Coffee lovers may have noticed a new offering in their local cafés. Cascara is a tea-like drink with a fine, fruity flavor and plenty of caffeine, and it's popping up everywhere. For this new addition to chalkboards nationwide, credit Aida Batlle.
Batlle is a fifth-generation coffee grower in El Salvador, whose coffees have won international awards. One day a decade ago, she arrived at a coffee cupping —where coffees are sampled for flavor — and detected a pleasant, hibiscus-like scent in the room. When she asked the other coffee tasters about it, they pointed to the husks from recently milled coffee.
"So immediately I got curious with it," says Batlle. "And I just picked through it, cleaned it, and then put it in hot water, to see what it was like. Then I called my customers at the time, and I was like, 'Oh, my God, you have to try this. I'm going to send you a sample.'"
The infusion Batlle made from the coffee cherry, or pulp, needed a name. "Pulp was such a yucky word," she says with a laugh. "I was like, nah, nah, nah, this is cascara."
Cascara is the Spanish word for the peel or skin of a fruit. Coffee is a fruit, though most people don't think of it that way. Like cacao, it's processed opposite most fruits: The skin and flesh are discarded, and just the seeds are dried, roasted, and ground to make the beverage many Americans drink daily.
Batlle first used the skins of coffees processed as "naturals," which are dried whole, and then milled. This produced cascara comprised of fine flakes, similar to the tea in a tea bag. Then she began using the skins of coffees that are washed to remove the pulp before drying, as most coffee in Central America and Colombia is processed. This way, the cascara dries like a raisin, and, when brewed, plumps up to reveal the shape of the coffee cherry.
In Deer Isle, Maine, cascara has earned a permanent spot on the chalkboard at 44 North Coffee Roasters. Since first tasting it on a coffee tour of Portland, Ore., a few years ago, owners Megan Wood and Melissa Raftery have been selling cascara from another farm in El Salvador. They sell it brewed in their cafés, and in bulk.
"It's a tropical, berry fruit that just happens to be coffee," Wood says. "It's not tea — it's 100 percent coffee. But it smells like herbal tea."
Wood and Raftery recommend steeping three tablespoons of cascara in 10 ounces of hot water for four minutes. For a cold brew, they suggest six tablespoons to 12 ounces of water, steeped for 12 to 16 hours.
"It's a great cold drink, because it's refreshing, and it's caffeinated," says Wood. Adds Raftery, "It's kind of like nature's Red Bull."
Batlle says many people think that cascara is more caffeinated than coffee, but her analyses show otherwise. One analysis found caffeine levels more comparable to black tea. Because it is a natural product, the caffeine content will vary from crop to crop, and is affected by brew strength.
Cascara is catching on in cafés nationwide. Houston's Ahh, Coffee serves it hot, and New England's Blue State Coffee serves it hot, cold, and as their signature Cascara Orange Fizz. Blue Bottle cafés in California and New York also offer a cascara fizz, and Slipstream, in Washington, D.C., serves it as a soda. North Carolina's Slingshot Coffee Co. is selling bottled cascara.
Increasingly, people are developing creative mixed drinks. Cascara-infused vodka is popular, and the 44 North crew has a recipe for hot cascara toddy. Colorado's New Belgium Brewing Company even bottled a limited run of Cascara Quad beer.
Typically, the pulp produced on coffee farms is composted. This is similar to the usual fate of pomace — the seeds, skins, stems and other pulpy matter left over after grapes are pressed for wine. Pomace often ends up composted or gets used as cattle feed. But, as with coffee, entrepreneurs are now using grape waste to create a variety of products — from grappa to baked goods to spa treatments. The Republic of Tea is even producing Sonoma Teas, made from dried grape skins.
Peter Giuliano, of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, says cascara occupies a small niche in the coffee market, but it fits into a broader food trend.
"Like in butchery, people are interested in eating the whole animal. In food, people are more and more interested in eating the whole farm, so to speak," Giuliano says. "We have been throwing away this perfectly good coffee fruit for a long time, and there's no real reason for it, because it tastes delicious."
Giuliano says Batlle's serendipitous moment at a coffee cupping was actually a rediscovery of an old tradition. He says similar drinks have long been brewed in Yemen and Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee culture, where they are called quishr, or hashara.
Though the Western hemisphere may be late to the game, Batlle says cascara is catching on quickly. "We've definitely seen growth," she says, "a steady increase every year."
Tea Tuesdays is an occasional series exploring the science, history, culture and economics of this ancient brewed beverage.
Murray Carpenter is a journalist and author of Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts And Hooks Us.