What is Cascara?

Before I get into the details of what is Cascara, let me tell you a story.

It was a hot, humid afternoon and I was wandering through the streets of a rather posh neighborhood of Bandra in Mumbai. The heat was exhausting, the humidity was draining me out, the streets were rather narrow, the neighborhood had small, colorful Christian homes, with a shrine of Mother Mary or a large cross outside their homes or on their roofs. The street was pretty, but the scorching Sun was making it difficult to look ahead straight. I needed to stop and take a break. Just water wouldn’t quite be much help, but I still took a few sips from my water bottle until I could find a place to make a pit stop to refresh. Soon, I found a chic cafe hidden in one of the by-lanes. without much ado, I walked straight in. Its hard to find a table for a single person in a city like Mumbai, but the city is still quite single-friendly and sharing tables is considered quite acceptable and normal. So, the attendant finds me a corner chair to settle in. I get me a glass of water and place my order. There’s a lot of interesting things on the menu but there’s one particular thing I definitely want to try – The Cascara Lemonade. I needed a lemonade, and if it comes with Cascara, even better I thought. My drink came in a nice glass with a large slice of lemon, chilled with some ice, a great balance of citrus, tartness, sweetness, and some much needed salt. It felt such a relief to have that Cascara Lemonade that afternoon.

That was the first time I had cascara, even if it was not by itself, rather as one of the major ingredients in the drink I was having, but since then, I got hooked. Up until then, I’d never had any cascara before, though I’d heard plenty. I have had coffee blossom tea, but Cascara was new to my taste buds. If you’re someone who enjoys herbal tisanes and tangy teas, cascara will feel like second skin, you will warm up to it right away.

What is Cascara?

Simply put, cascara is coffee cherry tea. Now, remember how I’ve spoken before about how coffee beans come from a fruit – the coffee cherry? During the harvest season, once these cherries are ripe, red (or yellow or orange or pink or maroon or purple), juicy, and ready to be plucked, the cherries are plucked and pulped and processed further to get the green beans which are then roasted and then the beans smell like coffee as we know it. Up until the roasting step, no part of coffee – not the beans, not the fruit, not the pulp of the fruit, nothing would smell like the coffee as we know it. Now, the skin and pulp of the fruit are removed to get to the beans, there different processes to do that. But the part we focus on when talking about cascara is skin – the bright red or a deep red (or yellow or orange or pink or purple or maroon) skin of the coffee cherry which is the first thing that gets removed when the processing begins.

‘Cascara’ is a Spanish term that means ‘husk’ or ‘outer skin’ or ‘peel’. The beverage made from this skin of the coffee cherries is called the Cascara or the cascara tea or coffee cherry tea. Usually, coffee farms would put the removed skins along with the pulp and other farm waste into their compost pits, but in recent times, there is a growing demand in the market for the cascara tea, so instead of making its way to compost, the cascara gets processed and makes its way to our cups.

The parts of a coffee fruit (Source: Death Wish Coffee)

The outer skin that you see in the picture above is what is used to make the cascara tea. The skin is collected after being removed by the machines, then dried in the Sun, and voila!

Is Cascara coffee or tea?

Now, that’s a very interesting question – but I’d have to say, technically, cascara is neither tea nor coffee. It lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but it has neither coffee nor tea in it. Cascara comes from the coffee plant but is nowhere even close to tasting like coffee, and it does not contain any tea leaves or extracts, so not quite a tea either. Let’s just say cascara is like a herbal infusion or a tisane.

How much caffeine does cascara have?

Caffeine is the coffee plant’s defense mechanism against pests and the pests are usually not interested in the skin. The nutritious seed is what the pests are usually after. So, logically and factually, cascara is very low on caffeine, as would be the tea prepared from it.

A usual cup of brewed Arabica coffee has about 80 mg of caffeine in it while the same volume of cascara would have only about 25 mg of caffeine in it.

What does Cascara taste like?

Cascara tea is made by steeping the dried leathery cascara flakes in water – hot or cold, depending of whether you are preparing a hot brew or a cold brew, to produce an amber-colored beverage. Ideally, cascara has a viscous mouthfeel and would have a sweet honey-like taste with very distinct bright, fruity notes. If a glass of cascara would just be lying on a table, it could be mistaken for a barrel-aged whisky, but the flavor profiles are very different. Cascara has quite a unique and complex flavor profile and once again, it is not at all like coffee in its aroma or taste.

Has Cascara been around for many years?

Coffee farmers in Yemen and Ethiopia have been drying and brewing the coffee cherries to make a tea-like beverage for centuries. I have a friend who always tells me – nothing on a coffee farm will go to waste, there will always be some use for everything. Coffee farmers in these Africa territories have been steeping the cascara with spices like ginger, nutmeg, or cinnamon to make a fragrant beverage called the Hashara in Ethiopia and the Qisher in Yemen. Would you believe me if I told you that Qisher is consumed a lot more in Yemen than coffee primarily because it is a lot less expensive?

How does selling Cascara benefit the coffee farmers?

Cascara is a by-product on a coffee farm. It usually gets discarded into the compost pit, but when it gets processed and sold as a tea, it earns the coffee farmers an alternative income as the customers can get a great-tasting, antioxidant rich product, while the farmers can get an income from a product that was otherwise a farm waste, without any increased investment.

On an average, about 40% of the ripe coffee cherry is wasted. For every two tons of green beans that are ready to be roasted, about one ton of pulp & skin is an unavoidable by-product. This cascara is a rather poor fertilizer as it is not quite as rich in nitrogen or phosphorus – two key elements that soil and plants need, so composting is usually the only option. So, drying it up and selling it as cascara tea makes a lot of business sense. Moreover, processing the cascara to sell as a tea product or a beverage ingredient does not require any additional heavy machinery or major expenditure.

Does Cascara have any nutritional or health benefits?

Yes, of course, Cascara has some great nutritional benefits. Cascara is rich in antioxidants and antioxidants soak up all the free radicals and free oxygen that causes ageing. Cascara is rich in phenolic compounds which have great antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-carcinogenic properties. Cascara have a lot of flavonoids similar to the ones found in dark chocolate, so they’re also good to boost the cardiovascular health. Cascara contains chlorogenic acids (one of the phenolic compounds) that helps lower the blood pressure. Some studies have found consumption of cascara to boost immunity and general good health.

How is Cascara made into the dry flakes on the farm?

There are two ways in which the cascara can be dried and processed. Since the cascara is essentially a byproduct of post-harvest coffee cherry processing, the two methods are also reliant on the process that the coffee cherries will undergo to get to the beans. These two processes are:

  1. Dry process
  2. Wet process

In the dry process, the coffee cherries are left to dry in the Sun as is, with the skin and pulp and everything intact, until a certain moisture level is achieved. Once the drying is finished, the skin and the dried pulp would be hulled out. Since the drying step is already done, this cascara is ready to brew as is. However, the cascara obtained through the dry process would be broken up, not quite whole as the hulling process would cause the fruit to break to extract the coffee bean from inside the fruit. The process is otherwise quite straightforward.

In the wet process, things are slightly more tricky than the dry process. In the wet process, the coffee fruits are submerged in water and the skins and pulps would be separated from the parchments, either via fermentation or via scrubbing. The husks are then gathered carefully instead of going into the waste line and very carefully sun-dried. Since the moisture here is super high, one needs to be careful that no mold formation takes place. The wet processed cascara is more whole as the parchments are usually squeezed out of the rather fresh fruits.

How to brew Cascara?

A lot of brewers recommend using a ratio around 1g cascara flakes to 25g of water to prepare a hot-brewed cascara. Never boil the flakes in water, instead add boiling hot water over the cascara flakes and let it steep for 4-5 minutes. Stir well before pouring out. Add in a dash of lemon and/or some sugar or honey to taste, if desired.

If you plan to cold brew the cascara, take about 6 tablespoons of the cascara flakes for about 295 ml water. You can tweak the ratio to your preference. Let is stand in the refrigerator for about 24 hours. Strain, pour, enjoy.

If you plan to have the cascara iced, you can brew a more concentrated brew by reducing the amount of water for both the hot and the cold brew so as to avoid dilution and having a watered down drink.

Cascara also works as a great mixer for cocktails and mocktails. My personal favorite you can deduce from the story I began with is the cascara lemonade. I switch up the water with the soda in this lemonade to get a fizzy zing.

Add it to a ginger bug for a light fizzy super delicious summery brew.

Mix it with umeshu (a Japenese alcoholic beverage) to get a delicious fruity cocktail. Umeshu is very often had with green tea, we are just switching out the green tea and replacing it with cascara.

Once you get a hang of the flavors, you can play around with different ingredients to create a drink that you would enjoy having.

Cascara also works great as a baking ingredient adding textures and flavors to baked goodies like cakes and cookies. There’s plenty of recipes online so you can begin experimenting with it.

Note: Cascara should not be confused with Cascara Sagrada. Cascara tea or te de cafe comes from the coffee fruit. Cascara sagrada or the bitter cascara comes from the cascara sagrada bark or the bark of the Californian buckthorn tree. It is used as a laxative. Cascara tea is a fruity, sweet beverage with no laxative properties.

Have you tried the Cascara? Do you like it? Do you have any interesting recipes of brewing cascara that you’d like to share? Drop in a comment below or find me on Instagram @BanjaranFoodie

Cover picture from Pexels.

If you’d like to learn more about coffee blossom tea, check out my blog on it here:

Penny for your thoughts!