Photograph: Seattle Met Composite, krungchingpixs / shutterstock.com
On the morning of my first visit to Wunderground Cafe, I was less a person than a groggy, somnambulant thing. A night of late work and tumbling sleep had left my head full of cobwebs and dust. I was, it turned out, an ideal test case. Wunderground, a new Capitol Hill cafe from Cupcake Royale owner Jody Hall, sells restoration in the form of coffee laced with adaptogenic mushrooms. It’s a trending combo in the U.S.—the roasty coffee hides off-tasting flavors in the medicinal mushrooms—and part of a growing, greater fascination with fungus. Wunderground is the first company around here to brick-and-mortar it.
Inside the cafe, the theme is impossible to ignore, nudging Airspace aesthetics toward some Etsyfied forest. Here everything veers fungal. By the door, a large, lacy cut paper work looks like mycelium. Colorful crocheted mushrooms pop from a wall-mounted log. On retail shelves, mushroom bric-a-brac sprouts from an Rx jar, from the pocket of an $102 hemp chef’s apron. On the wellness oriented menu, a shrooming emoji accompanies the broths with adaptogenic mushrooms, while the egg sandwich gets portobello bacon, and a “Brain Boost” grain bowl comes with mushroom conserva. Even the sourdough focaccia—rendered flavorsome and properly chewy by chef Alyssa Lisle, a Tartine Bakery expat—is rooted in a ubiquitous fungus: yeast. (There are also some coffeeshop standards—like a splendidly dense cardamom orange tea cake.) At the counter, the cashier explains the effects of different drinks, based on which mushrooms bolster their grounds.
The Brainchild coffee, my cashier told me, promotes “positivity” and brain function, through its cordyceps and lion’s mane mushrooms. The Hocus Pocus, with reishi and chaga, should boost immunity, assuage anxiety. Hers was a sales manner, explaining felt effects, that I associate with budtenders more than baristas.
In fact, Wunderground owes as much to owner Jody Hall’s background in coffee (first Starbucks, then Cupcake Royale) as it does to her background in marijuana. In 2015, Hall started the cannabis edibles company Goodship. A few years later, she invited the Olympia-based mushroom crusader Paul Stamets to speak as part of a lecture series where speakers arrived “preboarded on the Goodship, aka a little stoned,” Hall says.
Stamets, who’s recently appeared in Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind and the 2019 surprise hit documentary Fantastic Fungi, does real scientific work, but he also roves into conjectural wonder. A little mycology, a little mythology. At Goodship, he talked about “how mushrooms can save the world,” also the title of his viral TedTalk and the subtitle of his 2003 book Mycelium Running, which sits on the shelves of Wunderground.
That talk “really lit me up,” Hall says. And not in the Goodship way. She started taking common medicinal mushrooms: lion’s mane, reishi, cordyceps, chaga. “And I felt better quickly.” She found focus, and “I don’t get sick. I don’t get colds and stuff.” A business coalesced: She’d weave together her coffee background with the mushrooms to make them more fun and palatable than typical supplements. “You can leave your mushrooms in the medicine cabinet and just drink your coffee every day.”
The idea has precedent. The Finnish, during World War II, used chagas as a coffee substitute, and in the last several years, sippable fungus has returned. You can head to the Goop website and buy mushroom hot cocoa mix (bumped with reishi), or to Taika for a canned PSL (with reishi, cordyceps, and lion’s mane), or to Paul Stamets’s Fungi Perfecti for MycoBrew Coffee (with lion’s mane). Right wing conspiracy guru Alex Jones even slings a Wake Up America! Immune Support Blend 100 percent Organic Coffee on infowarsshop.com (with cordyceps, reishi, and others).
What Hall aims to add with Wunderground is “a very authentic position on coffee” along with “efficacious” mushroom extracts. For the taste aspect, she worked with roasters and a former Starbucks chemical engineering food scientist to yield a good cup of coffee.
I was skeptical that the mushroom flavors would “disappear,” as Hall said. But both the Strange Magic mocha and drip coffee I got at the cafe and the bag of Brainchild coffee I brought home didn’t taste mushroomy. The Wunderground had less nuance than those from other high-end beans. Nevertheless: It’s a solid coffee.
But what about the efficacy? On my groggy first visit, after a few sips, I did feel better, keener. Maybe, I thought, I was catching the “brain buzz” Hall says Brainchild confers. The coffee’s bag claims the cordyceps are “like cardio for your noodle.” Yet, after a few sips more, I realized I’d had an established brain honer: caffeine. As I drank more cups of Brainchild at home in the coming weeks, I didn’t feel sharper, more positive. In fact, since I’d spent $22 on a 12-ounce bag of pretty good coffee, which affected me like coffee, I felt a budding negativity.
In 2016, as mushrooms grew trendy in the alternative medicine world, mycologist Nicholas Money published a review of existing research into medicinal varieties such as reishi, turkey tail, and lion’s mane. Money, a professor at Miami University in Ohio, found little evidence then for the efficacy of medicinal mushrooms to treat illness such as cancer and today remains “extremely skeptical about the claims in medicinal mushroom extracts in most cases.” What science we have is still preliminary—small human studies, in vitro and rodent studies, epidemiological studies—and has remained pretty “stagnant,” Money says.
He hopes for additional, more thorough clinical trials, since fungi can yield powerful effects on our health (see penicillin). A couple of compounds in lion’s mane, for instance, have shown interesting potential for neuronal health in rats. But little of the existing science supports drinking teas or coffees made from mushrooms as a major route to general wellness. “The idea that mushrooms can cure all of our ills is just astonishingly naive,” Money says. It owes, perhaps, to a magical aura around mushrooms—these things that can make Mario and Alice grow, can make us humans hallucinate or die. But “describing the mushrooms as being so magical also damages the real scientific enterprise.”
The industry of wellness, of course, is not exactly trying to treat illness. It promises energy, immunity, positivity, focus, wonder. Who’s to say, beyond me, whether I feel more positive, more wondrous, after a dose of Brainchild coffee? Certainly, I feel more caffeinated. Hall, in a phone interview, told me the pairing of caffeine and mushrooms was about habits more than any psychological subterfuge. “We really want to introduce wellness and bring wonder into the world, and do it through life’s daily rituals.” Indeed, mushroom coffee leaves me wondering, but probably not in the manner Hall intends.