It's Coffee; It's Tea; It's Cascara
Have you ever wondered what happens to the fruit surrounding the coffee bean once the beans are harvested, removed from the leathery little husks, roasted and turned into coffee? Did you even know that coffee beans (which are technically seeds, not beans) had husks? Did you care?
So most people don't, it turns out. They don't know and don't care. I was more or less in the latter camp until this weekend, figuring that if something good could be made with the coffee bean husks—also called cherry, never plural—people would be making, drinking and enjoying that thing. And then I made a trip to the new Ahh, Coffee shop near the BBVA Compass stadium and found out how wrong I'd been.
There is a drink made from the husks of coffee beans. It's called cascara and it's delicious. Imagine a fruity rooibos tea, then add caffeine (as rooibos is naturally decaffeinated). The cherry of the coffee beans are soaked in hot water until their sweet flavor is extracted, a process which also extracts the brisk red color and the remaining caffeine at the same time. The resulting drink is technically called a "tisane"—as anything that's not made from tea leaves can't really properly be called tea—and while it costs nearly $5 at Ahh, Coffee, you receive enough cascara to easily split between two people in two fairly large portions.
Cascara isn't as caffeinated as coffee, as most of the caffeine is locked inside the beans, but I see this as simply an added bonus of a drink that already straddles the line between fruity tea and strong coffee. If you prefer the flavor of rooibos or red tea but have always wished it had a tiny jolt of caffeine, cascara is for you. If you enjoy coffee but find that you get over-caffeinated easily or that the flavor of coffee is occasionally too harsh, cascara is for you. If you just want to try something different and broaden your hot beverage horizons, cascara is for you.
As to why cascara isn't more widely enjoyed in a country that craves coffee morning, noon and night? That's a bit of a mystery. The New York Times Style Magazine noted six years ago, simply, that "there is not a widespread tradition of drying, saving and drinking [coffee cherry] in the Americas," though the cascara tradition is though to predate actual coffee roasting and consumption in countries such as Yemen and Ethiopia, where the plant was first cultivated.
In fact, the use of the word "cascara"—which means "husk" in Spanish—to describe steeped coffee cherry is itself brand-new; no widespread English terminology existed prior to coffee farmer Aida Batlle coining the term sometime around 2009 when Durham, N.C.-based coffee roasters Counter Culture began selling her coffee cherry on a commercial, albeit limited, basis. Harvesting and exporting cherry itself, however, is so unusual as to demand an entire New Yorker article in 2011 on Batlle and her well-regarded coffee farm in El Salvador.
But perhaps as more coffee and tea-drinkers become familiar with the advantages and allure of cascara, all that will change. Cascara already shows up every now and then on other coffee menus around town, most notably at Blacksmith (and I'm told that Southside was experimenting with some cascara of its own not too long ago), so perhaps it won't be long before Ahh, Coffee is just another in a line-up of smart coffee shops serving the Next Big Thing.
Ahh, Coffee, 2018 Rusk St., 832-968-3433, newhoustontradition.com