A Different Kind of Grain Brew: Toasted grains make other refreshing beverages, too

When the mercury in the thermometer creeps up and your throat feels like a furnace, try reaching for some barley or rice to quench the fire – and we don’t mean beer. Grains in the form of teas, tisanes and coffee substitutes can double as refreshing, often low-cal beverages.

Steeped cereals are termed teas or tisanes. But when they’re blended together with roots and other grains and then powdered, they’re known as grain beverages. They’re marketed as coffee substitutes and are popular in Europe. In many cases, it’s amazing how much these products do taste like coffee.

Asia has its own share of grain brews, albeit without the coffee-substitute marketing angle. Iced mugi cha, or barley tea, is a must-have in the summer. Its fresh, clear flavor doesn’t linger and has an invigorating bite. It tastes like the secret love child of tea and coffee, without the caffeine buzz.

One grain infusion that embraces caffeine is the Japanese tea medley genmai cha. It combines the earthy, nutty flavor of roasted brown rice with the bright, clean taste of green tea. Available at Asian groceries, genmai cha is also inexpensive to make at home.

In fact, all grain brews are cheaper to make than purchase. All that’s needed to make them at home is a source for grains and a little insight. Corn kernels, for instance, transform into a delicately sweet drink when dry-roasted. Barley grains go from subtle to intense, while quinoa turns from underwhelming to full-bodied.

Of all the grains I’ve toasted, quinoa tastes the most like coffee. It lacks the mouth feel of java, but with the addition of cream and honey, quinoa makes a convincing and simple coffee substitute.

Lightly toasting grains creates a weak flavor, while grains toasted to dark brown take on earthy, nutty and, oftentimes, robust flavors, making them ideal for steeping. In general, aim for a rich auburn color. One way to achieve this is to toast grains in a cast-iron skillet, which distributes the heat evenly.

Start with a low flame and add the grain no more than one layer deep. Raise the heat to medium, stirring constantly. Don’t be scared when things begin jumping off the skillet like popcorn gone wild. Just dodge the little missiles and keep stirring.

After they’re toasted, grains are steeped in a manner similar to herbal teas, for about five to 15 minutes. Some grains, such as barley, require 15 minutes of boiling and then additional steeping. The longer they’re steeped, the stronger grain teas become.

You can even brew tisanes with malted grains, or sprouted grains that are dried. Malted barley imparts a delicious, sweet and full flavor, which is satisfying served hot on a cold day. I can best describe it as wholesome. Malted drinks are the comfort food of grain infusions.

But at this time of year, stick to cool brews, like our Quinoa Malted Mocha Cooler. Proof that although grain teas can be light and healthful, they can be decadent, too.

When she’s not freelance writing, Rachel Bigler stays sane by experimenting in her kitchen and tending her Tower Grove South garden. When she’s feeling wild, she blogs about Japanese food and pop culture on her Web site www.theanimeblog.com.