A Path to Food-Grade Cascara at the Helsar Micro-mill

A Path to Food-Grade Cascara at the Helsar Micro-mill

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Cascara beverages are popping up everywhere these days. Once reserved solely for consumption as brewed tea, this dried coffee cherry product is being used in cold tap and bottled beverages, beers, liquor, and even baked goods (try using in place of dried cranberries). This rise in popularity and consumption has also brought concerns of food safety, and in response, new processing methods by a few coffee mills to address these issues.

The coffee cherry used to make cascara is simply a bi-product of coffee processing, and has generally been treated as such. What I mean by this, is that coffee cherry is mostly seen as refuse, fertilizer at best, and so things like food safety aren't typically factored in when transforming into a consumable product. Most farmers simply lay out the fruit-lined cherry on drying beds and patios in the open air, where it dries under the sun over the course of a few days to several days depending on weather conditions. Once dry, the cascara is collected, bagged up, and readied for export.

Coffee cherry skins drying on raised beds in NicaraguaCoffee cherry skins drying on raised beds in Nicaragua

With the majority of cascara that's produced, concerns about health risks are at least partly founded, and in the UK have recently resulted in a cascara ban. Coffee cherry comes into contact with all sorts of contaminants during it's time maturing on the shrub, when it's plucked from the branches, and finally while drying on the patios. Chemicals such as pesticides and fungicides are sprayed directly on the plant and cherry (though fungicides are typically applied before the cherry's formed), and coffee handled by pickers and during milling are exposed to germs from the worker's hands. And if it takes too long to dry the cascara, there's an increased chance that mold spores propogate along with the harmful mycotoxins that come with them. Without a method for removing these contaminants, there is a higher probability that trace elements of these germs, chemicals, and toxins make it into your cup. And unlike roasted coffee, cascara doesn't undergo a high-heat "cooking" process that effectively kills most toxins living in your green beans, and so cascara's cleanliness and food-safety are tied to a step in sanitation that is typically lacking.

With the help of a group of graduate students from the University of Costa Rica, the Barrantes brothers at Helsar micro-mill in Costa Rica's West Valley developed a production facility dedicated to cascara production with food safety at the heart of it. The initial project was launched as an attempt to extract coffee cherry pigment for creating a safe, non-toxic dye, but quickly evolved into designing food-grade cascara after seeing the nutritional benefits of coffee cherry during stages of analysis. It turns out coffee cherry is high in antioxidants (twice the amount of cranberries), and a good source of protein and fiber. A couple years of research, and many thousands of dollars later, the team built out a cascara production space where for the past two years they've produced the cleanest cascara product we've seen.

Cascara analysis performed at the University of Costa Rica - notice the protein % daily value, and "ORAC" is the score metric used to measure antioxidant levelsCascara analysis performed at the University of Costa Rica - notice the protein % daily value, and "ORAC" is the score metric used to measure antioxidant levels

Not only is it the cleanest looking cascara, but it is perhaps the safest product out there. The University group working on this project have dedicated the last 8+ years to researching the health effects of cascara, and how to produce it cleanly and safely, food grade certification being their proverbial finish line. It's been a long road and they're nearing this goal, and expect the processing facility to be certified for food production later this year.

The production facility looks like a hybrid of a coffee wet mill and food processing plant. Isolated from the rest of their milling machinery, a room the size of a small warehouse houses the equipment needed to process whole coffee cherry down to the dry, and sanitized husk. A depulping machine dedicated to this product acts as the heart of the operation, pumping whole cherry in through the hopper, removing the fruit that will then pass through a series of washing tanks that do much to remove all excess dirt and germs. The cherry is then spread out in thin layers on mesh racks, and placed in a steam chamber where hot water vapor kills any remaining contaminants. Finally, those racks are moved to a dehydration room the size of a walk in freezer where the moisture is removed, resulting in a dry, and even crunchy cascara.

This is the certainly the most elaborate and involved operation we've seen or heard of, and their commitment to maintaining a clean facility, and producing a food-safe product is unparalleled. It's also worth pointing out that the coffee cherry used for the Helsar cascara is grown using fully organic farming methods. Once certified in the past, the brothers decided to forgo the bureaucracy and cost that comes with certification in 2016. Instead, they've had their coffee tested before and after drying by a local lab to certify their coffee as a "Clean Product", essentially proof that they meet certified organic coffee standards.

Finca Santa Lucia, one of three organic farms surrounding Helsar that are managed by the Barrantes brothersFinca Santa Lucia, one of three organic farms surrounding Helsar that are managed by the Barrantes brothers

All this is to say that when it comes to cascara, the Helsar product is in a class of it's own. And thankfully the cup quality also stands out from others we've tasted (of which admittedly there are only a handful). It's clean, fruited, and in my opinion sweet enough without any added sugar. Unlike tea, bittering tannic flavors don't build up with long steep times, only sweetness and body, and we really enjoy long infusions (10+ minutes). We drink it hot and cold, sweetened or not, added it to granola, made cookies with it, crunched on it while working...consumption possibilities are only limited by your imagination! And most importantly, you can be assured by Helsar's commitment to food safety.

We've partnered with Helsar, bringing in the majority of their production from the 2017 harvest in boxed, vacuum sealed 4 kg bags. Read more about the cup profile, and place an order here.

And if you'd like to try a 4 ounce sample first, you can order from our sister site Sweet Maria's here. Looking to buy in quantity? We're happy to discuss bulk pricing for 10+ boxes. Send emails to info@coffeeshrub.com