From the Field

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Interested in Cascara? Read This!

Curious about cascara? To better explore this exciting product, we spoke with Diego Guardia, Owner of Hacienda Sonora in Valle Central, Costa Rica, and Tim Heinze, Coffee Education Manager for The Center. With their help, we’ll learn more about cascara, how it's made and its benefits.

A long road to popularity

While cascara has been available commercially for over a decade, there have been some stumbling blocks preventing its widespread use. In the European Union (EU) a law about food safety and regulation put cascara in a legal no-man's land (it wasn’t strictly prohibited, but it wasn’t officially legalized either) for many years, stunting the spread of cascara in the EU. However, in June 2021, a new report from the European Food Safety Authority laid the groundwork to enable cascara-based beverages to be sold in the EU. Cascara’s popularity in the EU has grown considerably since this new report was released and we are hopeful that the market for cascara in the EU will only continue to grow.

Even though it didn’t have the same legal issues, cascara in the Asia Pacific market just wasn’t as talked about until the last few years, says Meng Han Chau, Trader at Sucafina Hong Kong. “We are definitely now seeing a growing demand for cascara in the region and there are definitely buyers for it.”

Similarly, in North America, interest has been growing in cascara and its different uses. “There’s a lot of possibility for cascara both in the café and in more commercial food uses,” Tim says.

What is it?

Cascara is the dried skin of the coffee cherry. During the typical Fully washed coffee process, a coffee pulper removes the skin and a portion of the pulp. The skin and pulp is typically not commercialized. Sometimes, pulp is fermented to make organic fertilizer, other times, it is processed to limit environmental impacts and discarded.

While Ethiopians have been drying and brewing dried coffee cherry for centuries, cascara has reached a wider commercial audience in the past 1 to 2 decades. As the specialty coffee industry increasingly focuses on careful processing, producers are also giving increased focus on drying the skin and pulp with the same care they give to the seed. In addition to providing a second income stream for coffee farmers, cascara has many uses in the café.

“We just saw that it was delicious, and we didn’t want to throw it away,” Diego says. “We started making infusions… and offered it to people. It is a great product.” Interest in cascara is growing as more and more people become aware of the complexity of the supply chain and the versatility of cascara.

Where does it come from?

Cascara can be produced in two ways, Tim explains. First, when coffee is Fully washed, the skin and pulp is removed by a pulper in the early stages of processing. Producers can then dry the skin on raised beds or patios. Since it can also ferment and is at risk of growing mold, it’s vital that producers give cascara the same care and attention as drying coffee beans.  

The second method, which is what Diego uses, is when coffee is Natural processed. In Natural processing, coffee cherry is dried whole and the dried cherry is hulled later to remove the bean. Producers like Diego preserve the dried skin and mucilage when it’s removed from the bean and sort it to identify the best quality. “The coffee husk is a byproduct of the sun-dried Natural process itself. We dry it slowly on patios and then we sort it after the coffee is hulled,” Diego says. “Once we do that, the parchment breaks loose and then we have a special vacuum machine that blows all the parchment particles away from the cascara.”

Cascara is typically fruity and sweet with a low caffeine content. Research by Square Mile Coffee found that cascara, even when brewed to be as strong as possible, has a caffeine content of about 111 milligrams per liter. This suggests that cascara has roughly as much caffeine as green tea. Brewed black coffee has about 400 to 800 milligrams of caffeine per liter.

Profile-wise, cascara tends to have a thinner body than brewed coffee. Sometimes, when cascara is made from cherry that’s been fermented before drying, you may have a more kombucha-y or pleasantly fermented flavor to it. 

Why does it matter?

Cascara offers a plethora of benefits for both producers and café owners. For producers, selling cascara transforms a waste product into an additional source of income. Diego says that, while the income he gets from selling cascara is relatively small compared to his coffee business – cascara sales account for about 2% of his total income, he says – he’s still glad to have the additional income.

For cafes and roasters, “cascara gives a unique product and captures a different market,” Tim says. “You have tea drinkers who now have this opportunity to step into the coffee world through cascara.”

It also gives coffee professionals another way to talk about the coffee supply chain. “It’s a communication point,” Tim says. Cascara gives coffee professionals the opportunity to communicate the situation of the farmer, efforts to create and capture more value and a platform to speak about other issues surrounding the coffee supply chain. “I think it brings the nature of coffee production even more towards the end consumer.” 

Caveats to cascara

For cascara, “the flip side is that it’s not just taking a waste product and packaging and selling it,” Tim says. “It requires a system for drying and sorting cascara.” In a wet mill, the pulp is typically running down a shoot to a fermenting pile, so the producer has to choose to adapt and change some of their systems to treat it as a consumable product. “It doesn’t require a huge expense but does require some consideration to how they’re going to capture it from the machine without getting dirt on it, expand drying space and more.” For cascara that’s coming from Natural coffee, it still requires the infrastructure to capture the dried cascara when it’s hulled and to sort it to ensure quality.

Tim also has experience exporting cascara. “When I was in China, we sold cascara to a company that makes flour from it, and we had difficulty importing and exporting it because there wasn’t a classification for it in importing codes,” he says. Now that he’s with Sucafina, he says “our Sucafina logistics team is amazing and helps us navigate this complex landscape and successfully import cascara.” At a logistics level, cascara poses another potential problem. The weight-to-volume ratio is very unbalanced. A typical Jute bag that would hold 60kg of coffee beans will only hold about 20kg of cascara, because cascara is bulky but lightweight. Depending on how much you need, this can make it difficult to ship.

Additionally, since cascara is a secondary product for most producers, it can be difficult to source large quantities from a single supplier. “The infrastructure just isn’t there for a single processor to produce large quantities,” Tim says. “It’s not impossible though. This all goes back to the need for good communication between roasters and producers. When you communicate clearly with producers about the volume you’d need and what kind of volume they can produce, you’re all going to be a lot more successful.”

What can you do with it?

Lots of things! Most commonly, cafes will serve cascara as an infusion. Cascara can be brewed like tea for a fruity, caffeinated herbal tea. It’s also popular to make a cascara-infused syrup and add that to sparkling water or other beverages.

That’s just the beginning, though. “When I was in China, I saw a café that was pulling espresso shots through tea. They were packing tea into a portafilter and pulling shots through the tea, so there’s space to do that with cascara,” Tim says.

There’s also an opportunity for creating cascara-infused foods, such as chocolate.

“Dark chocolate has cherry and fruit notes already, so perhaps infusing cascara could bring some really cool flavors,” Tim says. It could also be used in baked goods.

Diego has even more thoughts on the uses and future of cascara. “We normally sell cascara to coffee people because they’re going to do an infusion or a syrup. But I think that if we follow the need, cascara can explode. Cascara is used to make wheat-free flour and then used to make gluten-free pastas and breads, but it’s not a big market just yet. That’s the market we want to get into because if we made it, the demand would be so high, there wouldn’t be enough cascara to meet demand,” Diego says. When people buy it for infusions and syrups, Diego says, they only buy a few bags at a time. Diego sees a huge opportunity for cascara to enter the health foods market and for interest in cascara to rise astronomically.  

Cascara has potential as an income generator for producers and as a conversation starter for coffee professionals. While it does require additional time and investment for producers, it offers tangible benefits as a secondary income. Cascara is steadily catching on as a product in coffee shops, so it’s a great time to start exploring how you can use cascara in your café. Get in touch with your trader today for ideas and to order cascara or log your interest in getting cascara at a warehouse near you.