Inside the sleek, lacquered-white confines of Merchant Coffee in New Orleans, a hush has fallen over the crowded room. Spectators have gathered for the first-ever New Orleans Barista Social Club Cascara Competition, where eight of the city's brightest baristas and bartenders have assembled to prepare drinks using the longtime black sheep of the coffee plant—cascara.
Throughout the shop, competitors spill out bags filled with everything from tea kettles to banana leaves and cotton candy grapes, rehearsing their "drink inspiration" monologues while stewing over last minute recipe edits. Wide-brimmed turquoise teacups are meticulously arranged on the edge of a long counter and—behind the bar—a set of gleaming gold bar tools is unfurled with a whoosh.
In the crowd, questions about just what this—relatively unheard of—ingredient will taste like bubble up in whispered conversations. Cascara (also known as "coffee cherry") is the ruddy-red dried husk that surrounds the coffee bean, and farmers have long tossed this fruity shell by the wayside, eager to get to the "seed" (read: coffee bean) within. Now, though, as roasters grow evermore savvy and eco-conscious, cascara and its subtle, fruity flavor has been increasingly on the minds and lips of coffee enthusiasts.
...as roasters grow evermore savvy and eco-conscious, cascara and its subtle, fruity flavor has been increasingly on the minds and lips of coffee enthusiasts.
Historically, tea fashioned from cascara is nothing new. The light, burgundy beverage has been a culinary staple in both Bolivia and Yemen for centuries, where cinnamon-spiced versions are widely consumed as "poor man's coffee." In the United States, though, the product has only recently become more widely available, with stalwarts like Durham's Counter Culture Coffee and Grand Rapid's Madcap Coffee planting the seed of inspiration in enterprising baristas.
Cascara has a surprisingly versatile flavor profile, able to accentuate various nuances of its earthy, fruity taste depending solely on preparation style. Madcap's sun-dried cascara—which comes from the West Valley of Costa Rica and was used for the competition—has a cozy mouthfeel, with hints of raisin, fig and tobacco. Just like coffee, cascara's point of harvest (which is by its very nature single-origin) heavily influences its aroma and flavor.
Typically, though, cascara's textural profile doesn't shift from plant-to-plant. The dried husks have a brittle texture reminiscent of the interior of a walnut shell, and taste like crunchy flecks of coriander. After being processed, the husks morph into still edible—but slightly less palatable—niblets of diluted fruit leather with a gummy chew.
Just like coffee, cascara's point of harvest heavily influences its aroma and flavor.
The three primary methods of cascara preparation allow the plant to demonstrate its prime abilities as a flavor contortionist. When prepared as a hot tea, the cascara is reminiscent of a plum compote, with extra sweetness emerging the longer it steeps. If cold brewed, a decidedly tamarind flavor emerges. As a soda, the cascara becomes almost floral and lip-puckering, with a citrus-tinged aftertaste. When it comes to form, cascara is a shapeshifting sleeper.
Functionally, too, cascara can be pulled in any number of directions both on and off the menu. Cascara has traditionally been kept close to its farms of origin, often being recycled into fertilizers and composts. "Cascara is a byproduct of the world's second most traded commodity: coffee," said Christopher Brancato, owner of Merchant coffee in New Orleans. "Across 84 coffee growing nations around world, the majority of world's coffee cherries stay right at home for replenishing the soil and adding needed nutrients to livestock feed."
The challenge presented by drying the husks while still retaining the cascara's unique flavor (as well as a lack of market) has long kept farmers from exporting cascara en masse. As the distance between farmers, roasters and baristas grows ever shorter, however, the once afterthought product has been slowly creeping onto menus at coffee shops and forward-thinking restaurants.
At Madcap's headquarters in Grand Rapids, the company named a cascara float—complete with local vanilla ice cream—a signature beverage of the summer in 2014. Everyman Espresso has popularized the drink in New York as a slightly sweetened soda. In Amsterdam, coffee and fashion hub Scandinavian Embassy has become the first shop to experiment with a cascara kombucha. New Belgium Brewery in Colorado has even tried their hand at a flowery, cascara-infused Trappist ale.
"Some consumers consider only coffee a staple on their pantry shelf. Highlighting cascara is one way we are able to remind people that coffee is an agricultural product with an interesting life cycle that extends from seed to cup," said Aleece Langford, co-founder of the New Orleans Barista Social Club.
There's a feeling that we've only touched the hem of the garment in just how cascara can be used not only as a standalone drink, but as a complement to other flavors. As the line between coffee and cocktails continues to become increasingly porous, cascara syrups and tinctures could easily find a more permanent home on the back bar in coming years.
"Highlighting cascara is one way we are able to remind people that coffee is an agricultural product with an interesting life cycle that extends from seed to cup..."
During the competition, the ways in which cascara was able to serve as a scrappy sidekick to stronger flavors—particularly in cocktail preparations—was a welcome discovery for many first time sippers. A riff on a classic Airmail made with cascara, a flammable upgrade on grog, and a play on Planter's Punch demonstrated just how the tea can add an extra, honeyed depth to classic drinks without flipping the concept entirely on its head.
In the end, though, it was a completely novel creation that stole the show—and took first prize.
"My aim was just to create a cold and refreshing cocktail," said Turgay Yildizli of New Orleans' Specialty Turkish Coffee. Yildizli's drink—called "The Reunification"—possessed flavors so densely stacked that each dessert-like sip revealed a whole new dimension to cascara's complexity.
"I wanted to add caramel sweetness without overwhelming the delicate flavors of the cascara, so I prepared a syrup made from dates and cascara reduction. Then, to add layers of flavor to the beverage, I mixed in homemade coffee bitters. This added herbal ... notes and increased the body giving the beverage an overall better mouthfeel. This is also where the name of the drink comes from—the reunification of cascara with coffee."
Increased awareness about the importance of supporting small farmers and more eco-friendly practices has led to a greater understanding of utilizing the entire coffee plant from root to husk, not just the bean itself. This spirit of reunification—of bean with husk, of farmer with consumer—makes cascara the poster child for a larger trend towards sustainability in the world of field-to-cup production, as it finally finds its own place in coffee family lore.