• Thomas Schueneman

Asking the Tough Questions - Atomo Coffee

The final installment of our series Beyond the Bean asks the tough questions. We first looked at coffee in the modern world - where it comes from, how it gets to us, and how much we love the stuff. Gotta have it!

That led us to Andy Kleitsch and Jarrett Stopforth, founders of Atomo Coffee. What’s so special about Atomo? Good question! As we explained in Part 2, Kleitsch, Stopforth, and their team are bringing to market coffee produced without the coffee bean.

You’ve got questions! Tough questions! Let’s get started.

Is It Coffee?

The suggestion that Atomo isn’t coffee but instead a “coffee-like beverage” rankles Kleitsch and Stopforth. “We’re coffee,” says Kleitsch. Both he and Stopforth vigorously push back against the notion that they are “guys adding chemicals to make coffee.”

They are quick to point out the organic nature of their process. The feedstock isn’t synthetic chemicals mixed in a laboratory but organic material upcycled from agriculture. Coffee does not have the same labeling restrictions as meatless meat.

“We’ve mapped all the critical compounds that define coffee as coffee,” Kleitsch says. “What we're doing is selecting upcycled plant-based material and putting it through a very natural process of conversion into the compounds that define coffee.”

In other words, Atomo coffee uses a molecular map to find another route to what we know as coffee. It isn’t conventional coffee, but it’s still coffee.

Is It Good Coffee?

At this point in the game, I’m not even sure this is a fair question. Certainly, not everyone thinks so. But so far, enough do, especially for Atomo’s target market. A blind taste test conducted at the University of Washington found that 70 percent of the tasters preferred Atomo over Starbucks, highlighting the irony of our relationship with coffee. As much as we love it, have to have it, can’t get started without it, most of us don’t like it that much.

“Sixty-eight percent of coffee drinkers use sugar or cream to flavor their coffee,” says Kleitsch. Most of us find black coffee too acidic, a bit nasty tasting. With Atomo’s molecular process, it’s possible to “dial-in” the roast and flavor notes to your liking. “We want to make a coffee profile that’s very approachable,” says Kleitsch.

“What we’re doing here is trying to approach this through a pallet perspective… something that’s very easy for a consumer to understand and enjoy,” he says.

They’re not there yet, but the plan is that by using their “coffee dashboard,” Atomo will be able to create every varietal of coffee. So if you like Starbucks, you can have it. Only better.

The Atomo of Coffee

A cup of molecular Atomo Coffee

I argue that, if it were possible, we’d all prefer our coffee to source from a passionate, dedicated, small-holder farmer, stewarding his land through sustainable harvesting of his crop of hand-picked coffee cherries. From farm to cup would entail a transparent, low-carbon supply chain. But the world is strained, and the breaking point is in sight. Given the constraints of climate change and global consumption patterns, such a scenario, if even possible, is manifestly unsustainable at this stage in the game.

We can blithely get our coffee, be it a “third wave” brand or the more utilitarian stuff, until, one day, we can’t anymore. I’ve seen a lot of ostensibly good ideas come and go. I’m skeptical of market hype. But somebody’s got to be the first to propose radical ideas for solving the army of wicked problems we face. We should embrace those with the talent and resources to execute their ideas. It works, or it doesn’t. If it does, we take a small step forward. If it doesn’t, we iterate, we move on to the next seemingly good idea.

So far, Atomo looks like a good idea to solve the prospect of a world without coffee. The concept doesn’t address the issue of small-holder farmers (they skirt around that issue on the FAQ website page), and there are still a lot of questions regarding scaling up its feedstock supply chain.

I ask the tough questions as a hopeful sign that molecular coffee will work, will find a receptive market, and will alleviate at least some of the daunting challenges the coffee industry faces in the 21st century.

Andy Kleitsch, Jarrett Stopforth, and the team at Atomo Coffee are willing and able to give it a go.

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