffee but with its own unique twist.
  • It can be prepared in many ways: including hot or cold, black or with milk or cream, and even used in baking or cooking.

History of Barley Coffee

Barley coffee’s origins can be traced back to periods of economic hardship and war when coffee beans were scarce and expensive. People turned to barley, a widely available and affordable grain, to create a substitute that mimicked the beloved ritual of coffee drinking. Here’s a complete history:

Ancient Origins (8th Century):

Barley brews were enjoyed in the Middle East as early as the 8th century, with evidence suggesting its widespread use. In ancient Greece, kykeon,” a drink made from roasted barley and other grains, was integral to religious rituals.

European Sojourn:

In Europe, barley coffee emerged as an alternative during periods of coffee bean shortages, particularly during the Middle Ages and the Napoleonic Wars. Its widespread consumption was primarily due to the scarcity of coffee, but even after coffee became more available, barley coffee remained popular in some areas for its affordability and perceived health benefits.

Italian Rendition:

Italy became the epicenter of barley coffee, especially during World War II when economic sanctions and coffee shortages led to a resurgence of caffè d’orzo.” Italians, seeking a caffeine-free alternative, embraced this beverage, and it continued to be a cherished drink even after coffee became readily available.

Global Presence:

Today, barley coffee is enjoyed worldwide, known by various names such as “café de cebada” in Latin America, “Gerstenkaffee” in Germany, “mugicha” in Japan, and “bori-cha” in Korea. Its global popularity underscores its enduring appeal and versatility.


How to Make Barley Coffee at Home

Ingredients:

  • Whole or ground barley (about 2 tablespoons per cup of water)
  • Water

Instructions: Roasting (Skip if you have pre-roasted barley)

  1. Preheat your oven to 400°F (200°C).
  2. Spread barley grains on a baking sheet in a single layer.
  3. Roast in the oven for about 10-15 minutes or until they turn a rich, dark brown (not black).
  4. Stir occasionally to ensure even roasting.
  5. Remove from the oven and let them cool.

Brewing:

  1. Grind the roasted barley if you started with whole grains. Aim for a coarse grind similar to that used for French press coffee.
  2. Boil water in a kettle or pot.
  3. Add the ground barley to a French press.
  4. Use about 2 tablespoons for every 6 ounces of water. Adjust to taste.
  5. Once the water has boiled, allow it to cool for about 30 seconds, then pour it over the barley in the French press.
  6. Stir the mixture and place the lid on top.
  7. Let it steep for about 10 minutes. The longer it steeps, the stronger the flavor.
  8. Slowly press down on the plunger of the French press.
  9. Pour the brewed barley coffee into a cup and enjoy!

Note: If you don’t have a French press, you can use a regular coffee maker or simply steep the barley in a pot and strain it using a fine mesh strainer.

Where Can I Buy Barley Coffee?

Here are the three highest-reviewed barley coffees on Amazon:

  1. Teeccino: This US-based champion offers a diverse range of organic barley coffee blends, from classic to playful flavors like dandelion mocha and chocolate mint. Decaf barley tea awaits those seeking an extra-gentle indulgence. Teeccino barley coffee blends
  2. Cafix: Hailing from Germany, Cafix champions convenience with its instant barley coffee that dissolves effortlessly in hot water. Explore plain and flavored varieties for mornings when time is of the essence.
  3. Röstfein: This Austrian brand embraces tradition with its pure, roasted barley grains for an authentic taste experience. Pre-portioned filter bags offer a mess-free brewing adventure. Buy here on Amazon.

Barley Coffee’s Renaissance

Today, barley coffee is enjoying a renaissance, not just as a reminder of resilient times, but as a healthful choice in an era increasingly focused on wellness and sustainability. According to a study published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, barley is rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. It contains melatonin and tryptophan, which can help improve sleep quality and mood.

Nutritional and Environmental Benefits

Moreover, barley coffee’s environmental impact is notably lower than that of traditional coffee. The Water Footprint Network indicates that it takes about 140 liters of water to produce a single cup of coffee. In contrast, barley requires significantly less water to grow, making barley coffee a more sustainable option.

The market for barley coffee is growing, reflecting a broader trend towards healthful and sustainable products. According to a report by Grand View Research, the global coffee substitute market is expected to reach $21.2 billion by 2025, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 4.2% from 2019 to 2025. This growth is driven by increasing awareness of health issues associated with caffeine and a rising interest in sustainable agriculture.

Challenges and Cultural Hurdles

However, the journey of barley coffee isn’t without its challenges. The perception of taste and the deep-rooted coffee culture in many parts of the world make widespread adoption a steep hill to climb. Despite this, the narrative of barley coffee is one of resilience, health, and sustainability. It’s not just a beverage; it’s a story in every cup, a tale of adaptation and survival, of finding comfort in the simple and the sustainable.

Conclusion

As we look to the future, barley coffee stands as a symbol of our capacity to adapt and innovate. It reminds us that sometimes, in the face of adversity, the most enduring solutions come from the most humble origins. So, the next time you find yourself reaching for a cup of coffee, consider barley coffee, and become part of a tradition that has more to offer than just taste, but a legacy of resilience and respect for our planet.

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.