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The Hidden Wartime Origins of Mushroom Coffee

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Mushroom coffee, a new product straight out of Finnish startup Four Sigmatic, has been hailed as the superfood of the future. The coffee world's latest trend. Instagram’s newest photogenic food darling.

This cuppa fungus is made of Arabica beans with extracts of medicinal mushrooms added in. Mushroom coffee’s taste, Four Sigmatic claims, resembles that of any other instant coffee, its mouthfeel rich and smooth. Its coffee promises a bounty of health benefits, with the company boasting about the drink's “powerful antioxidants, anti-viral effects, and immune-boosting properties” without traditional coffee's gnarly side effects, as the addition of certain mushrooms to Arabica blends provides a buffer to coffee’s innate acidity. Four Sigmatic's product also has the ease of instant coffee: To make it, you simply tear open a bag of dirt-colored powder, throw it into a cup, pour in some hot water, and stir.

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It's tempting to be cynical about mushroom coffee, believing it won't outlive its allotted fifteen minutes. But there was another point in history when coffee made with mushroom extract was the “next big thing”: the 1940s. “Finnish people used chaga mushroom, native to our country, as a coffee substitute during World War II,” Four Stigmatic’s founder, Tero Isokauppila, told me earlier this week. “To our knowledge, our grandparents invented the concept of using chaga as a coffee substitute.”

A Recipe Lost in Wartime, Recovered From Memory
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A Recipe Lost in Wartime, Recovered From Memory

In the 1940s, coffee was, along with sugar, one of the first casualties of war in Finland. Though a good number of coffee alternatives were based on roasted rye, chaga was especially popular. The chaga mushroom is an alkaline-forming fungus that resembles molten tree bark, with a blackened exterior and flesh the color of lava. Making chaga-derived coffee involved steeping the chaga overnight in water and pressing it the next morning. (There are risks inherent in doing this yourself; nutritionist Cynthia Sass warns that chaga is a blood thinner.) Historically, wartime coffee shortages have led to crafty alternatives: Look to America’s own Civil War, which saw a blossoming of okra seed coffee.

There's an obvious difference between chaga-dervied coffee made out of necessity and Four Sigmatic's product, which uses chaga as an addition rather than a base and is being marketed as a superfood. Still, Isokauppila claimed that he and his team drew from the knowledge of their grandparents to resurrect a drink that’s now being touted as a sensation. The particular phenomenon of drinking mushroom-extracted coffee is, to him, uniquely Finnish, a story of wartime survival.

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Ever had mushroom coffee? Let us know in the comments.

Tags: mushroom coffee, war, finland, world war ii