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Coffee without the bean

From the November 2019 issue.

Atomo Coffee has reverse-engineered the coffee bean and aims to launch bean-free molecular coffee in 2020.

With climate change a significant threat to the future of coffee production, Seattle-based startup Atomo Coffee has looked into new ways to produce the beverage. The result is “molecular coffee”, taking coffee’s chemical components and reproducing them in a lab setting.

“I’m an avid coffee drinker and have experienced a lot of bad coffee. I thought to myself, ‘there’s got to be a way to break down coffee and build it to be consistently great’,” Atomo Coffee Co-founder Jarret Stopforth says.

“I started playing around with the idea in my garage. Andy [Kleitsch], a good friend of mine and an entrepreneur in the tech space, was looking for his next start up. He wanted to do something good for the environment and asked if there was something I wished I was doing full time. I told him ‘coffee without the bean’. We talked more about the product, making something better for the environment, and teamed up to bring this idea to life.”

To produce the molecular coffee, Stopforth and Kleitsch analysed “the big five” elements that contribute to the coffee experience – aroma, flavour, mouthfeel, colour, and bioactives (caffeine and antioxidants).

“For us, coffee is the big five. This is how you experience coffee, create the ritual, and the effect it has on you,” Stopforth says. “We looked at these components, and the oils and acids that make up coffee, then looked at ways to find upcycled plant-based materials with high-sustainability indices to bring in those compounds.”

Once they had a suitable product, Stopforth and Kleitsch tried the molecular coffee out against an established brand at the University of Washington. Kleitsch says seven out of 10 people preferred Atomo Coffee. A Kickstarter campaign was launched in February 2019, which hit its funding target within a week.

“Atomo Coffee raised money faster than any other start-up I’ve been involved in. We’ve really been blazing ever since, hiring people, building a lab, getting bigger and better every day,” Kleitsch says.

Atomo Coffee received a further funding boost of US$2.6 million in May 2019 from investment firm Horizons Ventures. The company has also added Dr Chahan Yeretzian of the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) to its advisory board.

“Chahan directs the best Coffee Excellence Center in the world at ZHAW. We contacted him a while back to serve as an adviser and have had a number of discussions, visited him, and discussed our approach to making [molecular coffee]. He was interested to be a part of it,” Kleitsch says.

“We thought we’d see more of a backlash from the industry, but so far it has been overwhelmingly positive. Chahan’s stance was, as has happened in milk and meat with alternative solutions, so to should the coffee industry be open to alternatives.”

Kleitsch says Atomo is making new iterations of its molecular coffee every day, developing different formulas for ready-to-drink, espresso, and pour over coffee, and hopes to have a product on the market by 2020.

He adds that Atomo Coffee has the potential to boost coffee’s quality as well as its sustainable merits.

“Most people in the coffee industry know that coffee farming regions and environments are being heavily affected by climate change. In some cases, this is causing coffee to warm and ripen too quickly and lose flavour compounds, leading to problems with quality,” he says, adding that this can lead to deforestation as producers look for new ground.

“What we’d like is for coffee drinkers to get their coffee and not worry about the environmental impact. Atomo Coffee can provide that.”

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