Cascara Fruit Tea – Is it Coffee…Tea…Food?

Using the dried skin of the coffee cherry to make a “tea” has a long history in Yemen and Ethiopia.

Dried coffee skin (as well as the leaf and the whole cherry) has been used for centuries to make a hot tea-like beverage in parts of Ethiopia and the Middle East. I first encountered Qishr brewed in the city of Harar, and the nearby commercial center Dire Dawa in Ethiopia. Later I found it brewed on my wonderful (an only) trip to Yemen in 2007.

Qishr is spelled out with a few variations as is the similar term “Gesher” used in Ethiopia. There are age-old traditions associated with preparing Qishr, sometimes involving the roasting of the skin right before brewing, and making the brew in several different vessels with different steep times. There is then a masterful blending of the different brews and concentrations to create the final cup that is served.

In areas of Harar, the coffee is milled out of the husk to green bean using wooden mortars – an amazing thing to see as two people will pound the coffee in the same mortar in perfect alternating synchronicity. I was told that the reason they don’t hull coffee centrally in Harar, the reason they do it in the village with the wooden mortar, is driven by the desire to keep the Qishr as tea. Send the whole dried coffee cherry off to a town somewhere for centralized milling, and your Qishr goes with it!

Pounding dried pods of coffee fruit in a wooden mortar in Mesela, Harar.
Pounding dried pods of coffee fruit in a wooden mortar in Mesela, Harar. I asked why they processed this by hand in this way. The answer is that they want to keep the coffee skin, used to make qishr tea. If they send the pods away to process by machine, their Qishr goes away too!

Re-branding as Qishr as “Cascara”

Cascara is the spanish word for skin or husk. It’s a term applied to coffee skin, but not to coffee skin as a fruit tea product. That was an obvious bit of marketing, and it was picked up as a preferred term over Qishr or Gesher. Why? I don’t like to think about all the reasons, but to be charitable, maybe it has more appeal and maybe Qishr is hard to pronounce (?). (Pr. “kish-her”).

There is not a history of widespread use of coffee skin as tea in Latin America that I am aware of. There is an 800+ year old tradition of coffee fruit skin tea in the horn of Africa and Yemen. Yeah, sure, call it Cascara. Better yet, how about some Cascara Geisha. Meh.

In previous years, our cascara fruit tea reviews started out with “coffee, tea..or both!”

We’ve recently tagged onto this…”or a snack?”. That’s right, we’re sitting around eating the stuff, something we just wouldn’t do with previous lots.

The modern-day reinvention of “Cascara” as a food safe beverage involves solving some technical issues. Qishr and Gesher and other traditional local village product are made with the same coffee cherry used to produce the green bean, of course. They are dried in the sun, and milled as usual. That’s fine for coffee that’s inside it’s protective husk. For food grade product though, it’s not good enough to sell the fruit skin, exposed to all kinds of things.

Cascara produced by Beneficio Helsar de Zarcero micro mill in Costa Rica is crunchy, tart, sweet, and tastes a lot like dried cranberries, and not to mention produced to food grade standards.

While Helsar cascara looks similar at a glance, the work behind producing it is substantially different. This isn’t just a by-product of the coffee processing; it is an intentional product, using different methods that belong more to a food processing facility than a rural coffee mill. But I think I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

First, a little background is necessary in order to provide context.

What is “Cascara Fruit Tea?”

Dried cascara coffee fruit tea laid out in a tray.
Dried cascara coffee fruit tea laid out in a tray.

Cascara is the Spanish term for the peel or fruit skin. The fruit of the coffee cherry makes up over 50% of the total coffee cherry mass. During the pulping process, this fruit is removed from the seed and exhausts through a channel into an area separate from the beans. That’s quite a bit of potential waste.

But coffee cherry is hardly wasted, often reused for fertilizing the farm, a nice way to complete and then begin a new life cycle, right? But somewhere along the way in Yemen, the potential to dry the cherry and use as a tea-like beverage was realized, and the production of “Qishr” tea was born.

The steeped coffee cherry tastes tart and sweet, a bit weightier in body than most teas, and considering that the entire Coffea Arabica plant has caffeine, Qishr/Cascara provided a nice (if not less expensive) alternative to coffee beans.

Issues with typical sun-dried cascara:

Traditionally, cascara is sun dried. Because of this, dry times vary depending on sun exposure and heat. Keep in mind, coffee cherry has a very high moisture content, and requires a lot of sun energy to dry in a reasonable time frame; And by reasonable, I mean faster than the growth of mycotoxins, which can potentially lead to mold.

With the majority of cascara that’s produced, concerns about health risks are at least partly founded, and in the UK have resulted in cascara bans. Coffee cherry comes into contact with all sorts of contaminants during its time maturing on the shrub, when its plucked from the branches, and finally while drying on the patios.

Chemicals such as pesticides and fungicides are sprayed directly on the plant and cherry (though fungicides are typically applied before the cherry’s formed), and coffee handled by pickers and during milling are exposed to germs from the worker’s hands. If it takes too long to dry the cascara, there’s an increased chance that mold spores propagate along with the harmful mycotoxins that come with them.

Without a method for removing these contaminants, there is a higher probability that trace elements of these germs, chemicals, and toxins make it into your cup. And unlike roasted coffee, cascara doesn’t undergo a high-heat “cooking” process that effectively kills most toxins living in your green beans, and so cascara’s cleanliness and food-safety are tied to a step in sanitation that is typically lacking.

A path to a food-grade product:

Similar to dry-processing coffee, some regions are better candidates for meeting the basic requirements – maximum sun, minimal rain. So we see the movement of this rather tasty, tea-like beverage from Africa to areas such as Panama, El Salvador, and even Costa Rica.

By and large, cascara products have been a byproduct of coffee processing. In most cases there’s not a lot of intention behind the final product, with a general lack of consideration for factors such as cherry ripeness, cleanliness of machinery, sorting, etc.

There are exceptions to this rule, which we’re seeing more and more of as cascara finds its way into the global spotlight. But a lot of this shift in production best practices can be traced back to the ingenuity of Helsar.

The "welcome" sign, hand-painted on the side of the Helsar de Zarcero micro mill in Costa Rica's West Valley coffee growing region.
The “welcome” sign, hand-painted on the side of the Helsar de Zarcero micro mill in Costa Rica’s West Valley coffee growing region.

Costa Rica is not necessarily the best climate for producing cascara “naturally,” especially in the often rainy West Valley where Helsar’s milling operations are located. But Helsar found a way to not only produce cascara fruit tea without ample sunshine, but also come up with the best tasting cascara fruit tea we’ve tasted.

Their journey started off as a joint project with the University of Costa Rica looking to isolate the red pigment of coffee cherry for dying fabrics. But after closer analysis of the nutrient-rich coffee cherries, their directives shifted to optimizing production of a food-grade, dehydrated, cascara fruit tea product.

The research team at the University of Costa Rica discovered the health benefits of coffee cherry, containing 50% more antioxidant than cranberries. This would eventually lead to what is one of the first innovations in a very long tradition of producing cascara tea.

Addressing quality control through dehydration and a standardized approach:

In order to produce a cascara that achieved food grade standards, the research team recognized the need for cleanliness during the production process. They also saw how the time it takes to dry cascara affects the overall shelf stability. With Helsar’s help, together, they developed a system of cherry collection, processing, and drying that allowed them to reach their goals.

Producing a good tasting cascara, starts with the raw materials – the coffee itself. This isn’t dissimilar to the aim for a good cup of coffee. Only peak-ripened cherries are selected, and in this case, picked from the three certified Organic Helsar farms surrounding the mill.

Cleanliness is of utmost importance, and baskets used by pickers are cleaned for each day’s use, as are the bags and trucks used to transport the cherry to the mill. Before the cherry is pulped from the seed, they are soaked in filtered water, a first stage of cleaning the fruit. Then the cherries are run through a machine used to both separate out any over and under ripe coffee that were missed, as well as perform a three-stage hydro-wash to remove any dirt that remains post-soaking.

At this point the cleaned cherry is pulped using a pulping machine solely dedicated to this project. Next, they move it to a steaming chamber in order to kill any mycotoxins that could potentially lead to molding. And finally, the cherry is spread out on racks and put into a large dehydrator where nearly 100% of the water is removed.

Fruits of their labor are tasted in the cup:

The Helsar method is truly unique, and the only of its kind that we’re aware of. The cascara they produce comes out crisp, crumbling even, and brews up the sweetest, cleanest tasting tea we’ve tried. And yeah, we’re eating it! OK, partly because we were told to by the producer. But after the novelty wears off, you’re left with a really unique dried fruit not all that far from a dried cranberry in flavor, and a crunchy texture that’s more in line with toasted grain than dried fruit.

Cascara coffee fruit tea steeping in a Handy Brewer
Cascara coffee fruit tea steeping in a Handy Brewer

Great on its own, the cascara also can be used in place of dried fruit on cereal, granola, or in trail mix (though you need to be careful since there’s a fair amount of caffeine too!). A couple people here in the office have made cascara syrup for sodas, as well as oatmeal cookies with cascara, we’ve tried beer brewed with it, sauces…the options are endless!

We were so impressed by the initial test batches we tried, and the fully-realized operation is quite a sight to behold first-hand (which I was able to do on a couple of my visits). Beyond intention, it’s their attention to detail that distinguishes this from the rest.

Yes its coffee, but it tastes like tea!

Helsar cascara fruit tea has a raisin-prune smell, clean and clearly fruited. It shares many light, and tart smells and flavors with dried hibiscus, the flower used to make jamaica tea in Mexico. When wet, you’re hit with a scent of tamarind, accompanied by delicate floral to herbal smells. And so many flavors of dried fruits come out in the brewed tea: hibiscus, tamarind, raisin, dried apple, dried passion fruit, and mango.

We are shipping 3 oz batches in air-tight bags in order to keep the cherry crisp. 3 ounces works out to be roughly 10 – 15 cups depending on brew strength.

Our best results were with French press, Clever Dripper-type brewers, and mason jars, using 12 grams cascara to 350 ml water, and steeping for around 8 – 12 minutes. This is a fairly long steep time for a ‘tea,’ but technically this is not tea, and you won’t achieve the tannic/bitterness of some over-extracted black teas. Fool around with ratios until you find what works for you.

Since it’s completely dry, it doesn’t take long for some level of reconstitution depending on relative humidity where you live. So if you want to keep crisp (best for eating), store in a sealed, air-tight bag or jar when not in use.

Our Cascara is currently sold out! We will update this post when we are able to source another option.

A footnote to bloggers and writers about Cascara: I hope you understand the point of our introduction to this article and do a little research on Qishr and Gesher as a well-established tradition. I also hope you do not repeat false ideas about Cascara being some sort of newly invented re-use for a coffee by-product that otherwise goes to waste. This is untrue because not all coffee skin should be recovered to produce cascara, as doing so takes a ton of resources and requires sizeable investment to handle as a food product. If you go to a coffee farm and walk around tasting cherry, you are going to notice some little white things lodged in the ends of ripe cherry under the skin. That’s fly larvae. And in case you aren’t aware, coffee pulp skin does get used in very appropriate and important ways, generally as an ingredient in compost. Compost from coffee is not only greatly needed for the health of the coffee plant, in many origins lacking enough organic material to feed the trees, it is very very valuable. See Rwanda.

Call-out on Cascara (and cultural stereotyping) – I have no trouble shaming this example. I would like to see photos of the landfills where all the wasted coffee skin ends up, please?

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