How to make coffee from trees

Coffee is probably the most popular drink in the whole world.
Beyond the well renowed benefits it has, its flavor is unbeatable.
You may like it brewed, espresso, or as cappuccino. With or without sugar.

And its popularity seems to know no end.

At home, or if in the Great Outdoors, for decades coffee has been the first thing people desire to get once woken up. And still it is!
But what if you are out for doing some camping and you realize you ran out of coffee?
Well, it ain’t no tragedy for sure.
But we can still make it out of something you can find in Nature.

You don’t need to be somewhere near some plantations in Colombia or Costa Rica.
Well, it may not taste like real coffe, but it still helps to start your day in a… proactive manner!
In this article we will investigate how to make some coffee while in the woods.

Historia magistra vitae

Undoubtedly we didn’t discover anything. This article, in fact, has the specific purpose to bring back to life some historical lessons which are still remarkable today.

If we look back to the late 1700s we discover that George Washington’s diaries contain the earliest trace of the odd name “coffee tree“.
Wait a minute. Wasn’t that a plant?
Let’s dig out for more.
Back to 1783, Thomas Jefferson bought some tree seeds from General George Rogers Clark. He planted the seeds in Monticello, Virginia.

In 1824, Thomas Jefferson described coffee as”the favorite beverage of the civilised world.”
(Jefferson to Edmund Rogers, February 14, 1824, Tucker-Coleman Papers: Series 2 Thomas Jefferson Correspondence, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary)

Thomas Jefferson had an history of coffee lover.
His preferences went to beans specifically imported from the East and West Indies.
In the same manner, he felt a real hate for the unripe beans, even if they happened to be extremely popular in America at the time.

“[…] On one measure of the coffee ground into meal pour three measures of boiling water. Boil it on hot ashes mixed with coal till the meal disappears from the top, when it will be precipitated. Pour it three times through a flannel strainer. It will yield 2 1/3 measures of clear coffee […]”(Petit’s Recipe for Making Coffee, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress)

He used to have Coffee at breakfast, and also after dinner.
Apparently the coffee tree turned out to be like the Holy Grail for Coffee lovers, in absence of “regular” plantations?
Back in the day Native Americans employed the so called “Coffee Tree” for larger purposes. Specifically, they used its seeds as:

  • food
  • ceremonial occasions
  • jewelry
  • dice in games

So much out of just seeds!
It is time to dig out for more about this exceptional tree.

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Kentucky Coffeetree – Gymnocladus dioicus

“[…] At one time the Kentucky coffeetree was the designated state tree. It occurs throughout Kentucky, but is most common in open woods in the Bluegrass. The common name comes from the seeds being used by pioneers as a coffee substitute. The Kentucky champion tree is in West Liberty in Morgan County and is 90 feet tall. It is one of the largest Kentucky coffeetrees in the USA […]” (University of Kentucky, College of Agriculture, Food and Environment)

Part of the Pea Family (Fabaceae), and the subfamily Caesalpinioideae.
The botanical name for this tree, Gymnocladus dioicus, comes from Ancient Greek. Gymnos means “naked” and “klados” stands for branch.
The combination of these two words are strictly connected to his large branches, which have no smaller twigs. Dioicus is referred to the tree’s dioecious nature.
1976 to 1994: in this specific period of time the Kentucky coffeetree was the state tree of Kentucky.

Gymnocladus dioicus is native to North America (Midwest and Upper South). 
Sadly to see, due to overlogging and over-exploitation, the Kentucky Coffe tree can now be found only on the Appalachian mountains and Ohio River Valley.

Gymnocladus dioicus is a singular tree equipped with majestic woody pods and extended leaves. These are made by clusters of leaflets.

It owed its name to early settlers who started to produce a coffee substitute with his seeds.

Kentucky coffeetree happens to be an outstanding winter ornamental, very similar, in his odd shape, to the Persimmon Tree. The natural shade provided by its treetops allow an easy and satisfying gardening.

Additionally, Kentucky coffeetree is able to adapt to different ranges of humidity, kind of soils and types of climates. For these reasons a lot of Kentucky Coffeetrees have been planted in several urban environments, especially in public parks and gardens. And they are still there, fierce and such a pleasant view to enjoy.

Evolutionary anachronism

As the plant happens to be toxic to some animals.
Generally speaking, the seed pods, which are leathery, are tough to chew. The seeds are too heavy to be dispersed by wind or water.
Probably, due to these reasons the tree would have been developed by mammalian megafauna.

Scientists consider the tree an example of evolutionary anachronism.
“[…] This behavior is seen among African elephants eating Fabaceae relatives in Africa. Because of this, its prehistoric range may have been much larger than it has been in historical times. Today, in the wild, it only grows well in wetlands, and it is thought that only in such wet conditions can the seed pods rot away to allow germination in the absence of large herbivores […]”
(University of Kentucky, College of Agriculture, Food and Environment)

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On the seeds of Kentucky Coffee Tree

Safety first: raw pods and seeds are toxic. If you want to gather and to process them, the best way to go is to roast them. In fact, by doing so, you will be able to neutralize the cytisine, the toxic alkaloid.
The Pawnee, the Ho-Chunk, the Meskwaki used to do that for decades. In particular, the Meskwaki used to drink the roasted ground seeds as a hot beverage which is similar to coffee.
Along with chicory, the early settlers used to make a large use of coffee from Kentucky Coffee Tree, although they considered it of inferior quality to real coffeee.
“[…] When Kentucky was first settled by the adventurous pioneers from the Atlantic states who commenced their career in the primeval wilderness, almost without the necessaries of life, except as they produced them from the fertile soil, they fancied that they had discovered a substitute for coffee in the seeds of this tree; and accordingly the name of coffee-tree was bestowed upon it. But when communication was established with the sea-ports, they gladly relinquished their Kentucky beverage for the more grateful flavor of the Indian berry; and no use is at present made of it in that manner […]” (Andrew Jackson Downing)

Once roasted, the pods can be provide some nutrients even if they are slightly laxative.

How to make coffee from Kentucky Coffee Tree seeds

Despite the fact this coffee will never taste like a real one, there is no doubts that will be a nice substitute when you ran out your personal stocks.

It goes without saying that the whole process will cost you fatigue and time. But it well worth it.

Once gathered the seeds, you proceed into opening the pods and separe the pods from the glue which totally embed them. This phase will surely spoil your clothes, because of the tricky substance itself you need to discard.

Then wash the seeds, peel them and let them dry for at least one day. Later on you can proceed with roasting them in the oven at 350 degrees for at least 3 hours.

Bear in mind that you need to roast them with extreme accuracy if you want to eliminate all the toxins!

With the roasted seeds, now you can go to the “shredding phase”. As they hard very tough and resistant, go with a mortar befor using a standard coffee grinder. By pestling them as finely as you can, you will surely make things easier for you.

If you are out in the woods, you can use some rocks you previously cleaned.

In order to taste it, you just need to boil 8 oz of water and add three sugar spoons of Kentucky Coffee tree coffee in it. Don’t exaggerate, and remember that the seeds are laxative.

The taste resembles both chicory both dandelion coffee, so pretty bitter but still enjoyable.
You can preserve your coffee powder in a tin can or inside a dry bag.

In case you make up your mind about planting one at home, remember that Kentucky coffeetree did prove to have a better chances of long life with two specific conditions: full sun and extremely moist soil.

The best periods to prune it are winter or, at least, early spring. Kentucky coffeetree never showed any serious disease or insect problems.
Beside the joy of saving and preserving a rare specie, you will enjoy the seeds in all their uses.

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Kyt Lyn Walken is the official European representative and instructor for Hull's Tracking School (Virginia, USA), and is a certified Conservation Ranger for C.R.O.W. (Conservation Rangers Operations Worldwide). She has been an outdoors and tracking enthisast since childhood. She is contributor as a writer for several magazines in U.S. and U.K.Kyt is author of the manuals "The importance of being a Tracker", "The Urban Tracker, "Tracking Compendium" (this one with Andy Martin), "Jungle Trackers: S.A.S. In Malesia and Borneo".

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