The Coffee Apocalypse

Henri Kunz, a coffee enthusiast, believes that the days of real coffee are numbered due to climate change. Climate change is expected to shift the areas where coffee can grow, with some researchers estimating that the most suitable land for coffee will shrink by more than half by 2050 and that hotter temperatures will make the plants more vulnerable to pests, blight, and other threats. Meanwhile, demand for coffee is growing as upwardly mobile people in traditionally tea-drinking countries in Asia develop a taste for java.

To stave off the looming threats, some agricultural scientists are working on breeding climate-resilient, high-yield varieties of coffee. Kunz, the founder and chair of a “flavor engineering” company called Stem, thinks he can solve many of these problems by growing coffee cells in a laboratory instead of on a tree. Other entrepreneurs are taking a look at coffee substitutes of yore, like the barley beverage Kunz grew up drinking, with the aim of using sustainable ingredients to solve coffee’s environmental problems and adding caffeine to reproduce its signature jolt.

A crop of startups, including Atomo, Northern Wonder, and Prefer, is calling this category of throwbacks “beanless coffee,” even though in some cases their products contain legumes. Minus, a San Francisco-based beanless coffee company, claims that beanless coffee gives you that legendary coffee taste and all the morning pick-me-up you crave while also leaving you proud that you’re doing your part to help unfuck the planet.

Coffea arabica, the plant species most commonly cultivated for drinking, has been likened to Goldilocks. It thrives in shady environments with consistent, moderate rainfall and in temperatures between 64 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, conditions often found in the highlands of tropical countries like Guatemala, Ethiopia, and Indonesia. Coffee plantations can be sustainably integrated into tropical forests, but growing coffee leads to environmental destruction more often than not.

Climate change is an angry bear, as humans have been burning fossil fuels for 200 years, spewing planet-warming carbon dioxide into the air. Floods, droughts, heat waves, and the proliferation of coffee borer beetles and fungal infections are predicted to make many coffee-growing areas inhospitable to the crop, destroy coffee farmers’ profit margins, and sow chaos in the world’s coffee markets.

Coffee has been a staple in the past, with coffee being out of reach for most people. However, today’s beanless-coffee startups are attempting to put a modern spin on these time-honored, low-tech coffee substitutes. Northern Wonder, based in the Netherlands, makes its product primarily out of lupin beans, chickpeas, and chicory. Atomo, headquartered in Seattle, infuses date seeds with a proprietary marinade that produces “the same 28 compounds” as coffee, the company boasts. Singapore-based Prefer makes its brew out of a byproduct of soy milk, surplus bread, and spent barley from beer breweries, which are then fermented with microbes. Minus also uses fermentation to bring coffeelike flavors out of “upcycled pits, roots, and seeds.” All these brands add caffeine to at least some of their blends, aiming to offer consumers the same energizing effects they get from the real deal.

In trying to explain what makes today’s beanless coffees different from the oldfangled kind, David Klingen, Northern Wonder’s CEO, compared the relationship between modern meat substitutes and more traditional soybean products like tofu and tempeh. Many plant-based meats contain soybeans, but they’re highly processed and combined with other ingredients to create a convincingly meatlike texture and flavor. So it is with beanless coffee, relative to Caro-style grain beverages.

Each of these new beanless coffee companies has a slightly different definition of sustainability. Northern Wonder’s guiding light is nontropical ingredients, “because we want to make a claim that our product is 100 percent deforestation free,” Klingen said. Almost all its ingredients are annual crops from Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Turkey, countries whose forests are not at substantial risk of destruction from agriculture. A life cycle analysis of Northern Wonder’s environmental impacts, paid for by the company, shows that its beanless coffee uses approximately a twentieth of the water, generates less than a quarter of the carbon emissions, and requires about a third of the land area associated with real coffee agriculture.

Michael Hoffmann, professor emeritus at Cornell University and the coauthor of Our Changing Menu: Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need, said he was impressed with Northern Wonder’s life cycle analysis, which he described as nuanced and transparent about the limitations of its data. He praised the idea of using efficient crops, saying that some of those used by beanless coffee companies “yield far more per unit area than coffee, which is also a big plus.”

Other beanless coffee companies are staking their sustainability pitch on the repurposing of agricultural waste. Atomo’s green cred is premised on the fact that its central ingredients, date seeds, are “upcycled” from farms in California’s Coachella Valley. Whereas date farmers typically throw seeds away after pitting, Atomo pays farmers to store the pits in food-safe tote bags that get picked up daily. Minus, which also uses upcycled date pits, claims that its first product, a canned beanless cold brew (which is not yet available in stores), uses 94% less water and produces 86% less greenhouse gas emissions than the real thing. Those numbers are based on a life-cycle analysis that Saenz, Minus’ CEO, declined to share because it was being updated.

Despite beanless coffee companies’ impressive sustainability claims, not everyone is convinced that building an alternative coffee industry from scratch is better than trying to make the existing coffee industry more sustainable—by, for instance, helping farmers grow coffee interspersed with native trees or dry their beans using renewable energy. El Chami thinks the conclusion that coffee supply will dwindle in an overheating world is uncertain: A review of the research he co-authored found that modelers have reached contradictory conclusions about how climate change will change the amount of land suitable for growing coffee.

The demand for beanless coffee depends on consumers’ preference for the taste. For instance, the Atomo latte at Gumption Coffee in Midtown Manhattan was a pleasant experience, but the taste was slightly sweet and smooth. The Northern Wonder filter blend, made with date seeds instead of coffee beans, had to overcome a tougher test: it had to be drunk black, the way one would do their regular morning coffee. The aroma was closer to chickpeas roasting in the oven than the transcendent scent of arabica beans. The flavor was also off, though it couldn’t quite put his finger on what was wrong.

Northern Wonder is developing a beanlike product that releases volatile compounds similar to those that give real coffee its powerful fragrance, like various aldehydes and pyrazines. However, beanless coffee could win over some fans even if it doesn’t mimic coffee’s every attribute. Drinkers often rate his product higher for how much they like it than for how similar it is to coffee. When asked about oat milk tastes like milk, they say, “Eh, I don’t know. But is it tasty? ‘Yes.'”

The specter of plant-based meat and dairy looms large over the nascent beanless coffee industry. A slew of startups like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods hit the scene in the 2010s with products that they touted as convincing enough to put animal agriculture out of business. But in recent years, these companies have faced declining sales in the face of concerns about health, taste, and price.

Jake Berber, the CEO and co-founder of Prefer, fears that something similar could happen to beanless coffee businesses. He hopes that everyone in the industry will keep pushing out delicious products that people enjoy so that the whole industry of beanless coffee, bean-free coffee, can profit from that, and they can sort of help each other out.

Different beanless coffee companies are staking out different markets, with some positioning themselves as premium brands. Saenz wouldn’t say how much Minus wants to charge for its canned cold brew, but she said it will be comparable to the “high-end side of coffee, because we believe we compete there in terms of quality.” Atomo is putting the finishing touches on a factory in Seattle with plans to sell its beanless espresso to coffee shops for $20.99 per pound—comparable to a specialty roast.

In contrast, Northern Wonder and Prefer are targeting the mass market. Northern Wonder is sold in 534 grocery stores in the Netherlands and recently became available at a leading supermarket in Switzerland. Prefer is selling its blend to coffee houses, restaurants, hotels, and other clients in Singapore with a promise to beat the price of their cheapest arabica beans. Berber predicts that that proposition will get more appealing to buyers and consumers in the coming years as the cost of even a no-frills, mediocre espresso drink approaches, and surpasses, $10. A warming planet will help turn coffee beans into a luxury product, and middle-class customers will get priced out. Prefer’s bet on a climate-proof coffee replacement will pay off in the future.

Read More @ Slate

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