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You already love coffee beans, but did you know that they grow in cherries? And that those coffee cherries are used in teas, skincare products, and even butter?
As a lover of all things coffee and a proponent of food waste reduction, I was really excited to learn everything I could about the coffee cherry, and I hope that you are, too.
If you want to know how coffee cherries taste and look, what happens to them after the coffee beans are removed, and what innovative products people are making from coffee cherries and coffee cherry extracts, here’s your chance.
Grab a cup of coffee, and we’ll jump right in.
Is Coffee Bean a Cherry?
Not exactly. The coffee bean is the seed of the coffee cherry. That’s right, it’s not really a bean at all!
You may have already known that coffee grows on trees, but you probably didn’t know the whole story. Coffee trees produce white blossoms that have a fragrance similar to that of jasmine. These blossoms become coffee cherries (also called coffee berries). These cherries start off green, but they turn pink or red as they ripen. These cherries are actually stone fruit — also known as drupes — just like mangos, olives, and the cherries that you typically think of as, well, cherries.
Inside coffee cherries, two beans grow with their flat ends facing. These beans are the only part of the coffee plant that most of us ever see — and only after they have been roasted, changing their natural green color to one of several shades of brown.
Do All Coffee Cherries Have Two Beans?
No, only about 85-90% of them do. The rest have only a single, denser, and rounder coffee bean known — because of its shape — as a peaberry. Because it’s an only child, this bean can sap up much more of the coffee cherry’s nutrition, essentially eating for two every day of its life.
I will never miss a chance to rant and rave about the peaberry coffee bean. They are prized for their sweeter, more intense flavor, which comes from the additional nutrition they steal from the cherry. Some of the best Sumatran coffee varieties and most amazing Kona coffees come from peaberries. If you haven’t tried coffee made from these special beans, I highly recommend it. Hint: They make great beans for espresso!
Are Coffee Berries Poisonous?
There are plenty of toxic berries in the world, so that is a completely reasonable question to ask. Coffee cherries are edible, non-toxic, and absolutely safe to eat by humans and many animals. In fact, as we’ll talk about later in this article, they are consumed by humans in a few different forms.
One caveat to their safety: Coffee cherries have a higher caffeine content than roasted coffee beans. It would still take quite a few of them to reach a dangerous level, but this is still worth knowing if you have any plans for a new coffee cherry specialty food or beverage.
Do Coffee Cherries Taste Good?
Not everything that is safe to eat is worth eating (I’m looking at you, summer squash!). The taste of a coffee cherry is described as being like a cross between an apricot and a watermelon. They are pleasantly sweet and refreshing.
That sounds great, right? Well, the real issue is with the makeup of the fruit. We are used to modern, hybridized fruit varieties that are easy to eat; have large, sweet chunks of edible fruit; and have fewer, more isolated seeds than natural varieties. Eating more ancient fruits is, well, typically pretty disgusting by comparison.
Coffee cherries are almost entirely skin and seeds. There is a fleshy pulp, but it sticks to the beans as if the entire pulp were those bits of peach flesh that you can never get off the pit. And the skin itself is rough, much rougher than that of a cherry or a peach.
Health Benefits of Coffee Cherries
Many of the suggested health benefits of coffee cherries come from the high levels of antioxidants and polyphenols. The antioxidant levels of coffee cherry products — like the coffee cherry tea and coffee cherry extracts discussed later in this article — are higher even than many products made with blueberries or green tea, some of the products touted for their antioxidant benefits.
The Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation has assembled a report of the potential health benefits of coffee cherries. Most of these studies are still in the early stages, but there are indications from pre-clinical trials of their ability to prevent tumor growth and of some neuroprotective benefits. I want to stress that these are early results, but it’s pretty cool to watch these studies happen in real-time.
What Are Coffee Cherries Used for?
Obviously, the beans are the most sought-after part of the coffee cherry. There are several uses for the pulp and skin of the cherries too, but they can’t hope to keep up with the demand for the beans that make our favorite brew. Sadly, this means that much of the pulp and skin is simply discarded, washed away to pollute the waterways as part of the runoff from the bean washing process.
After removal of the coffee bean, cherries don’t all get wasted though. Small coffee farms have been particularly innovative in their usage of coffee cherry leftovers as fertilizer, tea, and a range of other products.
Some small coffee farms de-pulp their cherries on-site. This provides a large amount of organic material that can be recycled into fertilizer for the next round of coffee. The cherries are an excellent source of phosphorus, and they are typically mixed with nitrogen-rich manure to create a viable fertilizer.
Coffee cherry tea
Cascara, or coffee cherry tea, is becoming an increasingly popular beverage amongst herbal tea lovers. While coffee is made from the seeds of the cherry, cascara actually comes from the cherry skins. So-called whole-fruit cascara has also become common — using both the skins and the pulp but still excluding the bean.
If you remove the skin from a coffee cherry and dry it out, you get fibrous flakes that resemble husks. Nobody wants to say dried coffee cherry skins, so these dried skins are instead called cascara. Yes, the skins have the same name as the drink.
When you place the dried skins into water, the skins release their flavor into the water, resulting in the cascara drink. Since this drink doesn’t use tea leaves, it isn’t technically tea. If you want to be picky, it’s a fruit tisane, but most just refer to it as an herbal tea.
Most of the caffeine from the cherry ends up in the beans, but there is still some left throughout the pulp and skin. Unlike most herbal teas, then, cascara does have some caffeine, comparable in concentration to that of a typical black tea.
Coffee beans have distinct flavors depending on both how they are roasted and their growing conditions. Cascara isn’t roasted, but it still takes on unique flavors of its growing conditions just like coffee beans do. Many have fruity or floral flavors, but some will have smoky, earthy, flavors instead.
Starbucks made cascara syrup famous with the 2017 release of their cascara latte, which contained both the syrup and cascara extracts. Most cascara syrups are made from coffee cherry skins and pulp with added sugars (typically cane sugar). They are becoming a popular addition to coffee, sparkling water, and cocktails. Their high level of antioxidants makes them an ideal substitution for drinks that would typically include blueberry, acai, or pomegranate for their health benefits.
Coffee cherry extracts are commonly used as a source of antioxidants in health supplements. There are also recent skincare products that have used coffee cherry extract both for its purported health benefits and its unique scent. Some farmers have also started to try out new coffee cherry food products like chocolate, sorbet, and even butter.
Can Coffee Cherries Be Used for Animal Food?
No, the high caffeine content of coffee cherries makes them a poor choice for use in animal feed. Many food byproducts and bulk sources of nutrition make their way into animal feed since the regulations surrounding those foods are less strict than those for human food.
But this only works if the food can be used in any reasonably large quantity. The levels of coffee cherry you would need to include in animal feed to make it practical would introduce an unhealthy level of caffeine into the animals’ diets. And I’m sure the farmers wouldn’t appreciate the extra energy in their livestock either.
The coffee cherry is truly an amazing plant. We already knew that its seeds were the source of our favorite beverage, but the uses of the pulp and skin are innovative, resourceful, and just plain cool.
If you have thoughts on cascara or if you’ve tried any other amazing (or terrible) products made with coffee cherries, let me know in the comments!