A Seattle-based company has developed a ‘beanless’ coffee using molecular science and ‘widely available and upcycled food sources’. They claim the ‘great flavour’ of their brew is excelled only by its environmental sustainability. So what’s it all about?
You can’t read the phrase ‘beanless coffee’ and not be intrigued. I thought, at first, it was some kind of chemical blend that you use like instant coffee. Just add hot water. Or maybe a product originally engineered for the space program, like Tang.
But it turns out to be something different, and more complicated that that. I now submit, for your approval, a rundown on the stuff…
Why beanless coffee?
We’re told that coffee growers are systematically burning down the forests in their sub-tropical realms to find more-fertile land to grow their monoculture crop. This is bad for a number of reasons. For a start, monoculture farming is fundamentally unsustainable.
But the Amazon forests have been called ‘the lungs of the world’ for their role as providers of oxygen to the atmosphere. Cleaning the air, as some put it. But coffee farmers there have been deforesting the river basin for years. They just use up one plot of land and move on to a new, virgin, fertile spot.
Coffee growers often plant their bushes on hillsides. But denude a hillside of vegetation to plant widely-spaced bushes and you open the way for erosion, mudslides and other nasty natural phenomena.
Add to these destructive, unsustainable farming practices the effects of global warming, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Atomo is the Seattle company that’s introducing what it calls the first beanless coffee. They’re playing it pretty close to the vest, but they have revealed the general parameters of their product.
“Atomo set out to tackle supply chain and sustainability issues plaguing the coffee industry. Solving these problems would require building a great tasting coffee, with all the same molecular structure, from widely available natural ingredients, without changing the brewing rituals.”
“Atomo has pioneered breakthrough tech allowing us to extract coffee compounds from widely available and upcycled food sources.”
The website goes on to explain that Atomo’s product is made from, “Date Seed, Ramon Seeds, Sunflower Seed Extract, Fructose, Pea Protein, Millet, Lemon, Guava, Defatted Fenugreek Seeds, Caffeine, and Baking Soda.” Sorry, but nothing in that list cries out ‘great coffee taste’ to me. However, I will accept their explanation that they go down to the molecular level to extract the components they then put back together as beanless coffee.
A few drawbacks
Atomo claims their product is intended to be used in the same way as real coffee – using the same traditional brewing methods. I have a little trouble seeing how that works, in my mind’s eye. Such doubts may turn some potential consumers off.
Beanless coffee is also pretty expensive. When they have scaled up production to suit commercial retail requirements, Atomo expect its product to go for about (US)$21.00 per lb. That’s right in line with the low-end imported brands of whole-bean coffee. But other engineered foods, such as lab-grown meat and plant-based substitutes, have all débuted at higher prices than had originally been estimated. So we’ll see.
There are sociopolitical issues surrounding Atomo’s beanless coffee, as well. But humanitarians are currently putting on a big push for ethically sourced and sustainable real coffee. Now, along comes Atomo, basically saying, if they’re really successful, they’re going to put the coffee farmers out of business. For the good of the environment, of course.
Other sage economic thinkers agree. Even formidable Forbes magazine – a beacon of business wisdom – says real coffee may be in trouble from products such as Atomo’s.
Some startling stats
Consider, if you will the startling statistics surrounding global coffee culture…
Nescafé says more than 400 billion (yes, with a ‘b’) cups of coffee are consumed annual around the world.
Americans drink around 450 million cups of Java every single day. And they’re not even among the Top 10 per capita coffee consuming countries.
So, what if Atomo’s beanless coffee does take the world by storm? Where will their suppliers be? Will there be new sustainability issues associated with the source foods Atomo uses in its process? Sure, they use date pits discarded by the date packing industry. And Caffeine that would otherwise be discarded by the decaf coffee producers.
But can the date and decalf sectors provide enough raw material needed by a monster Atomo to satisfy the theoretical demand for its product? What about the more exotic source foods, like Ramon and Fenugreek? I don’t see any problem feeding a future Atomo’s cavernous maw with fructose or baking soda. But guavas and lemons? That’s a real question mark for me.
I’ve said before that I’m not surprised the plant-based meat bubble is bursting. Ditto, lab-cultured meats. Years ago, I predicted they would just be bridging technologies to help consumers make the difficult transition from real meat to plant-base diets. Using plant products such as rice, legumes, quinoa and whole grains in their own natural forms, rather than camouflaging them as something else.
I hate to say it, but I don’t see a bright future for Atomo’s beanless coffee either. Another bridging technology. I think like future may be largely coffee-less. Except for a few surviving boutique growers who serve a small, affluent top-end clientele. And most ordinary folks will be looking ahead to new beverages of choice.
~ Maggie J.