What is coffee without beans?


An American start-up invents molecular coffee to save the planet

If you’re a coffee lover, you know that making a coffee is a nuanced process – the rich aroma, the comforting heat and the ritual of blending all call for a complex yet satisfying experience. With the ever-increasing variety and customization options now available, there are more ways to enjoy coffee than ever. And let’s not forget that most good cafes also serve all kinds of non-coffee food and drink, providing the perfect one-stop-shop for recharging your batteries. Drinking coffee therefore seems to be a harmless habit. However, the amount of coffee that society consumes also threatens the very existence of our planet. Around the world, people consume approximately 2.25 billion cups of coffee every day. That’s a lot of coffee beans, and those beans have to come from somewhere. With sustainability at the forefront of more people’s minds – and climate change protests and ongoing research – understanding the relationship between your coffee and the environment can help make informed choices about choosing the morning drink.

Coffee beans don’t emerge from the ground as a dark, roasted bean, waiting to be ground and brewed. These are planted and within 3 to 4 years are grown into trees that produce cherry-like fruits. In the fruits are the seeds that we use for coffee. The pickers pick the cherries when they are ripe, remove the pulp and dry the beans. After being dried, the beans pass through a processing station to remove any hulls or skin from clinging plants. Then these are sorted by size and weight before being exported as “green coffee”, commonly known as unroasted coffee beans. Once at their destination, these pale beans are roasted to their signature dark color. Here, the grains are brewed into a delicious drink.

Unfortunately, this process of growing coffee plants has a negative impact on the environment. Historically speaking, most coffee was produced by shade growing. But for the past few decades, plantations have been deforesting large areas to maximize sun exposure for coffee plants. Additionally, focusing on growing a single species of plant puts the entire crop at increased risk of disease. Moreover, coffee plantations require a huge amount of water to operate. A 2003 UNESCO study, for example, found that a standard cup of coffee requires 140 liters of water, most of which is used to grow the coffee tree itself. Then there is the fact that billions of coffee cups are thrown away around the world and only a tiny fraction of them are recycled. The plastic coating on these cups pollutes landfills and contributes to the global plastic pollution problem plaguing our oceans and waterways. Overall, there is no single part of the system that harms the environment the most.

In 2015, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) published a report stating that at least 50% of the land used for coffee cultivation will be unsuitable by 2050. The study revealed that coffee trees are extremely sensitive to climate change, and with global warming pushing temperatures to extremes, it could happen that some beans, such as Arabica, will become more expensive or rare in the future. Climate change will essentially reduce the number of coffee species and put nearly 60% of them at risk of extinction.

Given the adverse effects, it is certain that dumping coffee does not necessarily seem an attractive option. Research even suggests that drinking coffee is beneficial to your health. Instead of cutting it out completely, coffee drinkers can strive to make purchasing decisions that influence and support better growing practices. Sustainable measures are also practiced by industry leaders. For example, The Smithsonian has developed a Bird Friendly Coffee certification. Consumers can take reusable coffee mugs to their local coffee shop. Fairtrade certified brands encourage farmers to use production methods that promote plant diversity, waste and water management and reduced chemical use. Keurig and Nespresso now use reusable coffee pod containers. Other organizations like IDH Stability Trade Initiatives help farmers, industry leaders, the environment and consumers.

As the world tries to mitigate the effects of the coffee industry, Atomo Coffee, a start-up based in Washington, USA, has introduced a coffee that does not use beans. They call it molecular coffee. The name of the company says a lot about its products and its purpose. Atomo means atom in Italian. What Atomo Coffee has done is create a new molecular infusion from recycled ingredients – like sunflower husks and watermelon seeds, to avoid the need for coffee and cocoa beans. Founders Andy Kleitsch and Jarret Stopforth, along with a team of food scientists and researchers, invented a way to reverse the taste of a green coffee bean using organic and natural ingredients, including skin grapes, date seeds and chicory root, which are the remains of the agricultural harvest.

Jarret Stopforth, chief scientist and co-founder of Atomo Coffee, explained that “by evaluating the individual compounds in coffee, we were able to map the most important contributors to the characteristic aroma and flavor of coffee. Once we identified the most important compounds, we evaluated recycled and natural plant-based materials with high sustainability indices as a source for extracting and generating the mixture that allows us to create a “dashboard coffee – with this we can make coffee without the bean and modify our dashboard to create different flavor and aroma profiles. The company proudly claims that its technology has created a great-tasting cup of coffee that gives consumers a sustainable choice, as well as greater value for our farmers. “We like to think of ourselves as the Tesla of coffee,” adds Stopforth.

Atomo has made a promising start towards sustainability by reducing the use of fossil fuels, as few means of transport are needed to deliver their ingredients, and by reducing the carbon footprint by avoiding deforestation. Currently, the company offers its cold brew in two flavors – Ultra Smooth Molecular Cold Brew and Classic Molecular Cold Brew. According to them, Classic Roast “presents a nicely rounded medium roast cup with notes of cocoa, dark fruit and a whisper of smoke.” Ultra-Smooth Roast “attracts black coffee non-believers with an indulgent wave of natural caramelization.”

Coffee alone isn’t the company’s only eco-friendly selling point. Atomo used a service called Carbon Cloud, which helps calculate its own footprint and conduct research on the environmental impact of coffee to see how its process compares. Using this, it was concluded that Atomo’s product uses 94% less water and produces 93% less carbon emissions than conventional cold brew coffee. Atomo’s pitch sounds a lot like plant-based meat substitutes that have become popular in recent years. However, the company is still in its infancy. It has a Seattle-based outlet that can pump out 1,000 servings a day, according to Kleitsch. Eventually, the start-up would like to offer a wider assortment of products, including instant coffee and marc. Although the opportunity for a company like Atomo is great, it will face many challenges, taste being one of them. Speaking about this crucial factor, Kleitsch said: “When we first got started, we thought real coffee connoisseurs would hate us, honestly. It’s actually the opposite.

Atomo strengthens its molecular beers through a very innovative patented process by exploiting recycled ingredients and giving a second life to vegetable waste. The company has successfully analyzed and recreated conventional coffee compounds found in green coffee beans to maximize taste and minimize the impact created on the planet. The journey to change the world and reduce the carbon footprint of conventional coffee has been underway for some time now, but Atomo’s story comes full circle as these products are now increasingly available to the public. Sustainable coffee, as the company points out, not only protects the environment, but acts as quality assurance. No one who loves and loves coffee wants to see it disappear from the face of the Earth. Therefore, by investing more in organic, low-carbon coffee businesses, coffee quality as well as availability can be guaranteed for the future.

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