Mr. Beanless

Is Coffeeless Coffee the Next Impossible Burger?

The founders of Atomo have created a purportedly more sustainable coffee—in a lab, without using a single bean.

By Stefan Milne May 29, 2019 Published in the June/July 2019 issue of Seattle Met

Jarret Stopforth and Andy Kleitsch, like so many startup founders before them, want to “disrupt” and “hack” and “perfect.” Their target? The humble coffee bean.

The problem they want to address is this: Two pillars of Seattle culture—environmentalism and coffee—approach an impasse. Climate change is forcing coffee farms to move to higher elevations, causing further deforestation. Additionally, a study published earlier this year in Science Advances says at least 60 percent of the world’s wild coffee species are under threat of extinction. Coffee production, it seems, is in some trouble. But Stopforth, a local food scientist (with a resume that includes Campbell’s and Soylent), has qualms as much gastronomic as ecological.

“I love coffee,” he says, “but I [find] coffee to be extremely inconsistent and extremely unreliable.” He could go to the same shop, average or specialty, he says, twice in one day, order the same thing, and get divergent cups. Then he’d add cream and sugar to pad coffee’s bitter hit.

So he partnered with Kleitsch—whom Stopforth calls a “startup artist”—to reverse engineer the drink, to optimize it. Atomo Molecular Coffee is dark, roasty, caffeinated, and without bitterness and acidity. The pair won’t say what’s in a cup until their recipe is finalized, but Stopforth says it’s made from “sustainable ingredients” that won’t contribute to deforestation, pesticide use, or slave labor.

They plan to go to market late this year, selling each pound for somewhere in the $12 to $16 range, which they hope to lower as production scales up. In January, they ran a blind tasting on the University of Washington campus—clearly a nucleus for the city’s most refined palates—with Starbucks Pike Place Roast and Atomo. Of 30 people, 21 preferred Atomo.

Not everyone is so immediately smitten. “As a farmer, I have big concerns about a product that can actually be a substitute,” says Edwin Martinez. He grew up on a coffee farm and now runs Bellingham’s Onyx Coffee, an estimable importer of Guatemalan beans. “But if it’s effective,” he adds, “it’s probably a good thing.” He thinks a product like Atomo could supplant commercial-grade coffee that’s generally less sustainable and fetches farmers a poor price.

But Stopforth and Kleitsch’s goals go beyond a stand-in for Folgers. Stopforth says he can, like someone at a control board, tweak properties to mimic whatever a drinker wants—including the nuanced notes of specialty coffee.

I was intrigued. Some lab foods, like the Impossible Burger, are legitimately mimetically impressive—the differences discernible but not overwhelming. Alas, thus far, not so with Atomo. A trial batch—poured alongside some Caffe Umbria from an office machine—looks like coffee, sans the beaded constellation of oils glistening on the surface. But a whiff of Atomo is sweet and empty, like a weak cup laced with vanilla. That carries through in flavor. It’s not a shock that college students preferred it to the straight Starbucks, and perhaps amid lush whipped cream and flavored syrups, it will make a virtuous replacement for lesser beans. Taken straight—well, sustainability could use a stronger advocate.

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