Coffee comes in many forms — hot, cold, flavored and decaffeinated. But the idea of coffee without the bean —well that’s something new.
It’s called “molecular coffee.”
Atomo, a start-up located just blocks from the famous Starbucks in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, said it’s reverse-engineered the coffee bean. And if you’re wondering why, you’re not alone.
The idea started in serial tech entrepreneur Andy Kleitsch’s garage in 2018, when he and friend Jarret Stopforth, a food scientist who comes with decades of experience from the world of consumer packaged goods at major brands including Chobani and Campbell Soup, were talking about projects they aspired to work on.
“I told him, ‘I want to make coffee without the bean,'” Stopforth said. “And he said, ‘you’re blowing my mind, why would you want to do that?'”
The goal was to create a consistently perfect cup of coffee that is better for the environment, Stopforth said. He noted coffee farming has taken a toll on the rainforest. Also, most coffee is grown in certain latitudes and as the climate changes, farms are having to continually move higher, where there is less land.
A study by The Climate Institute, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., found that without strong action to reduce emissions, climate change will cut the global area that is currently suitable for coffee production by as much as half. What’s more, by 2080, the group says wild coffee could become extinct. Major coffee names from Starbucks to McDonald’s to Lavazza are taking steps to make strategic investments to support farmers and sustainability.
Atomo has gone through hundreds of iterations trying to nail what Stopforth calls the “five core components of coffee — the body, the mouth feel, the aroma and flavor.”
The coffee — yes, they call it coffee — is made with “upcycled agricultural products” that include sunflower seed husks, watermelon seeds, acacia gum and yerba mate caffeine. All are waste stream products that are typically discarded by farmers, Kleitsch said. Other ingredients and production process are kept close to the vest for intellectual property reasons.
CNBC tried it and asked people to participate in a blind taste test on the street in Seattle. Most agreed, it tastes sweeter than traditional cold brews, something the company says is intentional.
Operations at Atomo Coffee
“Many people actually don’t like the taste of coffee,” Kleitsch said. “In fact, 68% of people add cream and sugar to their coffee because they simply don’t like the taste.”
The duo put its product out to Kickstarter earlier this year, raising $25,000 and getting a lot of love from those similarly concerned about the way coffee is made.
Atomo plans to ship its first batch of cold brew to its Kickstarter contributors in early 2020 and hopes to be in retail by mid-year as it continues to work on its coffee grounds to give consumers a hot brewing option that tastes, and most importantly, smells like the real deal.
“We want to give everyone the same experience, scoop for scoop, for what they have today. So whether that’s grounds or whether that’s a bean that you want to grind, you know, our goal is to deliver that coffee to you in the same way with the same ritual that you enjoy today, and then deliver the same results that you expect,” Kleitsch said.
Atomo has garnered attention outside of Kickstarter as well. Horizons Ventures, backer of Impossible Foods, invested $2.6 million in the start-up. Bryan Crowley, CEO of Soylent, is also an advisor, after meeting Stopforth at the plant-based meal replacement company.
“I love that they were thinking of coffee as an experience, not just a product,” Crowley said. “The idea of delivering the coffee experience without the bean and without the impact to the environment got me really excited.”
Crowley said both companies are operating in the “food-tech” space, which is seeking to find disruptive solutions to challenges, including sustainability issues. And in a world where brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are making partnerships with major restaurant chains left and right, he insists, this is not a fad.
“It’s here to stay, and part of it is because it’s the right next step … And that’s partly why I think it’s here to stay because we have to do it. We have to find disruptive solutions to these issues that we’re facing from a sustainability standpoint,” he said.