Serious Eats: Drinks
Drinking The Coffee Cherry: What's the Deal with Bai?
Packed with antioxidants, apparently an effective antidepressant, and a delicious wake-up call every morning, coffee is already a potent beverage surrounded by a media swirl of health claims (some dubious, some legit). So do we need a new drink made out of the "superfruit" that surrounds the beans we already have been roasting, grinding and brewing for thousands of years?
According to the folks behind the new line of coffee-cherry-infused drinks bai, we sure do. Are they any good?
This isn't the first time coffee cherry has been used to "infuse" or "enhance" a soft or sports drink: The coconut-water brand O.N.E. briefly had a coffee-kissed version, and KonaRed uses the fruit from Hawaii-harvested cherry in its pineappley guzzler. And it is true that coffee is an antioxidant powerhouse, crammed with some of the same supposedly cancer-fighting compounds found in red wine, tea, and chocolate. In fact, studies have shown that the average American gets more antioxidants from feeding his espresso habit than from any other single food source, despite the relentless marketing of "superfruit" like açai and pomegranate.
But I ask again: Do we need a coffee drink that's not, you know, coffee?
First of all, let's dispel some common misconceptions about the fruit in which our precious caffeinated beans grow. For one thing, the fruit doesn't "go to waste" once the beans are taken out of it, despite what any ad man pushing these types of cherry-spiked drinks will tell you. Instead, it's often transformed into compost matter, and as such is incredibly valuable to the average coffee farmer—vastly more so, in fact, than it would be to simply harvest and sell the fruit itself for drink-making purposes.
Second, the cherry itself isn't an especially fleshy fruit, and doesn't produce much in the way of juice. The beans take up considerable real estate in the little red poppers, and bottling anything that tastes remotely like the coffee cherry itself would be a Herculean task. Which is another problem with drinks like bai: Though they may taste good (and bai mostly does), they absolutely in no way taste like coffee cherry.
Yes, bai does actually taste pretty good. Several of the flavors are bright and lively (Panama Peach was a favorite of mine, as was Costa Rica Clementine), and while the fruity flavors are more Vitamin Water-y than like any fresh juice, they're not tongue-numbingly sweet. (The regular versions are sweetened with cane juice, the low-calorie flavors rely on Stevia extract.)
But coffee lovers in search of that authentic cherry experience, don't be mislead: Sweetened with either cane juice or Stevia, cut with water and fruit concentrates, and best served ice cold, bai no more resembles the flavor of a coffee cherry than SunnyD does a fresh wedge of actual orange.
I'll stick to getting my antioxidants served hot, black, and freshly brewed (hold the Stevia, thanks). How about you?