Qishr Is the Coffee Substitute You've Been Waiting For
I’m not sure whether it was out of pity at the thought of me eating porridge in a mostly empty hotel lobby every morning, or out of genuine fondness, but one day, after a few weeks in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, my fixer Yusuf invited me to join him at his favorite café. A few plastic chairs under a UNHCR tarp on the side of the town’s main drag by an Ethiopian refugee family, it wasn’t much to look at. But Yusuf loved it because, in a nation of tea drinkers, the woman at the hotplate there knew how to brew a fine cup of coffee—something I think he expected that I, as an American, a notoriously coffee-guzzling people, would appreciate.
Unfortunately, I am not a coffee man. Day after day, as everyone at the café sat sipping coffees, I ordered tea. Each time, I think I saw Yusuf stifle a grimace. But a few weeks later, before I could place my order, someone from under the tarp shoved a cup into my hands and told me to drink. It was a thin brew, subtle, but with a sweetness to it, punched up by a spoonful of sugar and a hit of ginger and cardamom each. I smiled and Yusuf nodded in approval. He’d just gotten me hooked on qishr, a coffee-based beverage that walks the line between java and tea.
That’s actually a misleading description, because while qishr is made from coffee, it’s not made from the coffee bean proper. Named for an Arabic root that means, depending on its usage, “rind,” “skin,” or “to peel,” qishr is made from the papery envelopes that surround coffee beans (which are actually seeds) within the coffee shrub’s deep red berries. Producers in Ethiopia and Yemen often dry their coffee beans within these sheaths, then strip the dried husks away. But whereas most of the world turns these withered scraps into compost, folks in the Horn of Africa and across the Bab-el-Mandeb in Yemen have used them in their own beverage for centuries, and qishr is sometimes seen as a cheap alternative to coffee. (A few years back in some parts of Ethiopia you could buy a quart of husks for ten cents.) It’s such an old tradition that in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley some peoples call qishr bunna—the word for coffee in much of the nation.
Every region of Ethiopia and Yemen has its own take on qishr. Some roast the husks. Some add sweet cream. Some drown it in sugar. But what I had, and what’s become the international norm for many qishr drinkers, was the Yemeni version, in which the raw husks are mixed with ginger, cardamom, and water, then boiled and cooled three times in an ibrik pot over an open flame. The resulting brew looks more like tea than coffee, but tastes like neither; in many ways it walks the careful line between the two, importing the smoothest and fruitiest parts of the bean while retaining the subtle, light, and far-less-caffeinated properties of a good tea. (It lacks the tannic kick I often crave in a breakfast tea, but you can get a touch of that if you prepare it right.)
Coffee took off outside of Yemen in the 1500s, but qishr never caught on in the wider world. As coffee production spread across the globe, one or two local cultures independently invented their own dried husk drinks. Bolivian sultana, brewed with toasted coffee cherries and cinnamon sticks, is perhaps the best known. But that doesn’t seem to have been derived from exposure to qishr, nor did it spread far past the Andean highlands. That’s not because qishr or its kin are difficult to export; immigrants have always been able to get their fix from back home, and half-hearted young entrepreneurs in the West have occasionally brought over bushels of the light, durable husks to capitalize on the low local commodity costs of getting their countrymen hooked on a new fad. If I had to guess, I’d say that its cheapness made it irrelevant to early luxury consumers of coffee, and its liminal qualities, which I enjoy, made it superfluous to a world satisfied with the poles of coffee and tea and all of the fun one can have riffing on them.
Yet after centuries of neglect, a new space may be opening for qishr in the global market, thanks in no small part to an independently formulated (and honestly kind of twee) Western version of the beverage known as cascara. (Which is not to be confused with cascara sagrada, a tea made from the bark of a Pacific Northwest shrub that acts as a potent natural laxative.) Most accounts credit this Western qishr to Aida Batlle, a Salvadoran coffee grower and importer who grew up in Miami. The way she’s told it in the past, she was at a grower’s home one day and smelled something sweet. Realizing it was the bean husks in the corner of the room, she decided to try to brew them—and then decided to sell the product. She named her concoction using the Spanish word for “husk,” inadvertently following the Yemeni naming scheme as well as origin story.
Cascara started to show up in hip American cafes almost a decade ago, where it was embraced as much for its novelty as for its flavor. But as its story got out there, people also got into the idea of repurposing waste—a root-to-shoot equivalent of the popular head-to-hoof movement. The combination of these forces has created markets for everything from cascara-infused vodkas and beers to concentrated cascara tinctures and syrups for use in other brews and baked goods.
But cascara is not qishr—neither historically nor in flavor. The first time I tasted it (when a friend dragged me out to Devoción, a Colombia-centric coffee shop in an old warehouse space with a wall garden in Williamsburg, Brooklyn), I didn’t recognize it at all. That’s probably in part because Batlle’s version uses not the flaked husks milled off of dried beans, but whole skins removed from the beans before drying, a common process in Central and South America. It’s also because no one in the West has developed a truly cohesive brewing culture for husk drinks yet—some are sweet and fruity, some are tart, some are soft and floral. None though, at least that I’ve encountered, manage to reach the hot, spicy space between tea and coffee I love.
The experimental frontier of cascara is beautiful; it’s rare that we get the chance to be so freely creative with such a (to us) clean-slate ingredient. It’s also an opening for qishr in America, because ultimately we have no goddamned idea what we’re doing with coffee husks just yet. Few of us even realize that they’re significantly less caffeinated than coffee. Qishr is a stable tradition with an alluring pedigree that could step into this space and own its distinct flavor, selling itself on its culture, its biomass conservation, and its careful balances. And because it strikes a bit closer to tea and coffee than most of the cascara derivatives I’ve encountered—in price as well as taste and delivery—it could find a place at our breakfast tables. It probably won’t become a staple here the same way that it has over centuries of consumption in the Horn of Africa and Yemen. But for many of us, qishr is the third pole between coffee and tea we never knew we wanted, a shot of diversity to our breakfast beverage choices that comes with a little environmental perk. And we might finally be at the right historic junction to embrace it.
Viva cascara. Taḥyā qishr.