Coffee without beans? Seattle startup brews a new cup of joe

A lady bends over a coffee grinder a block away from the Starbucks on Seattle’s crowded Western Avenue, while a black kettle full of sizzling water rests on a hot plate. The perfume of freshly made coffee is strong in the air. Except for a few notable characteristics, the scenario would be completely unremarkable. The woman, for one, is dressed in a lab coat. Two, instead of a mug, there’s a hot glass beaker. Three, not a single coffee bean was used in its creation.

This is the workplace of food tech business Atomo Coffee, where a team of food scientists and chemists led by Andy Kleitsch and Jarret Stopforth, friends and co-founders, are developing what they think will be the successor to meatless meat, eggless eggs, and milkless milk. Atomo’s coffeeless coffee is manufactured from recycled components including sunflower seed husks and watermelon seeds, which go through a proprietary chemical process to produce molecules that taste and feel like the genuine thing. The resultant grinds are brewed in the same way as normal coffee. Yes, it contains caffeine.

One of the most susceptible industries to climate change is the $100 billion coffee business. Arabica bean trees flourish in cold climates with distinct rainy and dry seasons, since they are the most abundant globally and are loved by both coffee snobs and businesses like Starbucks. However, as a result of global warming, such areas are shrinking. According to a 2019 assessment from experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the United Kingdom, arabica is predicted to lose at least half of its habitat during the next seven decades. As temperatures increase and producers relocate their fields in pursuit of cooler climates, deforestation rates climb as well.

Kleitsch and Stopforth are aiming to help in this area. They’ll finally launch their coffee this year, selling cold brew cans, after more than two years of development. They hope to grow into instant, brew-at-home grounds, and whole beans in the future, following in the footsteps of one of the company’s role models.

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

While there are several certifications available to demonstrate that items are sourced sustainably, the lack of a uniform standard with clear data opens the potential to producer fraud and customer distrust.

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