Sept. 18, 2015

In previous years, our Cascara reviews started out with "coffee, tea..or both!". Well, this year we've 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. But this one’s crunchy, tart, sweet, and tastes a lot like dried cranberries...I mean, who wouldn’t want to eat it?! So what makes this cascara different from the sort of “traditional” cascara of years past? While this 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 a very 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 Tea?”
Cascara (or Qishr/Gesher as it's called in Yemen/Ethiopia) is the Spanish term for the dried coffee 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. Traditionally, the cherry is mainly 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. It 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.

Traditionally, cascara is sun dried. Because of this, dry times vary depending on sun exposure and heat. You have to remember coffee cherry has a very high moisture content, and so it takes 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. 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 as with our newest website additon, Costa Rica.

Making the Grade:
Costa Rica is not necessarily the best climate for producing cascara “naturally,” especially in the often rainy West Valley where this particular cascara is produced. But what about using alternative energy sources for this, alleviating the need to dry outdoors? That’s where the work of the University of Costa Rica and Helsar Micro Mill intersects. Starting as a University-led project looking to isolate the red pigment of coffee cherry for dying, turned into a focused attempt to optimize production of  food-grade, dehydrated, Cascara tea. “Food-grade,” that’s right. This product is good enough, not to mention “safe” enough, to eat.

So back to traditional processing. Being that cascara has mainly been a by-product of coffee production, in most cases there’s not a lot of intention behind the final product. There’s a general lack of consideration for factors such as cherry ripeness, cleanliness of machinery, sorting, etc. Cherry comes in for processing, it’s usually graded, and then pulped. And while the coffee may be separated by qualities, the cherry from pulping, regardless of grade, goes into a single pile which is pulled from for making the tea. You can imagine what effect this has on the end result, inconsistent at best. This isn’t to say we haven’t found good cascara in the past, we have, they just weren’t products that would necessarily be considered food grade.

Production, and Quality Control
So fast forward a few years. 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 probably the first innovation in a very long tradition of producing cascara tea. They realized the need for cleanliness during the production process, as well as how dry time affects the overall shelf stability. So with the help of the folks at the Helsar Micromill, they developed a system of cherry collection, processing, and drying that allowed them to produce a food-safe product, with absolute consistency.

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. Baskets used by pickers are cleaned for each day’s use, as are the bags used to carry the cherry to the mill. Before the cherry is pulped from the seed, they’re soaked in filtered water, a first stage of cleaning. Then, the cherry is run through a machine used to both separate out any over and under ripe coffee that was 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
A truly unique procedure, and the only of its kind that we’re aware of. The cascara they produce is quite 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. Great on it’s own, 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 my last trip). Beyond intention, it’s their attention to detail that distinguishes this from the rest. This cascara 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 or Clever Dripper-type brewers, using 12 grams cascara to 350 ml water, and steeping for around 8 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), keep in a sealed bag or tin when not in use.

Order Costa Rica Helsar Cascara HERE