FROM THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT By MATTHEW KORFHAGE
Six years ago James Harrell stood on his family’s peanut farm in Suffolk with a cup of coffee in his hand, and he had an epiphany.
“I was drinking coffee and smelling coffee right before harvest,” remembers Harrell, “and I said, ‘Why can’t you turn peanuts into coffee?’”
The coffee he was smelling at the time wasn’t just the stuff in his cup.
In addition to being the former home of Planters Peanuts (RIP Mr. Peanut, Sr.), Suffolk is the self-appointed caffeine capital of Virginia — a title that proudly graces the coffee mugs at city hall. Millions of pounds of coffee are roasted there weekly, in massive facilities devoted to big names like Hills Bros. or Folger’s. When the time is right, the thick aroma of second-crack coffee wafts lingeringly over the peanut fields.
But all of those coffee beans were grown far away, Harrell says, in Africa and Latin America. Why not use a local product instead? Why not roast peanuts to a dark brown, and then grind and steep them just like a coffee bean?
Harrell isn’t even the first person to have the idea. Nearly a century earlier, peanut researcher George Washington Carver also proposed instant coffee made of peanuts, alongside more far-flung notions such as peanut linoleum and peanut shaving cream.
But Harrell is certainly among the first to bring a peanut “coffee” to market. It took him years to get his process right. And after a false start trying to license his idea to a big corporation, he’s doing it all himself.
He first packaged his Virginia Gold “peanut coffee” three years ago, and has begun selling it online at vagold.com, as well as at local markets such as Farmer’s Frank’s in Suffolk. “No Beans,” says the label. “It’s Nuts.”
Buyers from large grocery chains have expressed interest, he says. His website and packaging tout the purported benefits of using peanuts instead of coffee beans: “Protein. No Acid. Non-diuretic. Farmed in USA.”
(Peanuts are indeed slightly acidic — though much less so than coffee.)
But whatever its advantages, the peanut coffee was greeted by reporters at our office with a sort of leery and bemused skepticism — as if we had received a new kind of beer made from chickpeas, or a car that runs on vinegar.
“Do you mean peanut flavored coffee?” one editor asked. “Like hazelnuts?”
No. We did not. We meant a coffee-like drink made only from roasted peanuts.
She politely declined to try it.
But Virginia Gold does indeed look very like ground coffee, with that same rich brown color and tight powder. And it brews much the same way. The packaging contained no instructions on dosage, but steeping a coffee-appropriate amount of the ground, roasted peanuts in a percolator yielded a drink of similar depth.
The aroma is strongly peanutty, in both ground and brewed form. But the taste of the resulting drink hews surprisingly close to the product it’s meant to approximate. On the tongue, it’s a bit like a smooth medium roast, though with none of the fruity aromas or acidic bite one expects from coffee. It’s nutty, but not nutty like peanuts are nutty — the roast takes over much of the flavor.
For a coffeeless coffee, it managed to stand in quite effectively for coffee. It filled a coffee-like role, the same way herbal teas fill in handily for tea or soy milk serves as milk.
Among tasters, the two biggest fans were the two snobbiest coffee drinkers in the room, the ones prone to the modern light roasts favored by third-wave coffee roasters such as Virginia Beach’s Three Ships.
But reaction was split among tasters. Our most traditionalist coffee drinkers rejected it outright: Too much peanut aroma. A coffee drinker who was a fan of chicory was also against it. He said Virginia Gold tasted like the smell when he opened a new toy package for his child — most likely describing a slight oxidative cardboard whiff to the drink.
“Everyone’s taste is different,” Harrell says. “Everyone has an opinion what it tastes like. ‘They say, ‘Whoa, it tastes like a nutty coffee!’ Or some say it tastes just like peanuts. Some say coffee.”
And, of course, the drink does contain a slight bit of residual peanut oil.
Peanuts’ natural oil, Harrell says, was the chief obstacle to making the drink. The second he had the idea in his family’s field six years ago, he rushed inside with a batch of freshly harvested nuts to try out his idea.
“I put them into the oven and roasted them, and ground them up,” he remembers. But the attempt was a disaster. “I ran into the problem of the oil,” he says.
Peanuts have a lot of oil inside them. The oil is the source of the intensely peanutty smell and taste that makes Five Guys french fries a cult item. But if you grind roasted peanuts without removing the oil, what you’ll likely get is peanut butter, not coffee. It took Harrell three years to get the process figured out.
“We had to figure out a way to separate the fat from the protein, the oil from the meal: No peanut company does that after roasting peanuts.” The process, Harrell says, is proprietary. He won’t let anyone see it until his patent is approved — but it involves only heat and pressure, he says.
As of last fall, Virginia Gold also sells the roasted peanut oil separately — this was the idea of Harrell’s father, Dennis, who hated the idea of wasting part of the peanut.
The oil is impossibly dense with peanut flavor, richer and roastier than toasted sesame oil. When a small amount spilled, it filled our office kitchen with such intensity of peanut we had to warn co-workers with nut allergies to stay clear.
So far, Harrell says, the most enthusiastic reception to the coffee has has come from people who have to avoid caffeine.
Decaf coffee doesn’t remove all of the caffeine from the beans. But peanuts don’t have caffeine, so the non-caffeinated version has precisely 0 milligrams of the stuff.
To make the caffeinated version of Virginia Gold, Harrell simply uses caffeine that’s been removed from decaf coffee. He says the caffeine levels are equivalent to the proportions in a medium-roast coffee, though his drink does not yet offer a USDA label with precise dosage.
Others who’ve been enthusiastic are people with a stake in the success of Virginia farms. Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring was particularly receptive, Harrell says.
After all, peanut coffee is a means of making his family’s peanuts into a product that people will pay more than peanuts for. Virginia Gold sells for $10 for 10 ounces.
“It’s truly the first time a consumer can look at a peanut product and value it as something to compare with coffee,” says Harrell.
He pauses, the full weight of five generations of Harrell-family peanut farmers behind him.
“You can’t buy anything as cheap as you can buy a peanut.”
Matthew Korfhage, 757-2318, matthew.korfhage.com
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