By: Emily L.
Imagine for a moment: you’ve traveled to see a coffee farm, learning about the environment that coffee is grown and developed in. You see a row of coffee trees with what look like berries on the branches—the shape of cherries? You might wonder, is coffee a fruit?
photo, Harvard University Botany photos
Fruits often start out as a flower, and coffee is no exception. As seen in the second diagram, the coffee “bean” is actually the “seed” of the coffee cherry. Each layer has a different function—which brings us to the anatomy of the coffee cherry.
Anatomy of a Coffee Cherry
diagram courtesy of Seattle Coffee Works
When it comes to the flavors you experience in your cup of coffee, how a coffee is processed impacts flavor greatly. Depending on the process, different layers are left on or taken off as the coffee is processed and then laid out to dry. Different processes work better for different regions, depending on environmental and regional factors. When you pick up a bag of coffee and see “natural”, “washed”, or “honey” processed, here’s a brief synopsis of what that means:
° Coffees are laid out to dry with the coffee cherry still intact, with no layers removed. These coffees tend to be more fruit forward and full-bodied.
° This process works best in dry climates, since it’s challenging to ensure that no mold gets into the bean. Since the coffee is picked and laid out to dry without an additional washing process, natural process also works well in areas where water is scarce.
° Coffees have the coffee cherry depulped and are “washed” with water—they tend to be dryer, brighter, and more acidic. It’s kind of like the difference between a white and a red wine.
° Also known as “wet processing”, the skin of the coffee is removed by a depulping machine and the beans are placed into fermentation tanks until the mucilage is no longer sticky. During the controlled fermentation process and during an additional washing process, the mucilage is broken down.
° Coffees are depulped, removing the fruit and skin, but keep the “mucilage” layer intact, so this process bridges the gap between natural and washed process coffees. The mucilage layer is sweet and sticky, like honey.
° There are variations within this, such as white honey (80-100% mucilage removed), yellow honey (50-75% mucilage removed), red honey (less than 50% mucilage removed), and black honey (as little mucilage removed as possible)
For more visuals and information about each process, see our blog post about processing methods.
As coffee entrepreneurs seek to be more eco-conscious, there’s been more curiosity around alternative uses for each layer of the coffee cherry.
Ever wonder where cascara tea comes from?
As an NPR article recounts, during a coffee cupping, award-winning, fifth-generation coffee grower from El Salvador Aida Batlle noticed a smell similar to hibiscus wafting through the air from the skin of the recently milled coffee. Curious, she picked through it, cleaned it, and put it in hot water: cascara tea was birthed. Cascara is the Spanish word for the husk or skin or peel of a fruit. Cascara has become a popular drink—we at Klatch have crafted seasonal drinks using cascara, a great source of antioxidants. We’ve written about the benefits of cascara here.
It’s also worth noting that cascara is a rediscovery of an old tradition as well. Similar drinks have long been brewed in Yemen and Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee culture, where they are called quishr or hashara.
The coffee cherry in all of its layers has been beloved for thousands of years, and it’s a joy to build on such an incredible legacy, one coffee harvest and cup of coffee at a time.