Alternatives to coffee
We always knew about tea and hot chocolate, and chai is no stranger. But there are other, lesser-known coffee alternatives out there, and for every kind of tea to give us a caffeine mini-fix, there's a different flavor quality that goes along with it.
• Buy smart: Looking at labels and understanding their distinctions is as important for teas as it is for coffee, and if you see a certification on the box, know that the same growing and social-welfare requirements are required. Many teas boast the words "all natural" or "100 percent natural." These are meaningless marketing phrases: How can anyone dispute that a product made of leaves and packed into a paper pouch is anything but natural? Also pay attention to the price per teabag if you're hoping to save a little cash. Although many teas have a cheaper initial price, they also can have fewer servings. Saving three bucks isn't worth it if you're only getting 15 teabags. If you're looking for a bargain, check out Whole Foods' 365 Organic black and green teas (80 teabags for $3.99) or if you don't have a Whole Foods nearby, the ubiquitous Lipton has organic green and black teas, albeit at a higher price per bag (18 bags for $2.39), certified by CCOF.
• Classic black (and green, and oolong and white): Although recent studies have shown that moderate coffee drinking actually can be healthy, thanks to the magnesium, potassium, vitamin B3 and other nutrients it contains, those supersensitive to its effects are still better off turning to tea. And there's no reason why even die-hard coffee lovers shouldn't grab a cup of tea, too: Its antioxidant compounds, flavonoids and polyphenols, are known to lower the risk of cancer, and it also contains fluoride.
English Breakfast and Earl Grey drinkers already know the rich flavor qualities of a black tea. What many people don't know is that no matter if it's green, black, white or oolong, it all comes from the same plant. The differences in flavor are dependent upon the country where the tea is made, the growing time, harvesting and processing of the plant. Black teas, for instance, get their tannic qualities for the same reason wine does: fermentation. Many Chinese teas, though impeccably made, are not always suitable for American palates. Be especially careful of Lapsang Souchong. This traditional tea has an intense smoky flavor, thanks to its process of being roasted over burning pine, and, for uninitiated or less-than-adventurous tea drinkers, it can taste like little more than charcoal. Teas from India, such as Darjeeling, or the nearby Sri Lanka, such as Ceylon, have a milder, more floral quality that tends to be more pleasing to novice drinkers.
Oolong tea, also known as Formosa, lies between green and black on the caffeine strength and flavor spectrum; it's milder in terms of floral notes but also lacks the intense grassiness of green, which is also lighter on the caffeine scale. White tea has the most delicate flavor qualities and lightest caffeine content because it's picked before the tea plant's buds open.
Oh, and that red tea you've seen popping up in recent years? If it's caffeinated, then the company is just using the Chinese name for black tea. If, however, it's herbal, it's likely rooibos tea. Unlike the blends hailing from the Orient, this tea is made from fermenting the leaves of a South African bush. For those truly avoiding caffeine, this could be the perfect warming beverage alternative because it has the same anti-carcinogenic effects of black, green or other teas, and also has anti-inflammatory and anti-allergy properties.
• A perfect maté: Yerba maté is South America's traditional source of caffeine, and, like rooibos, it initially seems similar to tea because it's brewed from the leaves of a plant. That plant is, however, a variety of holly, and both its dry leaves and twigs are used in the brewing process. On a tea aisle, you'll probably find it close to the green teas because the two have similarly vegetal flavor profiles.
Be a wise shopper about this one in particular. It's delicious and it will give you that afternoon pick-me-up, but the companies promoting it like to say it's a caffeine-free beverage. Technically, it doesn't contain caffeine's exact chemicals, but the xanthines that form the backbone of its effects are in the same family. Jittery coffee this drink is not, but don't expect something more zen-like than a cup of caffeinated tea.
• Teeccino: This catchy name brand has been hitting the homes of caffeine-phobes because it's crafted to taste like coffee. Only it has no coffee. This herbal concoction is made up of roasted nuts, fruits — including dates and figs — and grains, and it boasts the ability to be brewed in whichever way you prefer to make your coffee.
• Chocoholics delight: After coffee, the South American product that has the potential for the biggest economic and environmental impacts is chocolate. It might not be the worldwide beverage coffee is, but Americans and Europeans certainly can't get enough of it. As with their chocolate-bar brethren, there's a world of certified hot chocolates that offer a depth and subtlety of flavor that provide a take-me-away experience no box of zap-and-sip Swiss Miss can rival.
Unfortunately, even the gourmet offerings at grocery stores — such as Ghirardelli and Hershey's latest upscale lines — don't typically have the kinds of certification that specialty retailers' hot chocolates carry. Head to your local natural foods market to find standout options such as Dagoba's 100 percent organic and fair trade certified coffee or Lake Champlain Chocolate's organic and fair trade coffee. Both makers specialize in chocolate products and know how to give you the kind of satisfaction only a moment with cocoa (OK, and maybe a couple of other things) can provide.