What is Cascara?
So, you were in to Kombucha before it was cool, right? Get ready to be cool again as buzz builds for the next great delicious, healthy, sustainable, and get-it-before-it’s-cool drink, cascara. Even the name is cool – cascara... but what the heck does it mean?
Cascara is actually just the Spanish world for “peel.” Bananas have casacaras, so do oranges, and for a while Comedy Central had Key & Casacara.
But when you walk in to the best coffee shop in the city and you ask the best barista for “cascara,” they know exactly what you are talking about – cascara de café or coffee peels!
What is a Coffee Peel?
Wait, wait, wait... coffee has a peel!? Indeed it does! It turns out that the coffee we drink is actually the seed of a fruit. That fruit is commonly called the coffee “cherry” and the seed we drink is known as the “coffee almond.”
Way too many crossover terms, right?
Okay, so the coffee cherry in fact is pretty complex, with seven layers of matter, the last of which make up the “cascara”:
The center cut – this is the inner part of the seed or bean, where all of our flavor is going to concentrate in the coffee we drink. The germ of the coffee is also encountered here, which is what allows the bean to grow into a plant. When we roast coffee this germ dies off, beginning the decomposition process. This process is exactly why coffee is roasted at its final destination and not where it’s grown, so that you enjoy non-expired coffee! The coffee cherry actually has two beans inside of (sometimes more!) and the center cut is where they all join together.
The Bean itself. This is all the goodness that makes up your cup of Joe. This is the coffee almond.
Silver Skin – this is an outer layer of the bean, also known as the endosperm. Not a lot to say here, you won’t really notice it. However, once the coffee is milled and before roasting, this covering will often stick to the bean. If you ever find some lighter colored dust when you grind your coffee and think, “what the heck is this?” Well, it’s that.
The parchment – this is a protective brittle covering around the seed. It’s actually illegal for coffee growers to export coffee with this covering attached as it allows the seed to easily be planted. That, my friends, would signify “trafficking of plants or animals.” To get to the famed “green coffee” or “coffee almond” (again, just a fancy term for non roasted coffee) the parchment is threshed or milled, which means running the beans through a machine, which carefully removes the brittle parchment
The mucilage or the “honey.” This is a layer of slimy, sugary goodness. This is where coffee gets a lot of its flavor. All coffee goes through a fermentation process whether it’s a “natural,” a “honey,” or a “washed.” The fermentation process is an important moment in which the complex sugars from the mucilage are simplified and pass via osmosis into the bean. That means richer, more complex coffee in your cup!.
The pulp – this is the body of the “cascara,” think of it kind of like your flesh versus your skin.
The outer skin – this is like the skin of the human body, the outermost layer.
In actually, when a coffee bean is removed of the skin, which occurs in a process known as de-pulping (how creative), layers 5, 6, and 7 are involved. Most of the mucilage in layer 5 is going to stick to the bean itself, but many of the sugar are imbued on the skin (or peel) and this is creates a slight sweet, complex outer layer.
So how do I eat it or consume cascara?
If you ever get a chance to walk through a coffee field (and I highly suggest you do, it’s beautiful!) you’ll have a chance to try casacara. Once you pick a cherry off the tree, assuming it’s not infested by pests - the most common are a fungus called Leaf Rust and a tiny beetle called broca - you can eat the fruit. Chewing the seed itself is quite insipid and bitter. However, sucking the mucilage off the bean is delicious and sugary. Beyond that, the cascara, or the peel of the fruit is quite delicious!
You can certainly eat it raw, but most consumption is done after a process of drying it out at which it can be made into a snack, tea, and more! I bet you want to know how, but not so fast!
About 90-95% of the cascara in the world is sent off for composting, not because it’s particularly good compost but because most people don’t know what to do with it. The vast majority of coffee farmers don’t have a big market for cascara and even less have actually tasted it in its many preparations, so the save it to decompose and give nutrients back to the plants.
In fact, even for the more adventurous of us, you need to be careful in choosing your cascara. Remember, cascara is the skin of the fruit, and skin exists for one big purpose: to protect everything inside.
But the skin of the cherry is not fool-proof, like most fruits there are pests that penetrate and make their way to the delicious and caffeinated bean. To prevent that problem most farmers fumigate their coffee farms. Now, the expectation is that fumigations of food should be chemicals approved by the WHO for safe human consumption… right, I am not saying that’s not possible, but it’s also probably not the wisest decision to consume directly too many chemicals.
Because the cascara is outer layer of the coffee, it’s the part that directly receives fumigation, and it’s part of the coffee that is not commonly washed, meaning that that it’s your highest risk for consuming agri-chemicals.
That’s why when consuming cascara the best is to look for an organic product, which by definition would have not had contact with industrial or unnatural fumigation chemicals.
Okay okay, but how do you actually consume it? Well, if you are walking in the fields you can easily pop the seed out and eat the skin (cascara) raw. It’s delicious, slightly sweet, and slighty bitter. But you won’t find the cascara for sale this way because the moisture and sugars are important for the fermentation process at the coffee farms in order to make great coffee. Those same elements can create mold, bacteria, and fungus which spoils the cascara before it could ship anywhere.
For most of us that get the product at home, it will be in a dried, dark form. Sun-dried cascara will always taste the best as the sugars naturally dry on the skin without being burnt in an oven or having the skin itself overly dried out.
There are two principal ways to consume the cascara at home:
- Make a tea! Does it have caffeine? Patience young padawan, we’ll get to that one in a minute. Go ahead and grab your French press and a water kettle. Start heating the water to around 91 degrees Celsius or 195 degrees Fahrenheit. In general it’s not a good idea to make cascara nor coffee with boiling water as it will scorch and cook the products, pulling out a lot of the bitter deep tastes instead of the sweet complexities on the outer layers. You’ll also want to grab a kitchen scale that reads grams, preferably with micro-grams. Hario scales are awesome because they are specifically designed for serious at-home coffee fans as are Bonavita kettles, which really help you control the water with the angle of the goose neck and helps you control the water heat with high precision and confidence.
In your French press you’ll want to put in 5 grams of cascara for every 100 milliliters of water. Grams and milliliters measure equally on most kitchen scales, so you’re in luck, one button and you’re ready to go! So, 5 : 100 for one cup, 10 : 200 for 2 cups, 15 : 300 for three, and so on and so forth…
Leave the cascara steeping for 4 minutes, then plunge the press of the French press and serve. It will taste somewhat like a black tea with some hints of red fruits. In fact, you can brew it with mint leaves, blueberries, whatever you’d like to influence the flavor! Or if you want, steep it for longer for a more intense flavor. The longer you leave it the more acidic tea you’ll make.
- Try carmelizing the cascara! Heat up a pan on the stove top at a very low heat (maybe for 1 minute or so), you don’t want the pan to start smoking. If you want you can place a small amount of oil or cooking spray but it’s not necessary. Sautee the cascara, if it’s too dry you can add a small amount of water to the pan – you’ll get a tough, gently sweet, and healthy snack!
Okay, but is it safe? Does Cascara have nutritional value? Does it have Caffeine?
It’s totally safe, in fact, in many parts of Africa, where coffee originated, people brew and consume the cascara and the leaves instead of consuming the coffee seeds like most people around the world. In Yemen the drink is called “Qishr” and mixed with spices and roots like ginger. In Ethiopa they call it “Geshar” and it’s probable that its consumption far outdates that of coffee.
The caffeine content is somewhat up for debate – cascara has only been approved for consumption in many countries since 2022, so the product lacks some studying. Many coffee growers claim that it has more caffeine than the coffee itself, while others claim that it only has about ¼ to ½ the quantity, which puts it just about at the same amount as a cup of green tea.
That said, cascara is very healthy, featuring a high amount of phenolic compounds, which has medicinal and pharmaceutical use. One farm, Roldan coffee in Colombia uses the cascara to create a super fertilizer on the farm and has experimented with selling its pigment for covering pills with nature colorants. These phenols also act as anti-inflamatories, and the flavonoids in cascara are likely similar to those in dark chocolate, which is good because flavonoids for humans have anti-carcinogenic properties.
Finally cascara tea is far less likely to leave you with the jitters as the caffeine exits your system.
In short, what does it taste like?
Cascara is slightly sweet and tastes like a dark cherry, a little bit like hibiscus and it smells like tamarind.
Can I legally buy cascara?
If you are in Europe, you’re in luck! In 2021 the European Food Safety Authority released a report which changed cascara from being a “novel food” to a legal one!
In the United States, cascara can be found but it’s difficult in part because not many people know what it is. On Amazon you can find some sold through Heirloom Coffee or you can order online through Verve Coffee Roasters or 44 North Coffee.
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