The life cycle of coffee has been well documented. The coffee cherry grows on a shrub until it's red and plump, then gets harvested for its seed, which is extracted, dried, and ultimately roasted into a coffee bean. What’s often left out is what happens to the coffee fruit itself.
“What most people don’t realize is that the best coffee comes from the best coffee cherries,” says Kabir Gambhir, who grew up in Mission Hills area and went to Pt. Loma High. He explains that coffee farmers determine when their best coffees are ready to pick based on the presentation of the fruit. “They’re picking the best, ripest, most beautiful red coffee cherries,” he continues. “Those coffee cherries will indicate the quality of the seed inside.” The crazy part, according to Gambhir: “The majority of that amazing fruit is just thrown away!”
Called cascara, for the Spanish word meaning "husk," the fruit and skin of the coffee cherry is routinely discarded, a byproduct of the millions of farms supplying the global coffee industry. However, cascara has the nutritional makings of a superfruit, and a growing number of entrepreneurs have embraced its stand-alone value as a source for fruit-flavored, lightly caffeinated, antioxidant rich tea. Gambhir is one of them. Two years ago, the San Diego native established the company Bevea, and introduced a line of sparkling coffee fruit teas called Cascaraa, infusing ginger and other botanicals into tea brewed from cascara sourced from an coffee farm in Costa Rica.
“We think it’s an incredible, overlooked natural resource that is piling up on these farms,” he says. “We want to change the entire coffee industry to start looking at cascara as something just as valuable as coffee.”
Including the cascara itself, the carbonated beverages are made using all organic ingredients, positioned as a healthy alternative to soda, and a more refreshing, less acidic alternative to kombucha. Gambhir, who had been an every-day coffee drinker, originally became interested in cascara a couple years ago when looking for ways to reduce his caffeine intake without eliminating it altogether. At 30mg per 12 ounce serving, his teas contain less than a third the caffeine found in an equivalent cup of coffee.
Coffee as we know it developed in Yemen about 500 years ago, and as Gambhir began developing cascara tea recipes, he learned about qishr, a coffee fruit and ginger concoction Yemeni Sufis developed as a precursor to the hot beverage. That inspired him to add whole ginger root to his teas, but then he took the brewed beverage in a cold, carbonated direction to create the Cascaraa line, which he brews in El Cajon. A growing list of flavors include elderflower cardamom, lavender, mint-basil, rose chili, and hibiscus. While most are flavored with organic cane sugar, though several are available in a sugarless, keto-friendly option. Gambhir notes that cascara flavors range as widely as those of coffee itself, from earthy and chocolaty to bright and fruity. The coffee fruit selected for Cascaraa teas stick to the fruitier side, with notes of apricot, tamarind, and other dried fruit.
While consumers may appreciate the nutritional benefits of coffee fruit tea, the environmental and economic benefits earned Cascaraa a spot in this year's BBVA Momentum accelerator program, which offers support to social entrepreneurship: that which benefits the greater good. Industry estimates suggest it takes 35 gallons of water to produce enough beans for one cup of coffee, so upcycling what was previously viewed as a waste product helps recapture some of that inefficiency. Additionally, it opens a secondary revenue stream for coffee farmers, who often don’t make enough to afford to drink their own product. Every nine bottles of Cascaraa, Gambhir says, “removes a pound of waste and gives a farmer back roughly 50 cents.”