The Trendiest New Coffee Drink Isn't Actually Coffee at All

Meet cascara, coffee's fruity-flavored cousin. Not quite tea and not quite coffee, we'll tell you what it really is.

Let's be honest: The market is drowning in cool-but-confusing functional beverages right now. Between cold brew, alkaline water, kombucha, drinking vinegars, sparkling water, matcha, and yerba mate; my head is spinning! I'll take tap. And we haven't even touched cocktails, beer, or wine.

Which brings us to our favorite new beverage: cascara. You may have seen it at your local bougie coffee shop or heard your foodie friend raving about its sweet tea-like taste. While it's not technically a tea and certainly doesn't taste like coffee, the best descriptor for cascara is a fruit "tisane," which is another term for an herbal tea not made from a tea plant.

To learn more about cascara and what it's made from, we went directly to Brent Wolczynski, head brewer at Stumptown Coffee Roasters. When it comes to questions about coffee trends, there's no one more buzzed with intel.

So What Is Cascara, Exactly?

Cascara is the husk that surrounds the coffee fruit, often referred to as the "cherry". The seeds inside the cherry are roasted and become coffee beans, while the outside pulp and skin are the cascara.

"The whole bean coffee that we grind and brew to make a traditional cup of coffee is actually a seed that was removed from a fruit," explains Wolczynski. "That fruit is typically composted or discarded, but with Strange Magic (Stumptown's sparkling cascara drink), we've developed a naturally caffeinated plant-based soda made with the cherry."

"I personally love it because we're utilizing the coffee plant in a completely different way that—aside from being naturally caffeinated—yields a product totally unlike traditional roasted coffee and is extremely versatile," says Wolczynski.

What It Tastes Like

First of all, it's delicious. Cascara's profile is closer to tea than coffee: Its fruity, floral flavor resembles hibiscus, cherry, mango, and rose hip. Strange Magic, for instance, is fizzy, subtly sweet, and has complex flavors reminiscent of cola, lemon, black tea, and Fruit Loops.

The flavor profile of cascara on its own can be slightly heavy with notes of black tea and dried fruit, so carbonation really helps provide balance and create a refreshing and satisfying drink. According to Wolczynski, "Cascara with vodka is really something special." We also love it on ice with a wedge of lime.

Health Benefits

Great taste isn't the only reason to drink cascara. This coffee fruit is abundant in polyphenols—an antioxidant commonly found in other fruit like grapes, apple, pear, cherries, and berries. According to a scientific study published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, “...long term consumption of diets rich in plant polyphenols offer protection against development of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis and neurodegenerative diseases.”

Cascara is also reported to have anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antimicrobial, and prebiotic properties. While not yet considered a superfood, the fact that cascara beverages are all-natural and relatively low in sugar and calories makes it overall a more healthful choice than most sodas or energy drinks.

Let's not forget about how the Earth's health benefits, too. Traditionally, cascara was considered a waste product by coffee bean processors, who would use it for compost or dump it in waterways or landfills. Finding a profitable use for coffee cherries instead of discarding them is bound to have a positive affect on our environment.

Is Cascara Caffeinated?

Yes, although it's not as caffeinated as cold brew. Depending on who you ask (and a host of other variables), generally, cascara has between one-tenth and one-third the caffeine of an average cup of coffee. A 12-ounce can of Strange Magic, for instance, has about 80 milligrams of caffeine while an 11-ounce can of Starbucks Nitro Cold Brew has 235 milligrams.

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