Aida Batlle grows coffee on her family’s farm in the hills surrounding El Salvador’s Santa Ana Volcano. Like generations before her, she had little use for the skin that encases the beans, so she’d turn it into cheap fertilizer or, more frequently, trash it. Then one day, walking past some husks drying in the sun, a smell hit her, a good smell: hibiscus and other floral aromas. It dawned on her, she says, that some value might be extracted from what she had long considered refuse. So she steeped the husks in hot water and had a taste. “Immediately I started calling customers to try it,” she says.
More than a decade later, coffee husk—or, as it’s better known, cascara—is having a moment. Starbucks Corp. recently introduced new drinks in the US and Canada sweetened with cascara syrup, and offers a sugar topping made from the husk. Competitors such as Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Blue Bottle Coffee are adding it to their menus, too, as tea and a carbonated drink. At a Starbucks in Chicago’s Loop, a medium iced cappuccino with cascara foam goes for $4.75. (In case you’re wondering, that’s essentially a low-fat cappuccino whose foam and syrup have been spiked with an extract made from a blend of sugar and ground-up dried coffee husk.) “Starbucks is great at taking things and introducing it to the masses,” says Michael Schultz, co-founder and chief executive officer of Coffee & Tea Bar Holdings, which operates two Fairgrounds Coffee & Tea locations in Chicago and is preparing to open others in Minneapolis. “People are becoming more and more aware.” Fairgrounds recently completed its final testing for a cascara-laced specialty drink that will be priced at about $5.
Thanks to demand from these chains, the coffee husk now often fetches a higher price than the bean itself does. Batlle says she gets $7 for a pound of cascara, while the average price for coffee hovers around $1.20, the lowest in about two years, because of an oversupply of arabica beans.