Is charcoal coffee worth the hype?

Cafe owners say customers are willing to pay extra for charcoal in their coffee for its detoxifying effects and because the drinks look fabulous.

Graph Café is a tiny coffee shop in the old part of Chiang Mai that seats six people. It’s a full house today but no one is drinking coffee. Instead, the customers here are snapping photos of their drinks. The Monochrome is the most popular: an iced latte made with milk, espresso, vanilla and powdered charcoal. Then there’s the Holiday, served in layers of velvety panna cotta, charcoal, coffee and milk with a vial of espresso and charcoal. The drinks cost about $4.50, much more than the average iced Thai coffee.

“Normally, charcoal in Asia is medicine. Here, we are presenting it in a new way,” says the cafe’s co-owner, Karuephron Satrabhaya. “Now I see other coffee shops have copied my menu. I’m happy to be their inspiration.”

The Holiday at Graph Cafe is served with a vile of espresso and activated charcoal to pour into your panna cotta, charcoal, coffee and milk.
The Holiday at Graph Café is served with a vial of espresso and activated charcoal, along with a charcoal oatmeal cookie.

Charcoal supplements have been taken for years in many parts of the world to ease indigestion, clear up spotty skin and prevent hangovers. But adding the residue of burnt wood or coconut to a latte is a relatively new trend. Graph Café first started selling it to locals and tourists in Thailand in April. An Instagram search of the hashtag “charcoallatte” reveals many coffeehouses from Poland to Japan serving the eye-catching drinks — hot and iced, with regular and condensed milk, sweetened and unsweetened. Activated charcoal is tasteless but leaves a slight grittiness in your mouth.

Cafe owners say customers are willing to pay extra for charcoal in their coffee for its detoxifying effects and because the drinks look fabulous.

“We started using it because it provided a beautiful contrast to the milk, which accentuated the latte art. But once we tasted it with a hint of sugar added to it, we were blown away,” says Yeekai Lim, the owner of Cognoscenti Coffee in Los Angeles. He adds one teaspoon of food-grade activated charcoal to cortados, lattes and iced coffee at his shop in the Fashion District. You can buy it on Amazon.

After seeing photos online, Semi Choi began serving her take in July at Loit Cafe in Downtown Los Angeles. Loit Cafe’s $6 charcoal lattes are creamy thanks to lots of condensed or regular milk. You can also order chocolate in a charcoal latte here.

“Young people drink a lot of it. It’s detox for the body and it’s an antioxidant. It helps prevent hangovers,” says cafe manager Choi. She says adding activated charcoal to pour-overs, sea salt cappuccinos and cakes is next.

The hot charcoal latte with condensed milk at Loit Cafe.
The hot charcoal latte with condensed milk at Loit Cafe. Cafe manager Semi Choi says they’ll soon be adding charcoal to pour-overs, sea salt cappuccinos and cakes.

Doctors give charcoal to patients who have taken too much of a particular medication, according to the International Journal of Toxicology, because charcoal is a binder that keeps specific substances from being absorbed into the body. Some also brush their teeth with charcoal powder to remove tough stains. But there’s no definitive proof that drinking charcoal in your coffee has the power to remove certain toxins from your body or provide you with more energy after a late night out.

“We don’t know so clearly how the alcohol and the charcoal will interact. I don’t know that it pulls the alcohol out of your system. So the trick to that is not to ingest the toxic substance, or at least less of it,” says Denise Millstine, who directs the Mayo Clinic’s Division of Integrative Medicine and Health in Arizona.

The charcoal lattes at Loit Cafe are served with regular or condensed milk, hot or cold, with or without chocolate.
Dark and stormy: the iced charcoal latte at Loit Cafe. Choi says too much charcoal will make the drink too heavy and too little will make it too light.

As this debate plays out, many coffee houses will stick with making drinks the old-fashioned way: with beans, water and milk.

“There’s been an ongoing temptation for cafes to choose visual appeal over almost anything else — be it flavor, quality or even health,” says Nick Cho, one of the CEOs of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in San Francisco. “Time will tell whether activated charcoal drinks are something you’ll see on cafe menus for years to come or if they’ll turn out to fall out of favor, either because they’re unhealthy or they’re replaced by something that looks just as cool.”

Cognoscenti Coffee owner Yeekai Lim adds one teaspoon of activated charcoal powder to each latte.
Cognoscenti Coffee owner Yeekai Lim mixes milk, espresso, activated charcoal and simple syrup for a latte noir.

Photos by Stan Lee, Fried Chicken Sandwich Studios and 2016 James Beard Foundation visual storytelling award winner. This post made possible with help from KCRW’s Independent Producer Project.