WHAT IS COFFEE LEAF TEA?
The most valuable part of a coffee plant is its cherry. After harvesting and processing, it gives us the beans which we roast, grind, and brew. But what about the rest of the plant?
Often when a coffee plant is trimmed or pruned, its stems, branches, and leaves are just thrown away. In some parts of the world, however, its leaves are picked and brewed to prepare coffee leaf tea.
Read on to learn more about what this beverage is, how it’s made, and where it comes from.
THE ORIGINS OF COFFEE LEAF TEA CONSUMPTION
Coffee leaf tea has been drunk in Sumatra, Ethiopia, Jamaica, India, Java, and Sudan for centuries.
From the 16th century to the 19th century, Ethiopian farmers set aside their harvested coffee for trade or consumption in special ceremonies. As a day to day drink, the Harari people in Ethiopia instead enjoyed “kuti”.
Kuti was made by boiling coffee leaves in hot water, sometimes with a pinch of salt or some sugar. It was generally boiled for at least 30 minutes, as it was believed that the longer the leaves were boiled for, the sweeter the resulting brew would be.
Coffee leaf tea bears some similarities to green tea, but it is more earthy and sweeter. It is lower in caffeine than green tea, and thanks to its high levels of antioxidants, it has historically been believed that it cures or relieves cold symptoms.
In the 19th century, Dutch colonists transported coffee plants to designated farming regions in Indonesia. Workers on the coffee plantations were forbidden from consuming the coffee they harvested, so they drank something called “kawa daun” instead.
Kawa daun was made by drying coffee leaves in the sun to reduce their bitterness. The leaves were then smoked and roasted for a few hours. Finally, they would be steeped in boiling water, then served in a coconut shell. Today, kawa daun is often made with sugar, condensed milk, and ginger; sometimes, bamboo might be added, or an egg may be stirred in.
Although some tried to introduce coffee leaf tea in Europe in the 19th century, it failed to take off. In recent years, however, it has seen some success in western markets, thanks in part to its supposed health benefits.
WHAT DOES COFFEE LEAF TEA TASTE LIKE?
One of the biggest barriers to people drinking coffee leaf tea is the fact that most assume it will taste like coffee. Lina Sazanauskaite is the Marketing Communications Manager for Impact Roasters, a coffee roastery in Valby, Denmark. “Even though it made of the leaves of a coffee plant, its taste is entirely different to coffee,” Lina tells me.
“Before trying the tea for the first time, most of our customers thought it should taste a bit like coffee… but there’s not even a hint of a coffee taste.” Much like coffee, the flavour of coffee leaf tea changes depending on where and how it was grown.
We also spoke with producers from the Marcala region in Honduras. They have been experimenting with coffee leaf tea for some time, and advised of their preference for organic coffee plants.
Even though the beverage is often compared to green tea, it’s important to note that coffee leaf tea technically isn’t a tea at all.
All “true” teas are derived from the Camellia sinensis tea plant. As coffee leaves don’t come from this plant, a drink made with them is technically a “tisane”, like rooibos or chamomile.
Mateusz Petlinski is responsible for coffee and tea quality at Rösterei VIER, a coffee roastery and tea leaf importer in Düsseldorf, Germany. He says: “The problem is that we do not have a cool word to describe it. ‘Infusion’ sounds way too much like medical terminology, and won’t catch on. So, in the case of coffee leaf tea, accessibility currently outweighs taxonomy.”
Mateusz currently sources his tea from Bente Luther-Medoch’s Machare Estate in Tanzania. He describes it as having “a silky body, low astringency and high sweetness”.
“You can find notes of vanilla, honey, pipe tobacco, and rich, earthy notes,” Mateusz explains. “The cup is coppery-peach coloured, bright, and vibrant. In comparison to most black teas, it has a much higher sweetness and balance, but lacks tanginess. And obviously, it doesn’t taste like coffee.”
While coffee shops and roasters like Mateusz import and sell coffee leaf tea in small volumes, the biggest and most well-known western coffee leaf tea is sold by Canadian beverage brand Wize. Wize offers the beverage on a large scale, and their teas are currently available in over 30 countries.
Their latest product, a ready to drink coffee leaf iced tea, won Best New Product at 2015’s World Tea Expo. Currently, the beverage is available in mango, original, or grapefruit flavour, and is made with leaves sourced from Nicaragua.
WHAT’S THE BENEFIT FOR PRODUCERS?
It’s well established that while the international demand for coffee is high, producers still have a number of problems to contend with in the supply chain, including price fluctuations and Covid-19.
Coffee is only harvested for a few months every year, depending on the country’s harvest season. This can leave a number of producers and workers without work (and income) for a significant portion of the year.
However, some producers have decided to diversify the crops that they grow and sell. As coffee leaves are constantly being produced, producers can harvest them in the off-season if there is demand.
Impact Roasters’ founder, Daniel Hallala, grew up in Ethiopia. He tells me that he often used to drink coffee leaf tea. “In Ethiopia, [coffee leaf] tea is widely used by people working in agriculture for its stimulating and refreshing effect,” Lina explains. “However, after the pruning process, tea can also be used to generate income for coffee farmers.”
If there the demand for coffee leaf tea grows and becomes significant, it could serve as another smaller income stream for producers. Crop diversification represents a great opportunity for producers to become more sustainable and stable throughout the off-season.
WILL COFFEE LEAF TEA BECOME MORE POPULAR?
According to World Tea News, some five million people drink coffee leaf tea around the world. In early 2020, however, the European Food Safety Authority approved the product for sale across the EU, meaning that the market could get bigger in the coming months.
Lina says: “Despite the fact that leaves from the coffee tree have been consumed in several countries for many hundreds of years, it has only now been approved as a food ingredient… we believe it might open up more ways for coffee leaf tea to get into the European market.”
Getting consumers around the fact that coffee leaf tea is neither coffee nor tea – and doesn’t taste like either – could also present a challenge for those selling it. In Mateusz’s experience, “people expect it to taste like coffee or have a higher caffeine content than a regular tea”.
“Getting a sweeter and more balanced version of what they expect makes it quite challenging to communicate,” he tells me. “I think most mainstream consumers still think of themselves as belonging to ‘team coffee’ or ‘team tea’.”
However, Mateusz adds that coffee leaf tea could help bridge a gap: “There’s a good chance that it could be the ‘gateway drink’ between specialty coffee and specialty tea.”
Lina feels that it may also be popular with consumers who want to be responsible in their consumption habits. “It might appeal to people who care about sustainability, as the coffee leaves can be harvested all year round.”
Finally, Mateusz thinks there are a number of opportunities for coffee shops to take with coffee leaf tea. “Offering a specific coffee with the coffee leaf tea from the very same producer would be an awesome thing to see,” he says.
He adds that the tea’s natural sweetness makes it a good pair with cold and/or carbonated drinks. “Try coffee leaf as a Japanese-style iced tea brewed hot over ice cubes and add a little lemon – you’re gonna love it!”.
Mateusz thinks coffee leaf tea will be popular on coffee shop menus in the future. “Especially in Europe, where cascara is still banned… specialty coffee businesses are looking for something that combines coffee and tea and makes sense in a coffee-focused business.”
Coffee leaf tea’s recent approval for sale in Europe and growth under brands like Wize show that there is a market for this drink outside of producing countries. For producers, it offers a way to diversify their farming income. For coffee shops, it could be a way to “bridge the gap” between the worlds of coffee and tea, as Mateusz says. How popular will it become? That remains to be seen.