• Thomas Schueneman

Thinking Outside the Bean - Atomo Coffee

Part two of "Beyond the Bean", a three-part series about coffee and how one company is revolutionizing how we think about coffee in the 21st century.

Agricultural waste can help supply our demand for coffee

Photo by Mustafa Yasser on Unsplash

In part 1 of our series Beyond the Bean, we embrace our (mostly) happy addiction to coffee. Coffee is arguably more than a beverage. Coffee is a cultural touchstone, an anchor in human society.

Despite the Socio-Psycho-Economic influence and importance of coffee, it comes to us through an increasingly tenuous and unsustainable supply chain. Some say we will be “out of coffee” by 2050.

More specifically, research suggests that between 55 and 62 percent of the current land used to produce coffee will no longer be viable due to climate change. That’s a bummer, and also, ironically enough, a wake-up call, like a double espresso at 4 am.

This stark assessment of coffee supply led Andy Kleitsch and Jarret Stopforth, founders of Seattle-based Atomo Coffee, to an epiphany. What if we could make coffee without the coffee bean?

Let’s ease into this. Go ahead, get some coffee.

Thinking Outside the Bean

Andy Kleitsch and Jarret Stopforth are betting on the future of coffee. Not coffee as we’ve known it and grown it, but adapting to a world bumping up against limits. On coffee without the coffee bean. Impacted by economics and climate change, traditional coffee farming is vulnerable to both market and environmental stressors.

Fortunately, there are efforts to help coffee farmers compete and benefit in a more equitable and sustainable marketplace. Nonetheless, resilience in the 21st-century, particularly with what we take for granted, demands alternatives.

What would change if we could make coffee without coffee beans?

Kleitsch and Stopforth have the answer: beanless coffee that is similar (though not entirely analogous) to the idea of meatless meat.

The Tesla of Coffee?

It’s become a cliché: the young startup disrupting the old way of doing things with innovation and good intention. They set an excited market on fire and revolutionize an industry. Creative destruction. Indeed, Kleitsch claims Atomo is the “Tesla of coffee.”

Whoa. That’s an undeniably snappy catchphrase, but what does it even mean? Market-speak sometimes hobbles vision.

Let’s dig a little deeper than the 5-second elevator speech of “we’re the Tesla of fill-in-the-blank.” Instead, let’s look at what Kleitsch and Stopforth are doing - irrespective of Elon Musk. I think it better serves what Atomo is trying to do - being the Atomo of coffee.

Top-Down, Bottom Up

Kleitsch, CEO of Atomo, is a successful serial entrepreneur and business guru. Stopforth is a doctor of philosophy and food microbiology. The meeting of the minds for Stopforth and Kleitsh came from the synergy of microbiology and business savvy.

So sure, they’ve got some ideas about making coffee more sustainable between the two of them.

“We started digging into coffee as an industry, not just a product,” Stopforth says. “so many things concerning the environment, the supply chain, the carbon footprint, and the water usage.” The more they dug, the more they saw an opportunity of combining Kleitsh’s entrepreneurial skills with Stopforth’s food microbiology skills.

With a broad industry perspective and its challenges, they set out to reverse engineer the fundamental element in the process—the coffee bean.

Coffee beans. Do we need them to have coffee? Atomo Coffee doesn't think so.

Mapping coffee

What is a coffee bean? A container of ingredients. A uniquely-combined molecular structure. Any structure can be mapped. There are about 200 chemical compounds in a green, unprocessed coffee bean and the reactions of those compounds in the process of washing, milling, drying, and roasting.

“I'm always in the frame of mind that there are better ways to do things,” says Stopforth. With his experience as a food scientist and microbiologist, Stopforth studied the qualities of coffee beans by mapping the critical compounds that “actually define coffee as coffee.”

With his map, Stopforth and Kleitsch use upcycled agricultural plant waste - examples include watermelon seeds and sunflower seed husks - as the base material for Atomo’s molecular coffee.

For now, at least, Kleitsch and Stopforth keep specifics about the eventual end process and feedstock supply chain close to the chest. The ambiguity at this early stage is understandable; they’re still working it out. Disruption, creative or otherwise, leads to new challenges and unintended consequences.

Nonetheless, It is important not to downplay feedstock and process-at-scale issues, the Achilles heel of many a good idea.

All this said, Stopforth and Kleitsch are willing to try and have the chops to make it happen. So Upcycling plant agricultural waste material to circumvent an unsustainable coffee supply chain is a worthy endeavor. Good enough to attract a reported 11.6 million thus far in funding and a staff of eleven.

In our next installment of "Beyond the Bean", we’ll ask the tough questions: Is it coffee? Is it good coffee?

Stay tuned!

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