Bye-bye beans: Atomo Coffee recreates the classic drink from the molecular level
The startup has its eyes on sustainability, threats to crops from global warming and using science to create a better-tasting cup of joe.
What is coffee? Is it a bean? A beverage? A plant? An experience?
The morning staple doesn’t have a standard of identity to define it. But Andy Kleitsch and Jarret Stopforth of startup Atomo Coffee — both avowed coffee lovers — say that it’s more than a bean.
“Coffee is an experience,” Stopforth, the chief science officer of Atomo Coffee, told Food Dive. “It's a ritual and it is a routine and it is something that you enjoy. It's the world's number one drug. It's your favorite nootropic.”
But today, coffee is derived from beans. According to a study by Britain's Royal Botanical Gardens and published by Science Advances, 60% of the world’s coffee species are under threat of extinction due to climate change. Thirteen species — including Arabica, the world’s most common source of coffee — are considered critically endangered.
But Atomo, led by Stopforth and Kleitsch, the CEO who describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur,” is attempting to save the coffee experience, even if the beans are in trouble. The company is working on building a cup of coffee from the chemical level: identifying what the components are in the beverage, bringing together the ones that make coffee great, and building it into a delivery format that will be familiar to caffeinated consumers. The startup currently has a Kickstarter campaign, and is hoping to hit the market at the end of this year.
Stopforth said there are thousands of compounds in coffee. But what the consumer identifies as coffee is a taste, mouthfeel and aroma. Atomo wants to optimize those compounds to recreate these characteristics and make a product that is chemically similar to what consumers are used to — and tastes better. The biggest difference from a materials standpoint is the drink won’t be from roasted coffee beans.
Atomo is working with advisers from Nestlé and Mattson, a food innovation company, to reverse engineer coffee. They’ve created a prototype that Kleitsch and Stopforth say tastes smoother and less bitter. And while they have highlighted this taste profile in some of their publicity about their company, Kleitsch told Food Dive that its creation was a “happy accident” and not one of the initial goals of the company.
They were brewing coffee in Stopforth’s garage, and his wife tasted a batch without any chlorogenic acid — a naturally occurring compound in coffee that contributes to its bitter taste, but also happens to provide many of what researchers say are health benefits. Stopforth’s wife remarked that the coffee she tasted is what all coffee really should taste like.
“Coffee is an experience. It's a ritual and it is a routine and it is something that you enjoy. It's the world's number one drug. It's your favorite nootropic.”
Chief science officer, Atomo Coffee
“Then we started giving it to more friends saying, ‘How do you like this coffee?’ “ Kleitsch said. “And it turned out that because 68% of people mask the bitter flavor in their coffee with cream and sugar, we found that when we offered them a cup that wasn't as bitter, they actually preferred it.”
Dropping chlorogenic acid isn’t the only scientific thing Atomo is doing to reinvent the classic hot beverage they’re calling molecular coffee — a name that Kleitsch said they love as science geeks, but could be persuaded to drop based on consumer reaction. Right now, they’re mostly working with liquid prototypes, but the plan is to create something reminiscent of coffee grounds so that the ritual of making coffee remains the same.
Stopforth said since Atomo has sustainability at its core, the company wants to upcycle something that would otherwise be a waste product to make these grounds. Currently, they’re looking at sunflower seed husks or watermelon seeds, but no decision has been made yet.
“There's endless possibilities for us to upcycle as part of this: to build beautiful coffee, make it sustainable,” Stopforth said. “And I want to be very clear that this mission is to build great tasting coffee. It's not just about saving the environment. It is build great-tasting coffee. Build better coffee that is sustainable, scalable and around for the next 500 years.”
Kleitsch and Stopforth think the fact that their product is great-tasting coffee will be enough to get consumers to trade in their beans for Atomo’s grounds. Taste tests have already been promising. A majority of students at the University of Washington, where Kleitsch is on the entrepreneurship program board, preferred Atomo. And, Kleitsch said, the taste nuance and profile is only going to get better. Atomo expects to eventually be able to sell different varieties of coffee, tasting like Ethiopian, Colombian and Kenyan beans.
The college students who participated in the taste test were very open to a coffee that was sustainable and only possible through food science, which bodes well for this sort of product’s future, Kleitsch said.
The sustainability implications of coffee — including the long supply chain, ecological concerns about the trees, and treatment of the workers who tend and harvest the beans — compound the environmental issues many varieties of coffee plant are facing. Stopforth and Kleitsch said Atomo started when Stopforth realized how deeply conflicted his feelings about coffee were.
“I love coffee, but coffee disappoints me and in many ways, right?” Stopforth said. “And I said, ‘I want it reliable. I want it consistent, and I want to feel good about it (in terms of ethical and environmental implications) when I drink it.’
"Don't take this as being good Samaritans who want to save the entire planet. We do, but at the same time, we're not trying to take coffee out of people's lives. And we're not trying to tell people, ‘Don’t drink beans.’ We're trying to tell people like there is an option. There is an alternative. There is a choice.”
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