A US-based start-up invents molecular coffee to save the planet
If you are a coffee lover, you know that making one is a nuanced process – the rich aroma, the comforting warmth, and the ritual of getting it together, everything calls for a complex yet satisfying experience. With the ever-increasing variety and customisation options now available, there are more ways to enjoy coffee than ever. And let’s not forget that most good coffee shops will also serve all manner of food and non-coffee beverages, providing the ideal one-stop shop for a chance to recharge. Drinking coffee, therefore, seems like an innocuous habit. However, the amount of coffee that society consumes also threatens the very existence of our planet. People all over the world consume about 2.25 billion cups of coffee every day. That is a lot of coffee beans, and those beans ought to come from somewhere. With sustainability at the forefront of more peoples’ minds – and climate change protests and ongoing research – understanding the relationship between your coffee and the environment can help make thoughtful choices about the choice of morning beverage.
Coffee beans do not come out of the ground as a dark, roasted bean, waiting to be ground up and brewed. These are planted and, in 3 to 4 years, are cultivated into trees that produce cherry-like fruits. Within the fruits are the seeds we use for coffee. Harvesters pick the cherries when they are ripe, remove the pulp, and dry the beans. After having dried, the beans go through a processing station to remove any husks or clinging plant skin. Then, these are sorted by size and weight before getting exported as ‘green coffee’, commonly known as unroasted coffee beans. Once they have reached their destination, these pale beans are roasted into their characteristic, dark colour. Here, the beans are brewed to make for a delicious drink.
Unfortunately, this process of growing coffee plants negatively impacts the environment. Historically speaking, most coffee was produced through shade-grown cultivation. But since the last few decades, plantations have been deforesting large areas to maximise sun exposure to coffee plants. Also, focusing on growing only one species of plant puts the entire crop at an increased risk of falling to diseases. On top of that, coffee plantations demand a huge amount of water to function. A 2003 UNESCO study, for instance, found that a standard cup of coffee requires 140 litres of water, most of which is used to grow the coffee plant itself. Next, is the fact that billions of coffee cups are thrown away around the world, and only a tiny fraction of these are recycled. The plastic coating on these cups pollutes landfills and contributes to the global plastic pollution problem that plagues our oceans and waterways. Overall, there is not a single part of the system that harms the environment the most.
In 2015, the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) released a report saying at least 50% of the land used to grow coffee will be unsuitable by 2050. The study found that coffee plants are extremely sensitive to changes in the climate, and with global warming pushing temperatures into the extremes, it could happen that some beans, like Arabica, will become increasingly more expensive or uncommon 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 harmful effects, it is certain that dumping coffee does not necessarily seem like an appealing option. Research even suggests that coffee consumption benefits health. Instead of completely cutting it, coffee drinkers can strive to make purchasing decisions that influence and support better-growing practises. Sustainable measures are also being practised by industry leaders. For instance, The Smithsonian developed a Bird Friendly Coffee certification. Consumers can bring reusable coffee cups to their local café. The Fairtrade Certified brands encourage farmers to use production methods that support plant diversity, waste and water management, and minimised use of chemicals. Keurig and Nespresso now use reusable coffee pod containers. Other organisations like the IDH Stability Trade Initiatives help the farmers, industry leaders, environment, and consumers.
While 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 company name speaks volumes about its products and purpose. Atomo stands for atom in Italian. What Atomo Coffee has done is create a new molecular brew from upcycled ingredients – like sunflower husks and watermelon seeds, to avoid the need for coffee and cocoa beans. The founders, Andy Kleitsch and Jarret Stopforth, along with a team of food scientists and researchers, invented a way to reverse engineer the taste of a green coffee bean using organic and natural ingredients, including grape skin, date seeds, and chicory root, that are left over from farm harvesting.
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 significant ones contributing to the characteristic aroma and flavour of the coffee. Once we identified the most significant compounds we evaluated upcycled and natural plant-based material with high sustainability indices as a source for extracting and generating the blend that enables us to create a coffee “dashboard” – with this we can make coffee without the bean and tweak our dashboard to create different flavour and aroma profiles.” The company proudly says that their technology has created a great-tasting cup of coffee, which provides consumers with a sustainable choice, as well as greater value for our farmers. “We like to think of ourselves as the Tesla of coffee”, Stopforth adds.
Atomo has made a promising start towards sustainability by cutting down on the use of fossil fuel, as little transportation is needed to deliver their ingredients, and reducing the carbon footprint by not necessitating deforestation. Currently, the company offers its cold brew in two flavours – Ultra Smooth Molecular Cold Brew and Classic Molecular Cold Brew. According to them, Classic Roast, “presents a well-rounded medium roast cup with hints of cocoa, dark fruit, and a whisper of smoke.” Ultra-Smooth Roast “entices black coffee non-believers with an indulgent wave of natural caramelisation.”
The coffee alone is not 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 coffee’s environmental impact to see how its process stacks up. Using this, it was concluded that Atomo’s product uses 94% less water and produces 93% fewer carbon emissions than conventional cold brew coffee. Atomo’s pitch is quite like that of plant-based meat alternatives that have gotten popular in recent years. The company, however, is still in its early stages. 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 grounds. Though the opportunity for a company like Atomo is big, it will face plenty of challenges, taste being one of them. Talking about this crucial factor, Kleitsch said “when we first launched, we thought that the real coffee connoisseurs would hate us, honestly. It’s actually been the opposite.”
Atomo empowers its molecular brews through a very innovative, patented process by harnessing upcycled ingredients and giving plant waste a second life. The company successfully analysed and recreated the compounds of conventional coffee found within green coffee beans to maximise taste and minimise the impact created on the planet. The journey to change the world and reduce the carbon footprint of conventional coffee has been in the works for some time now, but Atomo’s story comes full circle as these products have now become increasingly available to the public. Sustainable coffee, as the company reminds, not only protects the environment but acts as quality assurance. No one who enjoys and loves coffee wants to see it disappear from the face of the Earth. Therefore, by investing more in organic coffee businesses, one with a low carbon footprint, the quality of coffee, as well as the availability can be guaranteed for the future.