December 22, 2020

Butter Coffee: What Is It & Why Do People Drink It?


In the late 2000s, lifestyle author and the CEO of Bulletproof, Dave Asprey, returned from Tibet after drinking yak butter tea at high altitudes. In the years that followed, he began to promote coffee mixed with butter, which swept the United States and became a favourite among fitness enthusiasts and those on low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets.

Consequently, butter coffee became popular in Western coffee consuming markets, specifically the UK and the US. Supposedly, the caffeine “mixes” with the oils and the fats in butter to provide the drinker with slow-release energy throughout the course of a day, or an extended workout session.

Despite this beverage emerging in lifestyle circles in the late 2000s, butter has actually been mixed with coffee for centuries. Read on to learn more about its history and why it became popular in the 21st century.

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What Is Butter Coffee & How Is It Made?

Robert Chohan is the founder of Kopi House, a café chain in London that serves Singaporean nanyang coffee. He says: “There are several ways of preparing butter coffee depending on which part of the world the recipe comes from.” However, Robert tells me that it often involves blending or stirring butter into strong filter coffee.

As a water-in-oil emulsion, butter can be stirred or blended into coffee without the oils separating and rising to the surface of the cup. The oily fats in the butter will not separate, no matter the temperature of the coffee. When butter coffee is prepared in this way, the result is a thick, foamy drink that almost resembles a latte.

Butter coffee is a high-calorie, high-fat drink that is free from carbohydrates (when unsweetened). For this reason, it’s often drunk as a breakfast by those following a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet (also known as a ketogenic diet). Proponents claim that the beverage provides sustained energy for exercise and improves concentration levels. 

Anita Brodian is the owner and director of Dark City Foundry in Melbourne, Australia. She says: “[Butter coffee is] a smooth and creamy coffee consumed first thing in the morning to fuel the day.

“I drink a mug every morning and have been doing so for a few years. I find that this helps with satiety, as I train in the morning but cannot stomach eating before a [workout] session. It keeps me full, but I can still train, so I call that a win/win.”

Grant Harrington is a director at Ampersand Dairy in North Oxfordshire in the UK, a butter supplier that produces premium butter for a number of uses, including butter coffee. He says that butter coffee is “a huge energy boost”.

He says: “It’s my go-to energy drink. I have it in the morning before surfing or mountain climbing.”

Robert tells me that Kopi House sells traditional Singapore-styled butter coffee called nanyang kopi, which translates as “southern ocean coffee”. It became popular in the 1930s, when blue-collar workers consumed it as a quick, cheap breakfast.

“Those who have travelled to Singapore and immersed themselves in the coffee scene would know the drink. It does well with tourists, especially westerners, who want to enjoy an ‘alternative’ coffee. It also has quite an appearance on social media.

“It is made by layering sweetened condensed milk into a cup. This is topped with a freshly brewed nanyang kopi base/concentrate (often strong robusta). A touch of water is added to dilute the coffee base, and a slice of unsalted butter is floated on top.

“A few seconds must pass for the butter to settle on top before the drinker takes their first sip. It creates a rich, creamy, chocolatey, and intense coffee drink.”

How Old Is Butter Coffee?

Despite the emergence of butter coffee as a fitness trend in the 2000s, the practice of mixing butter and coffee is more than a thousand years old. The earliest evidence of this is coffee grounds being consumed with clarified butter in Ethiopia in the ninth century.

“Adding fat to coffee isn’t a new concept,” Anita says. “Ethiopians and Tibetans were drinking yak milk coffee [and tea] long before it became widespread.”

Countries including North India, Vietnam, and Singapore still drink traditional variations of butter coffee and tea to this day. Perhaps most famously, in Tibet, farmers drink po cha, a beverage made with fermented black tea and yak butter.

What Is “Bulletproof Coffee”?

The phrase “butter coffee” is often used interchangeably with “bulletproof coffee”. However, despite this, the two have slight differences. Furthermore, the words “bulletproof coffee” have in fact been trademarked by lifestyle company Bulletproof as a part of the “Bulletproof Diet”.

“Bulletproof Coffee comes from Dave Asprey, who popularised a version of it in 2009,” Anita explains. “It’s made by combining black coffee combined with unsalted butter, and adding MCT oil.”

MCT oil is a synthetic oil rich in medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs. The human body digests MCT oil very quickly; it is an immediate energy source that boosts your metabolism and can support weight loss as part of a balanced diet.

Using Other Butters And Oil

The texture and flavour of butter coffee can and often is replicated using butter substitutes. “There are a small number of [cafés] that serve a proper bulletproof coffee, but some just add cream or plain coconut oil,” Anita says.

Many butter coffee drinkers also prefer to make their own coffee at home as it is often used as a pre-workout supplement. “People buy our cold brew coffee for this purpose as only a few coffee shops in Australia offer a true butter coffee on their menus,” Anita says. 

“Using a cold brew coffee (as opposed to espresso) creates a very smooth beverage, but you could use any coffee… they’ll each bring their own flavour.”

Anita adds that she offers a vegan butter coffee made with cacao butter for customers avoiding dairy. “Cacao butter has a light flavour, and we also add soy lecithin as an emulsifier to stop the oil and cacao butter from separating.”

What Are Its Health Benefits?

One of the main reasons that butter coffee became so popular in the 2010s was for its purported health benefits. However, while its high calorie count and low carb levels mean it’s great for ketogenic diets, is it actually healthy?

The Mayo Clinic says that while butter coffee is a good antioxidant source, its saturated fats and high calorie level could derail some diets. It also lacks many of the nutrients found in whole foods, and could increase your risk of cardiovascular disease in the future. 

They recommend that people balance drinking butter coffee by eating additional fruit and protein to maintain a good diet. Those drinking butter coffee should also be aware of its calorie density and should cut down their diet elsewhere while increasing the amount of exercise they do.

Robert says that variations of butter coffee also exist that are made with milk and sugar, and notes that these are not suitable for those trying to lose weight. He tells me that this is why he doesn’t market it as a health drink. 

Although butter coffee has been popular for some time now thanks to a renewed interest from the lifestyle and fitness sector in the late 2000s, it is still by no means mainstream. “I think part of the reason it’s not more popular is that a good butter coffee is hard to find,” Anita says. 

For some coffee drinkers, the combination of a high calorie count and high fat levels may put them off. For others, the unusual combination of butter and coffee alone may not appeal to them.

Despite this, butter coffee still remains popular among certain groups and demographics. Whether or not it will experience another revival or “go mainstream” in the years to come remains to be seen.

Enjoyed this? Then read “Strong Coffee”: Definitions From Around The World

Photo credits: Kopi House, Dark City Foundry, Nicole Motteux

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