Cascara photo courtesy of Helsar de ZarceroFrom Starbucks to Shake Shack, cascara has been popping up on menus everywhere, including at specialty coffee shops and teahouses.
When Fresh Cup wrote about cascara back in 2014, no one here predicted it would still be our most-read article as we started 2020.
But what is new with it six years later?
Fresh Cup spoke with several coffee and tea professionals about what cascara has been up to the last few years, and where it’s headed.
Coffee beans are the pit of the coffee fruit, while cascara, or coffee cherry, is the fruit or husk surrounding the pit. Cascara takes several months to mature and appears dark red when it is ready. Just like coffee beans, the taste of the cascara is based on where it is grown. When tasted, cascara is described to taste like rose, mango, and hibiscus.
For generations, cascara has been traditionally discarded by farmers for compost or dumped in waterways after a collection process called strip picking, when coffee cherries—ripe, overripe, and underripe—are taken off all at once. While some farms have equipment to selectively pick (meaning only taking the cherries ready to go), that can be pricey.
After the picking process, cascara is dried before being packed up and shipped to other countries, where it transforms into the various products currently available on the market.
The Beginning of the Groundswell
Businesses have begun to see cascara as not only a way to reduce waste, but as a way to bring this plentiful product to the consumer’s eyeline. And on the way, companies are finding they need to introduce what cascara is first.
The Coffee Cherry Co. is known for its coffee flour, created by taking the coffee fruit and making it into a powder that can be stirred into beverages. It offers chopped cascara, as well as course and fine grinds.
The company’s founder, Dan Belliveau, who served as former director of engineering for Starbucks, started the company after he visited a mill on a work trip.
“There, [Belliveau] saw large massive piles of fruit rotting,” says Carole Widmayer, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Coffee Cherry Co. “He spoke to the owners and found out that it was in fact, a byproduct of the bean. It is just what happens with green coffee production. He thought there had to be a better way. The owner of the mill said if he’d figure something out, he would be a genius. Lucky for us, he is. He took this on, and ultimately came up with something very functional, and that required minimal capital investment for mills and farms.”
After two years of creating a dehydration process that allowed the product to be food-safe, and later creating a partnership with supply partners, the flour became readily available.
“People thought it might be a substitution for all-purpose flour when that is not the case,” says Widmayer. “It is more like a cocoa powder consistency. It adds color, flavor, and nutrition. Our first step was to help people understand how to use the product.”
The Coffee Cherry Co.’s cascara is sourced from multiple countries, including Vietnam and Papua New Guinea, which allows the company to not depend on one source in case of variable growing seasons.
“We are really trying to gear up and see [cascara] taking off. We are speaking to many companies evaluating this a lot in beverages, but also in chocolate, baking, and snacks. This is the beginning of the groundswell…not quite mainstream yet, but still cutting-edge and leading,” says Widmayer. “People are beginning to learn and understand what coffee cherries are and their benefits. If it didn’t taste great, frankly, none of this would matter either….Going forward, if we can continue to support the industry, and supply enough product for the demand, it will begin its way to becoming mainstream.”
Caskai, known for its sparkling cascara drink, is the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Joel Jelderks and Uschi Zimmermann.
Zimmermann founded Panama Varietals Coffee, a green coffee importer of Panamanian specialty coffee, and began noticing her European clients asking for cascara back in 2013. Two years later, her husband joined her team and they began imagining a line of cascara products.
They began sourcing their cascara from Panama Varietals Coffee, which uses a sun-drying method it calls its “Premium Sun-Dried Cascara.”
Since the beginning of their brand, upcycling has been at the forefront of deciding why to work with cascara in the first place. Caskai’s focus on upcycling and research sets it apart from other brands, says Jelderks.
“As the founder, there are three things that resonate with me personally,” he says. “[Cascara] may be used as compost at farms, but a big majority of it is still being thrown away. There is no commercial value, making this a true upcycled product. Two, I like the flavor. Three, the nutritional qualities of cascara are quite interesting. Of course, it has some caffeine in it, but it is high in potassium, fatty acids, and certain polyphenols. It is quite a little powerhouse.”
It crowdfunded its first drink, the Sparkling Cascara Infusion, which went on to win awards at two Coffee Fests in 2018.
Moving into 2020, Caskai is looking to be produced in the United States, after being originally bottled in Austria, where Zimmermann and Jelderks live. The company also has two new products, including a cold brew, lined up.
The future of product development is an exciting part of being involved in cascara, says Jelderks, and watching himself and others working with it is just the beginning.
“There is a lot of education that needs to happen still, all the way from the farmers to the consumers,” he says. “It’ll take time, and people sharing their knowledge.”
Building Direct Relationships
Sourcing cascara is one question mark for those hopping on the train, and a few companies are already taking the initiative to working directly with single farms.
Slingshot Coffee Co. began bottling cascara tea in 2013, before many companies even knew what the coffee cherry could do. Award-winning barista Jenny Bonchak started the North Carolina-based company to sell single-origin cold brew, but soon branched out into cascara. Now, Slingshot’s single-origin cascara comes in three ways: Classic Cascara Tea, Blueberry and Jasmine Cascara Tea, and Cascarnold, an Arnold Palmer-style cascara tea.
“As we have scaled production, we have stayed true to what we set out to do,” says Bonchak. “Since day one, we have worked exclusively with one coffee farmer.”
Slingshot Coffee works with Aida Batlle, a fifth-generation coffee farmer in Santa Ana, El Salvador, nicknamed the “godmother of Cascara in the Western Hemisphere.”
“[Batlle] really was the one to dub cascara in the third-wave movement about 15 years ago,” says Bonchak. “It has been amazing to work with her who has been at the forefront of cascara production since day one. It’s been a real privilege…We want to celebrate the fact that she has so much knowledge and so much interest in how she does her process. It aligns with our mission to use the best ingredients and the highest quality.”
Slingshot chooses to directly source because it wants to remain transparent and bring the best product to consumers as possible.
“We know that our cascara is coming from Aida’s farm. That is a huge differentiator right there,” says Bonchak. “Both I and my husband are also award-winning baristas so we have developed palates, which allows you to make a better product. We take what makes us excited about coffee and apply it to cascara as well. We feel cascara is taking food waste, and try to do our part in a coffee-growing country to take away that waste and provide a secondary source of revenue for our coffee-growing partner.”
Ontario-based Detour Coffee Roasters currently sells its Coffee Cherry Tea online and at its flagship café. Like Slingshot, Detour partners with one farm, returning to the same micro mill in Costa Rica because of its drying technique, says Ryan McCabe, Detour’s co-director.
“We are lucky to work with Helsar de Zarcero as a micro mill for one of our favorite West Valley Costa Rican coffees, Finca Santa Lucia,” he says. “We return to them for coffee year after year based upon cup quality, and as a result are able to import their cascara directly alongside our coffee shipments.”
Ricardo Perez Barrantes, who co-runs the micro mill, now owns an entire facility dedicated to producing cascara.
“Costa Rican coffee producers are known for their expertise at the micro-mill level, and this mill in particular has developed an extremely clean, safe drying technique for cascara,” says McCabe. “This allows them to produce food-grade, exportable cascara out of what is often an overlooked byproduct of coffee production. It’s also extremely clean, sweet, and has a fruity clarity that’s so tasty. When brewing cascara to drink at the mill, they grind it to a medium-coarse size before brewing, and the resulting cup is absolutely delicious.”
A Super Boost
Cascara products are tapping into what brewed coffee can do: provide caffeine needed to start the day. While cascara has significantly less caffeine than the coffee bean, companies like Lotus Energy in Los Angeles and Nomad Trading Co. in Brooklyn are noticing consumers are drawn to the coffee cherry that delivers an energy boost.
Nomad Trading Co. began importing thousands of pounds of cascara in bulk when it launched its operation in 2016, but after realizing that was too much to start out with, decided to bottle the cascara instead. After sampling the drinks at local Whole Foods stores, business partners Max Keilson and Jon Epstein noticed when customers tried their product, the promised energy boost was a quick draw.
“What we kept hearing was people were into the caffeine,” says Keilson. “People wanted the feel of coffee but not the taste, or wanted something different, or have tried energy drinks and felt it was bad for them. Through this feedback process, we developed a cascara-based energy drink where it is cold-brewed cascara, with lemon juice, maple syrup, and a little salt. We’ve been selling that ever since.”
Nomad Energy will be launching four new flavors this year and will expand its stock list toward the Midwest.
“We are excited to get this out there,” says Keilson. “We are playing with the tastes of different fruits that will complement cascara so you get a different palate, not just the taste of cascara.”
Cascara is not just a fruit in Lotus Energy’s eyes—it is a “superfruit.”
Lotus Energy’s cascara has gone through a patented extraction and stabilization process, according to owner Scott Strader; by doing so, the nutritional value of the fruit stays as high as possible.
Cascara is cited to be rich in antioxidants, such as polyphenols found in plant-based ingredients, and has less than half the caffeine of coffee.
“If you don’t stabilize it, it would be like taking a cherry and letting it rot. It doesn’t work. You have to do this immediately. Just like coffee, when you get to different altitudes, the cascara will taste different,” says Strader. “Cascara might be one of the most nutritious superfruits there is on earth, and with Lotus, we look for energizing superfruits because everything that is in our drinks has a unique efficacy that moves our product forward. This was the missing link to our story and it has been unique for us.”
Lotus Energy, operating since 2015, produces a cascara concentrate, which can be added to smoothies and spritzers, among other recipes. Not only does it contain cascara, but it also lists green coffee beans for extra caffeine. Its product lineup, found in coffee shops across the country, will continue to expand in the coming years. Cascara’s nutritional properties are a draw to Lotus in its product line and a large reason customers add it to their drink order, says Strader.
“It is off the charts on what it can do for the human body,” he says. “I also love it for its amazing flavor, it almost has a raisin-like, raspberry flavor to it. When people look back on this, I think they will be going ‘The only superstar in the coffee plant is not only the bean, it is the fruit.’”
A Global Topic
Our 2014 article “What is Cascara?” closed with, “The dried cherries serve as a tool to teach people about where coffee comes from and how it’s made. The result is win-win: Cafés have the opportunity to educate and expand their audience, while consumers learn more about the coffee industry and try something new.”
This holds true today.
While cascara is still young on the specialty coffee scene, it does not appear to be going anywhere. Companies are seeing it not only as a way to educate the public on coffee as a fruit, but as a means to accelerate the future of the industry as it moves into the next decade, which will assuredly be focused on sustainability.
“This is on-trend for sustainability and upcycling movement toward food,” sums up Caskai’s Joel Jelderks. “Cascara fits right into nutritional and health benefits. The research supporting more and more that it is healthy. I think as people move toward plant-based energy drinks, plant-based functional foods, cascara is going to be a part of that…it’s really becoming a global topic.”