Cascara has long been a niche product in the coffee industry, but it’s been gaining a lot of traction in specialty coffee scene. This summer, Cascara has been breaking into shops around the world, thriving on it’s low levels of caffeine, excellent health benefits, and it’s universal appeal in cocktails of all styles.
Name and History
Cascara, meaning “husk” in Spanish, refers to the fruits of the coffee tree which look like bright red cherries or grapes. The coffee bean is the seed of these cherries, and is typically extracted and dried before being exported. One point of confusion with Cascara is that it shares its name with an herbal ingredient found in laxatives called “Cascara Sagrada”. Needless-to-say, this has absolutely nothing to do with coffee.
The coffee cherry plays an essential role in the development of the coffee beans we already know and love. The fruit provides the sugars that serve as an energy source to fuel the growth of the the beans. Then, after the cherries are picked and separated from the beans, the pulp is discarded. Sometimes though, the pulp is composted, which helps return the nutrients to the soil for future harvests.
In recent years however, the Cascara pulp has been dried and exported for use in a number of applications. Most notably, the dried fruits are used to create a tea-like infusion, or a “tisane”. In fact, some say coffee farmers in Yemen and Ethiopia have been brewing coffee cherry tea for centuries. Whether or not that’s true, both countries are known for their own versions of the tea, called “Qishr” and “Hashara” respectively.
Flavor and Health Benefits
The flavor of a Cascara tea is drastically different than that of coffee. All of the bitterness is gone, and what remains is a mild sweetness reminiscent of cherry, tamarind, and maple sugar. (I tend to describe it as prune-like, but that’s not usually the most appetizing way to describe something). It has the body of a strong coffee, but lightness like a tea. In fact, I think the body is the most fascinating bit about it, because it really feels like a hybrid between coffee and tea.
Cascara is caffeinated, but less than coffee, although there’s a lot of debate on this. A lot of the caffeine content will depend on the strength of the brew, which varies a lot because there isn’t a universal brewing standard like there is for coffee. In my experience, the caffeination effect is similar to having a strong cup of black tea.
And to top it all off, Cascara is considered a superfood because it’s chock full of vitamins and ANTIOXIDANTS! The research is still inconclusive, but studies suggest that it’s as least as healthy as pomegranate juice. Also, it’s apparently great for the immune system!
Economic Opportunity and Sustainability
But here’s why this really matters, besides the awesome flavor, of course – cascara is a vital additive to the revenue stream of the farmer. If you consider that a farmer’s livelihood is dependent on his ability to export coffee, adding a second product is a godsend. In fact, if he were able to, a farmer could DOUBLE his exports by shipping his beans and dried cherries side-by-side. That additional income will help invest in measures to mitigate the effects of climate change, pests and diseases.
Cascara is also a big win for sustainability. Because the coffee cherries are normally discarded, the “upcycling” of the fruit to become an exportable product is a big value-addition. It’s like realizing that someone wants to buy your garbage!
More income, meets yummy drink, equals win-win.
This niche product went mainstream this past January when Starbucks launched the Cascara Latte. It was met with mixed reviews, but the name recognition alone was enough to spark a flurry of bright ideas across the industry. And there is a lot you can do with Cascara. Make a tea, add it to beer, turn it into a syrup, or add it to sparkling soda.