Gayo Coffee from Aceh, Sumatra, is well known within the specialty coffee scene. But today I don't want to talk about coffee, but instead about a local princess from Takengon (Central Aceh), Dr. Murna Muzaifa, S.TP., MP who is trying to find a solution to deal with the unused coffee pulp, one of the by-products of coffee processing. Dr. Murna currently works as a Lecturer at the Department of Agricultural Product Technology, Faculty of Agriculture, Syiah Kuala University (UNSYIAH Kuala) in Banda Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia, which is also where, in 2020, she wrote her PhD on the quality of civet coffee in Gayo, Aceh.
I was interested in Dr. Murna’s current research on coffee pulp, which piles up during the harvest season, in and around her hometown Takengon, as well as her trials to make a kombucha cascara1 from it. The pulp she uses is from the Giling Basah, or wet-hulling method, which is the dominant coffee processing method in Aceh. After being removed, the pulp is washed and dried on tarps in a greenhouse which usually serves to dry the coffee beans. This process takes about 5 - 7 days. In this phase, Dr. Murna gets support from her brother who is a coffee farmer and processor in Central Aceh.
After Dr. Murna and her students produced their first cascara , they made a tea from it and gave it to randomly selected people, from young students to elderly coffee farmers, for peer tasting. But, the results were mixed as people were not too fond of the taste of the cascara tea.
Dr. Murna and the team then started experimenting with adding familiar flavours to their cascara. She then extracted the cascara, added 50% white sugar and 1-5% lemon and called it cascara syrup. This syrup can last in good storage conditions for at least four months. Dr. Murna says that shelf-life tests are still in process, and due to the high sugar content the shelf-life most likely can be extended. Dr. Murna and her team repeated the peer group tasting, with much better results. A replacement of the sugar with honey (which was actually used as sweetener in the beginning), was not well accepted. Indonesia still seems to be a "sugar country", and most people add sugar to almost every drink and beverage; and the higher price of honey may have played a role as well.
Besides cascara syrup, Murna and the team also make another cascara-based product, namely kombucha cascara. This product is made by fermenting extracted cascara (cascara "tea") with a kombucha starter (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, in short "scoby"). To make the tea she uses approximately 100g of cascara with 5 litres of hot water, adds 10% white-sugar and stirs until homogeneous at which point, the filtrate is then removed. This cascara will be added to the kombucha starter (and the end-product will be a kombucha cascara). The fermentation takes at least 7 days, although a 12 day fermentation results in a better taste. To add a bit of fizzy sensation to the second fermentation, as well as interesting flavours and colours, the students started adding different spices or fruits like dragon fruit slices, pulp and juice, which resulted in various different colour and flavour profiles.
But there is a catch with ingredients like dragon fruit! The second fermentation resulted in an alcohol content that went past the regulations for halal drinks! This is a sensitive issue in Indonesia as 90% of the country’s inhabitants are Muslims. According to the regulations of The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) a HALAL label can only be used for drinks with an alcohol content below 0.5%. Even though Dr. Murna believes that her kombucha cascara will not become an illegal or intoxicating drink, if she can't get the HALAL label from MUI, this might be a challenge as it will become difficult to find consumers. For that reason she is working with her team hard to find ways to reduce the alcohol content in the second fermentation.
Delympus Coffee in Bener Meriah is the first café that has the cascara syrup and kombucha cascara on its menu. The cascara syrup sells for IDR 30,000 (USD $2.50) for a 600 ml bottle, and kombucha cascara for IDR 18,000 (USD $1.50) for 250 ml. As Kombucha in recent years has become a new trend in Indonesia and Aceh, many people are curious to try it out.
When I asked Dr. Murna if she was planning to commercialize her research, she told me that she had been doing this research as a community service, which she believes is one of her roles and responsibility as a lecturer. She would be more than happy if others use her research for commercial purposes. So far only one of her students is selling the cascara syrup, at a price of IDR 20,000 (USD $2) for 350 ml. This student and some other team members participated in the local student entrepreneurship expo where they introduced their cascara syrup and kombucha cascara, and many visitors were very enthusiastic about these new drinks. But here is another catch: one of the challenges for further commercialization is that people still are looking at cascara as a waste product. And there are other rising questions: Can consumers be convinced that a product most known as a waste product can actually be delicious? And how can we be certain if these drinks can be consumed safely?
At the time I did my interview with Dr. Murna, there were already 8 students involved in her cascara project. She plans to motivate even more students from Takengon and Bener Meriah to participate so that after graduation they can go back to develop cascara products for the market. This is typical for Dr. Murna´s approach: she wants to work locally, hurdle by hurdle, from finding the right recipes for peoples palates to convincing them that a by-product like coffee pulp is not simply waste, but something good and valuable; something that we just forgot to appreciate in the past.
1 Murna Muzaifa, Novel utilization of coffee processing by-products - kombucha cascara originated from ‘Gayo-Arabica’.pdf
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