At the Hopsack in the Swan Centre in Rathmines, Finn Murray has been selling lattes with a twist for a couple of years now.
In some, the key ingredient is chaga mushrooms, turmeric or reishi. And you can choose your milk: they have organic cow’s milk, soya, almond or coconut.
Murray got the idea for alternative lattes from abroad. He first saw matcha lattes in the US, and he heard about turmeric ones from people living in London.
Chaga mushrooms, he heard about from a friend, who gave him studies touting their benefits. So he decided to try using them in lattes, he says.
North of the Swan Centre, on Lower Camden Street, the Cracked Nut have started to do something similar, launching their “smurf lattes” at the beginning of the year.
But why would anybody switch from their traditional coffee latte?
The Health Kick
As Murray tells it, lots of the appeal of his alternative lattes is in their posited health benefits.
“Certain foods, particularly the active compounds … are activated by heat,” says the Hopsack’s Murray, while sipping on a turmeric latte in the busy cafe that is part of the food shop.
Chaga is a wild mushroom that was traditionally used by the native people of Siberia, where it grows close to the Arctic Circle; locals would brew chaga on a stove and sip on it through out the day, says Murray. “It is an excellent anti-oxidant,” he says.
Up to now, though, there hasn’t really been enough research to say whether lots of the ingredients have health benefits or not.
The Memorial Sloan Kettering Center, a cancer treatment and research institute in New York, has a fact-sheet about chaga on its website. “Laboratory and animal studies show that chaga can inhibit cancer progression” and “activate some types of immune cells”.
However, it notes that “Studies in humans are needed” to see if that’s true in real life, in real people. And it cautions that “Chaga is high in oxalates, which may prevent the absorption of some nutrients and can be toxic in high doses.”
Reishi is another ingredient they put in lattes at Hopsack. It is used as an anti-inflamatory in Chinese medicine, and is also activated by heat, Murray says.
The Memorial Sloan Kettering Center has a fact-sheet for reishi mushroom, too. Under “Purported Uses” is “To reduce inflammation: Laboratory studies suggest that reishi mushroom may have antihistamine effects. This has not been tested in humans.”
At Hopsack, the chaga mushroom latte was grey and tasted musty.
Over in the Cracked Nut, the blue-algae latte taste of seaweed. The activated charcoal one was bitter and salty. The owner says they are popular with a certain type of customer.
“We have had a great uptake on the blue lattes since we launched them on the first of January,” says Nikki Carruthers, who owns the shop with her sister Kelda Clermont.
“We have seen people coming back and are getting really positive feedback from all the health-and-fitness crew,” she says.
At the Hopsack, Murray agrees that some of his shop’s alternative lattes don’t taste great at first. He thinks people start drinking them because they believe they have health benefits.
“You might have to force it down the first few times,” he says. “A lot like our first pint [of beer].” But like with beer, you quite quickly develop a taste for them, he says.
Like Carruthers at the Cracked Nut, Murray says a lot of the people who buy the alternative lattes are really into their health. He also notes that it is often not Irish people buying them.
It is often people from Scandinavia or Eastern Europe, from cultures that Murray says have never lost their herbal-medicine traditions.
“We have lost a whole tradition in the space of two generations. It hasn’t disappeared over there,” he said. “You go to your doctor and you do the home-remedy thing as well.”
A clinical nutritionist we asked was not convinced that people will derive health benefits from drinking alternative lattes.
Dr Mary McCreery is a consultant dietician and clinical nutritionist in St John of God’s and St Patrick’s hospitals. “There is little scientific evidence to back up these claims,” she says.
“As long as they don’t do any harm and they taste nice then fine, but there are no such things as superfoods and these look like a new fad to me.”
Murray says there’s a trend towards alternative lattes.
By far the most popular is the turmeric one, he says. He expects turmeric lattes to show up in Starbucks or Insomnia at some stage.
Murray says “Turmeric is a really powerful health food.” It’s hard to figure out how to check whether something is a “powerful health food”, but it tastes good.
At Hopsack, the turmeric latte is spiced with a rich coconut milk which sits well with the slight metallic, earthy taste of the orange root. It tastes of ginger, too.
Whether it has health benefits, though, is unclear.
The Sloan Memorial Kettering Center’s fact-sheet says “animal studies suggest that turmeric prevents colon, stomach, and skin cancers in rats exposed to carcinogens” and “Laboratory and animal studies suggest that turmeric reduces inflammation.” No word yet on humans.
Carruthers says that some of her customers at the Cracked Nut are looking for alternatives to ordinary tea and coffee. She can sympathise, she says: “My body doesn’t process caffeine well at all and I just get wired from it.”
Outside of health-focused cafes, some others say they have seen an increase in customers seeking alternatives to caffeinated hot drinks.
Gabriel Tudorin, head barista at KC Peaches in Nassau Street, says decaf tea and coffee, as well as herbal teas, are becoming more popular. Lemongrass-and-ginger is the biggest seller of the herbal teas, he says.
“We stock a full range of herbal teas and rooibos now,” he says. “There is a lot of people asking for herbal tea, especially when it is cold outside.”