For years, cascara-based drinks have been teetering on the edge of a popularity boom.
Made from the dry husks of coffee cherries, they offer not only a way of upcycling waste products, but also a range of health benefits thanks to their high antioxidant content.
However, despite prevalence in the United States, EU novel food regulations have stunted the growth of the cascara-based drinks in the European market.
Since 2017, a number of companies, including Nestlé and Lavazza, have worked hard to challenge the legislation – and finally, their efforts seem to have paid off.
Now, with approval edging closer, many are anticipating the long awaited boom period for cascara-based drinks. But what’s the appeal of these dry coffee cherry husks? And how can businesses benefit from offering them to customers?
To find out more, I spoke with Joel Jelderks, co-founder of cascara-based drinks company Caskai.
What is cascara?
After coffee cherries have been harvested, they must be processed over the course of several weeks before being packed and shipped off to roasters.
The main purpose of processing is to remove the cherry from the seeds (or beans) inside. This is typically done by either sun-drying the cherries on flat beds (natural) or by de-pulping the fresh cherries prior to drying.
Once the seeds have been removed, a dried pulp, known as a husk, is left. The vast majority of these husks end up going to landfill sites, where they break down and emit greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide.
However, an increasingly popular practice is to upcycle the husks for use in cascara-based drinks.
Three years ago, Joel and his wife started selling their own brand of cascara-based drinks brand in the United States. He says they realised the enormous potential of cascara while working for their specialty coffee business, Panama Varietals.
“My wife and I started noticing our clients were requesting cascara more and more each year,” he tells me. “We had long-term experience in the RTD market having both worked for Red Bull, so we decided to make our own drink.
“We created Caskai with the intention of showing people that a cascara drink could taste very good – and that ‘waste’ could be premium.”
Their range of drinks, which includes a bottled sparkling cascara infusion, are made by fresh brewing the dried husks in Austrian Alps spring water, before adding a little organic cane sugar, and tartaric acid.
According to Joel, they prefer dry-processed cherries as washed processing can remove some of the natural sugars and flavours.
What does cascara taste like?
Although coffee beans come from the same cherries used to make cascara, the two products have their own distinct set of characteristics.
Joel explains that at Caskai, their aim is to accentuate fruity flavours, as these are often more prominent in cascara than they are in coffee.
“Cascara has its own unique flavour profile,” he says. “The coffee flavour wheel doesn’t necessarily apply to cascara – it’s more like a tea or fruit juice in some regards.
“There are certain things we look for: high fruitiness, sweetness, low bitterness, low woody notes. It may sound familiar to coffee consumers, but what we’re really going after is those higher fruit notes.”
Like coffee, some cascara is better than others, with a range of factors that can affect flavour, including terroir, variety, and processing methods. However, Joel tells me that the limited availability of “specialty” cascara is a stumbling block.
“It’s challenging to find really good, high-quality cascara,” he says. “There’s a lot of bad or mediocre cascara on the market. It still might be nutritious, but its flavour just isn’t that good.”
With low-quality coffee beans, skilled roasters can extend development times or add the beans to blends to mask defects and unwanted flavour notes – which isn’t possible with cascara.
But as more companies enter the market and the demand for coffee husks increases, the supply of high-quality cascara through better farming methods is expected to grow.
What are the benefits of offering cascara?
In the EU, legislation on novel foods has restricted the growth of cascara-based drinks. Until recently, it maintained that as cascara was a relatively unknown product, it’s long-term impact on people’s health was still unclear.
Alongside big brands such as Nestlé and Lavazza, Joel has played an integral role in seeking approval from the European Food Safety Authority (ESFA) for the sale of cascara-based drinks in the EU.
Having started the process back in 2017, he’s helped conduct research as part of the application and tells me they expect full approval by the end of this year.
But why have European authorities taken such a tough stance? Joel says it predominantly comes down to the microbiological contaminants in the fruit.
“Coffee has the benefit of roasting at high temperatures which destroys any contaminants to a certain degree. Cascara doesn’t have that benefit.
“Coffee farmers have to think about it a little bit differently, such as whether there’s any mould that’s producing mycotoxins. Basically, all of those microbiological contaminants when you’re dealing with food products come into play.”
Now, with EU approval in sight, the focus is shifting towards the benefits cascara-based drinks can offer.
From an environmental standpoint, the benefits are two-fold. Not only does upcycling coffee cherry husks redirect them away from water systems – where they can pollute aquatic life – it also stops them emitting greenhouse gases in landfill sites.
By upcycling cascara into the food chain and removing it as an environmental pollutant, it can help create a more sustainable coffee supply chain – something consumers have been increasingly demanding for years.
Healthwise, Joel explains that cascara has many of the same benefits as coffee, as well as a few of its own.
“It has a greater diversity of polyphenols, which is where the antioxidants in coffee come from,” he says. “Not just the chlorogenic acid, but it also has anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins.
“It just has a more diverse array of polyphenols in the husk, all of which are being investigated for various health benefits ranging from anti inflammatory to anti carcinogenic to antiviral effects.”
The coffee husk also has a high concentration of potassium – the equivalent of six bananas for every 100g, according to Joel’s research.
The long-anticipated popularity boom of cascara-based drinks is edging closer. As a result, many coffee roasters have started considering the possibility of adding them to their menus. Not only do they offer a good opportunity for brand extension, they also have a number of environmental benefits.
However, it’s also important to look after the main product line, which includes finding the right coffee packaging. At MTPak Coffee, we can help you design high-barrier coffee bags that preserve the freshness of your coffee, while standing out on the shelf.
Our recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable bags can be fully customised to your preferences, including additional features such as degassing valves and resealable zippers.