From the Impossible Burger to Impossible Coffee?
Meat-free burgers have taken off - will bean-free coffee do the same? Yes, you read that right… Atomo, a Seattle-based company, is working on developing what they call “molecular coffee” – coffee grounds that are engineered in a lab, with no beans involved at all. We’ve all seen plant-based ‘meat’ and dairy-free milk – is bean-free coffee the next sustainable alternative?
The coffee industry faces major agricultural challenges thanks to climate change and deforestation. The world’s land and water resources are under threat, along with many wild coffee species, so it’s not the worst idea to have a sustainable alternative on offer when the future of coffee production is so uncertain. "We believe we have a moral obligation to stop harmful coffee farming practices, but none of us want to stop drinking coffee," said Andy Kleitsch, CEO of Atomo. "Atomo's technology can halt the need for further deforestation by reducing the demand for coffee beans."
Atomo’s work is still proprietary, but the general idea is that a cup of coffee can be reverse-engineered using molecular biology. And they’ve got a lot of support. US $2.6 million of support to be exact – seed funding from Horizon Ventures, the investors behind Impossible Foods (the food-tech company that created the faux-meat Impossible Burger). With this injection of capital, Atomo aims to start selling beanless coffee grounds as soon as 2020.
"I love coffee, but every day I was adding cream and sugar to mask coffee's bitter flavour. By replicating the taste, aroma and mouthfeel of coffee, we've designed a better tasting coffee that's also better for the environment.” – Jarret Stopforth, Atomo’s chief scientist and co-founder
So how exactly does one reverse-engineer a cup of coffee? Stopforth, who has a PhD in molecular biology, broke down the thousands of chemical compounds that make up a roasted bean to understand the building blocks of coffee’s flavour, aroma and mouthfeel, and then recreated those core components without the beans.
Atomo promises all the caffeine and flavour of a regular cup of coffee (and even the same colour), but without the beans or the bitterness. Atomo’s website says the company is exploring naturally sustainable ingredients to create a cup of coffee that’s better for the environment, largely by reducing the volume required of commercial coffee farmers and the environmental impact of coffee production.
A sustainable alternative
Not every coffee drinker may be on board with giving up the sacred coffee bean, but Atomo say they’re not looking to destroy the coffee industry – they just want to offer a sustainable alternative. It’s also good news for those coffee drinkers who typically add milk, cream or sugar to their brew to mask the bitterness since Atomo claims to have created ‘the perfect coffee’ – the brew you know and love, without any bitterness.
Atomo’s bean-free molecular coffee is still a work-in-progress, and it remains to be seen whether the ingredients that go into it do end up better for the environment (and coffee consumer) at the end of the day. But there’s nothing wrong with a little competition, and innovation is what keeps the coffee industry moving forward.