Though coffee is grown in many countries, the majority of blends consist of just two species: arabica and robusta — and unfortunately, those two species are also highly vulnerable to climate change. Thanks to rising temperatures, fungi, pests, and diseases are already affecting coffee production in many areas of the world. It’s bad enough that some growers actually abandoned their farms in 2019.
To make matters worse, global demand for coffee is still growing, which is leading to deforestation and destroying wildlife habitats as farmers are forced to carve out new spaces to raise crops. But what if we didn’t have to grow coffee beans to make coffee? That’s precisely the idea behind Atomo: a Seattle-based startup that’s figured out a way to make coffee molecule by molecule — no bean necessary. Food scientist Jarret Stopforth came up with the idea and partnered with his friend Andy Kleitsch to create the company.
How do you make coffee without the beans?
There are over a thousand chemical compounds that make up coffee, some more important than others when it comes to imparting taste and aroma.
“The truth behind it is that there are only a few dozen compounds that actually critically define coffee, without which you wouldn’t know it or perceive it as coffee,” said Stopforth. One study pegged pyrazines, ketones, phenols, and sulfur compounds as some of the compounds impacting aroma. These compounds vary based on a number of factors, including how the beans are roasted. Researchers showed in another study that it was possible to distinguish between countries of origin based on the compounds found in individual beans.
Eventually, the Atomo team plans on mimicking different varieties of coffee, like arabica and robusta, based on such differences. For now, the company is starting with three kinds of cold brew, with different levels of roast intensity: a smooth, low-bitter one; a medium-roast; and a bold, darker roast. The nitro brews will be served from a tap in high-end locations, for around $4 a cup.
When I visited the Atomo office in Seattle, Kleitsch poured me a class of the ultra-smooth variety. It felt more like he was serving me a beer than coffee. The liquid came from a mini keg, and he poured it into a tulip-style glass. The tan froth might have come from a stout. I drink cold brew from a bottle every day but never without cream. The Atomo smelled exactly like coffee and didn’t require any milk or sugar to take the bitterness down. It was as smooth as promised, and if I didn’t know it wasn’t from a bean, I probably wouldn’t have been able to guess it wasn’t “real” coffee. I got a look at the prototype for the grounds; they also smelled like coffee, albeit ones that had been sitting out for a few days.
“It’s not synthetic; it’s just not from a bean”
Atomo is still working out where its brews will debut, though a number of companies with large campuses have already been in touch. They’re about nine months away from reaching that point. Kleitsch compares it to the way Impossible launched its burgers. “We’re going to face a similar challenge early on when we start to ramp up our manufacturing,” he said. “So really, it’s just about kind of having these marquee locations where we share the experience of the product, knowing that we don’t have enough product to actually scale nationwide.”
Stopforth has been tinkering with the Atomo recipe for two years. To find the compounds that make coffee that familiar bitter, nutty, roasty flavor and aroma, he had to substitute them in and out to find the right ones. In the early days, the product looked very different. “When we first started building this, we were building it with pure compounds, stacking it with good compounds,” he said. “And what we came to note was that coffee is not the sum of its parts.”
Finding that he couldn’t recreate coffee from the compounds alone, Stopforth turned to the techniques used in the traditional process: fermentation, brewing, and extracting. That meant using sustainable and upcycled material, like watermelon seeds, stems, and husks — the plant waste humans don’t typically consume. “It’s not rocket science, but it is complex in the degree of difficulty to find all the precursor compounds from upcycled materials to match the fingerprint of coffee,” said Stopforth. Kleitsch described it as a combination of beer brewing, fermentation, and coffee making. “It’s kind of a combination of beer brewing, you know, coffee making fermentation. It’s really taking all those techniques and just blending them together,” he said.
Acorn coffee and peanut coffee already exist, but these caffeine-free alternatives don’t taste like the stuff from the bean. Atomo’s innovation is to find the compounds in coffee and get them from other sources, then put through fermentation, extraction, and so on, so that the result is as close to the real deal as possible. To Stopforth, these are all pretty natural processes and equates Atomo more with lab-grown meat than plant-based burgers. “It’s not synthetic; it’s just not from a bean,” he said. Eventually, you’ll be able to see exactly what’s Atomo’s coffee, but it’s waiting on its patent.
In addition to being better for the environment than coffee beans, Atomo sees customization as its other advantage. “We make bespoke coffee,” said Stopforth. “We can do what we want with this because we pulled the levers.” That might mean less-acidic, low-bitter brews. Then there’s the main reason people skip out on a cup of coffee: “We can make coffee for babies,” he said. “No caffeine.” There’s probably not much of a market for that, but those who abstain for religious reasons, on the other hand… Kleitsch said some Mormons have gotten in touch: “There is a large audience that has reached out to us and said, ‘What can you make? Hey, can we have coffee now?’”
Eventually, Atomo wants to reach every type of coffee drinker, even if it’s not aiming to fully replace the bean-based variety. After the Nitro launch, the company will release grounds before 3D-printing its own coffee beans. That would be a first: a coffee that’s gone from ground to bean and back again.
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