Coffee Without Beans? A Startup Brews a New Cup of Joe

A woman bends over a coffee grinder a block away from the Starbucks on Seattle’s busy Western Ave., and a black kettle full of bubbling water sits on a hot plate. The scent of freshly made coffee is heavy in the air. Except for a few notable points, the scene will be mostly unremarkable. The woman, for one, is dressed in a lab coat. Two, instead of a cup, there’s a steaming glass beaker. Three, not a single coffee bean was used in its development.

This is the headquarters of food tech start-up Atomo Coffee Inc., where a team of food scientists and chemists led by Andy Kleitsch and Jarret Stopforth, friends and co-founders, are developing what they hope will be the successor to meatless meat, eggless eggs, and milkless milk. Atomo’s coffeeless coffee is made from upcycled ingredients like sunflower seed husks and watermelon seeds, which go through a proprietary chemical process to produce molecules that taste and sound like the real thing. The resulting grounds are brewed in the same way as standard coffee. Yeah, it contains caffeine.

One of the most vulnerable industries to climate change is the $100 billion coffee industry. Arabica bean plants flourish in cool climates with distinct rainy and dry seasons, as they are the most popular worldwide and are prefered by both coffee snobs and chains like Starbucks Corp. However, as a result of global warming, those areas are shrinking. According to a 2019 study from scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the United Kingdom, arabica is expected to lose at least half of its habitat over the next seven decades. As temperatures increase and farmers relocate their farms in search of cooler climates, deforestation rates rise as well.

Kleitsch and Stopforth are hoping to help in this area. They’ll finally launch their coffee this year, selling cold brew cans, after more than two years of growth. They eventually want to expand into instant coffee, brew-at-home grounds, and whole beans, as one of the company’s role models did.

“We like to think of ourselves as the Tesla of coffee,” said Stopforth, who has worked in food science and production for the past two decades. Meanwhile, Kleitsch is a serial entrepreneur and former Inc. product manager. “Before Tesla came along, there was no choice if you wanted a luxury, powerful vehicle that was not dependent on diesel or fuel,” Stopforth said. “In the same way, before Atomo, you had no choice if you wanted coffee that wasn’t related to deforestation. You have it now.”

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