Coffee production generates tons of waste. Now this by-product, cascara, is popping up across the U.S. Meet the woman who made it
Credit: Getty Images/Reza

Fifteen years ago, Aida Batlle left Nashville for her childhood home on the rugged slopes of El Salvador's Santa Ana Volcano to help manage her family's struggling coffee farm. Even though she'd spent most of her life in the U.S. and had no coffee-growing experience, Batlle was determined to use her background working in the sustainable-food industry to make the fifth-generation farm prosper again. One day while she was in the coffee lab, an intriguing smell wafted inside from the coffee waste pile: "I thought it was hibiscus and tamarind," she remembers. That aroma was from the pulp of coffee cherries, called cascara.

What She Did

During coffee production, the seed (or bean) is separated from the skin and flesh of the small, plump red cherry, and that pulp often gets chucked. According to industry estimates, 1 pound of coffee beans leaves behind about 2½ pounds of fruit pulp, meaning that of the 19.4 billion pounds of roasted coffee made every year, upwards of 40 billion pounds of cascara remain. Some is composted or used as biofuel, but much winds up polluting rivers and waterways. Although people in coffee-producing countries like Bolivia, Yemen and Ethiopia have long made tea with cascara, it hadn't yet made its way to the U.S. Batlle saw its potential—as a unique ingredient and a new revenue stream for farmers—and sent samples to some of her coffee customers. They loved it.

"She's intent on understanding a centuries-old product, and she figured out how to process cascara commercially," says one of Batlle's clients, Jenny Bonchak, founder of the Raleigh, North Carolina-based beverage company Slingshot.

Steeped, cascara tastes less like coffee and more like an herbal tea, evoking notes of orchid, rosehip, raisin, red currant and even ash. And it contains less than a quarter of the caffeine of typical java. Some companies are also grinding the dried cherry pulp into flour, a tablespoon of which boasts 6 grams of fiber and nearly 15% of your daily potassium needs.

Today, excitement over this ingredient is percolating. "The trend is really rooted in the possibility of its bigger impact," says Bonchak. "Since we started six years ago, we have saved almost 3 tons of waste. We have the ability to influence an entire supply chain's sustainability—environmentally and fiscally—and to do so with an ingredient that tastes like nothing you've ever tried before."

Try the Trend

Slingshot Cascara Tea: With woodsy and floral undertones, these sweet-tart ready-to-drink thirst-quenchers are a pleasant sidestep from your standard bottled iced tea. ($12 per 3-pack;

Verve Costa Rica Cascara Tea: Verve's loose tea is perfect for brewing a cuppa or infusing into a simple syrup for creative cocktails and mocktails. ($15 per 3 oz.;

Starbucks Cold Brew with Cascara Foam: This full-bodied iced coffee gets its toasty caramel flavor from a creamy froth laced with cascara and vanilla syrups. ($4.65;

Blue Bottle Cascara Fizz: Sparkling water with cascara and lemon juice makes for a refreshing not-too-sweet, not-too-tart sip. (Available in Blue Bottle Cafés, located in several major cities in the U.S., Japan and South Korea. $4;

This story originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine January/February 2020.