The other day, I was in Starbucks, pondering whether I should add an extra shot to my tall latte, when I saw a sign for the store's new Cascara Latte.
On another sign, a picture of a red berry, and this description:
"Inside each coffee cherry are the seeds we've all come to know as coffee beans. Cascara is the dried fruit of the cherry itself. It lends delicious, subtle notes of dark brown sugar and luscious maple."
The actual latte consists of espresso, steamed milk and a couple of pumps of this Cascara syrup, made from the red coffee berry, or cherry. I tried it, and was surprised to taste not an overwhelming sweetness from syrup, but a subtle maple flavor that brought out the coffee taste of the espresso. Interesting, if not groundbreaking.
Nevertheless, the drink brought me back to an afternoon two months and one week ago, when I first learned about those red berries.
My new husband and I were standing on top of a hill in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica, clutching slimy coffee beans. We were on a coffee tour during our honeymoon, learning about how the beans are harvested, cleaned and roasted in this rural part of the country, a town called Hojancha.
Our tour guide, a native to the area named Denis (like "the Menace," he said to the group of Americans), explained that we were in a microclimate of Guanacaste, and that the particular elevation here combined with other factors allowed coffee plants to grow — one of the only places in that region that they do.
Denis comes from a family of coffee growers and pickers, and now helps run this place, the Diria Coffee facility, with his father and brother. They're part of the Coope Pilangosta, a fair trade and organic coffee co-op that recently made a deal to sell its coffee to Costco stores.
Denis went on to explain how the coffee process works, from the plants, which can grow to more than 6 feet tall, to the dark beans we grind before mixing with hot water. He started by showing us a tray with different layers of the coffee bean.
The red berries are what grow on the coffee plants, Denis said. He gave each of us one, and together we peeled away the red part to reveal a smaller, slime-covered bean. He had us smell and sample the slime, which tasted nothing like coffee but a whole lot like sugar. That must be where the idea for the Cascara latte came from.
Under that layer, another shell, and a flaky coating that resembled the thin peel of a garlic clove.
After we brushed that away, we came to the coffee bean, about half the size of the actual berry in which it grows. The other thing we noticed immediately: The beans aren't naturally brown, but more like a dusty green color. They don't turn brown until they are roasted, Denis explained.
We learned a lot of other things on our tour that day, like how the coffee beans are exclusively picked by hand on this farm, how they are washed to remove that slime, and how they are then left to dry on the concrete with nothing but the sun's warm rays to soak up the water.
As I sipped my Cascara Latte on a recent morning, I thought about all of that, and the red berry I had held in my hand. As Denis explained all of the work that went into extracting the hard coffee bean from that fruit, he threw his berry down to the ground with a smile, and we all watched as it shot back up into his hands. Another fact: They're very bouncy.
Contact Michelle Stark at [email protected] or (727) 893-8829. Follow @mstark17.