To bean or not to bean - is real coffee headed for extinction?Jan 21, 2024
My grandfather had a Sunday ritual. After lunch, my grandma would make a big pot of coffee, the water heated on a wood burning oven, beans ground in a wooden hand mill, and filtered through a cloth bag. This sounds very rustic for the 1970s when electric coffee makers were available. But my grandparents were in their early 80’s then and had never felt the need to “upgrade” and go modern.
My Opa, as I called him, roasted beans on a huge Probat in the barn behind the house and the coolest thing about his Sunday ritual was the way he drank the coffee. My grandma set out the fine china that my grandparents had received at their wedding some 60 years earlier, and Opa carefully poured some coffee from the cup onto the delicately hand painted saucer to cool it off, before sipping it right from the saucer, slurping loudly. I laughed my five year old behind off every time, it was so fun to hear an adult slurp (it wasn’t fair though, since he was allowed to do that while I wasn’t okay to slurp my soup).
It wasn’t until I was in my teens and more interested in coffee that I learned the reasons for his ritual. My Opa had been to France as a young man where he learned that royalty used to sip their java from saucers, and he later discovered that slurping introduces air into the mouth and enhances the flavor experience, which he would have never described in the way we do today.
He created that weekly highlight for himself because as a farmer he was aware of the fluctuating availability of natural products and his generation had been using coffee alternatives such as Chicory through two world wars and beyond. It was a special treat for them and not consumed in huge quantities.
Fun fact, Chicory has regained popularity as an ingredient and is often used in coffee flavored food products today. It adds that slightly toasted, bitter taste we associate with java, is cheaper and replaces most of the actual coffee (l’ll probably do a post on coffee flavored foods at some point too).
I heard you had to stand still for some time when taking pictures in those days,
my grandparents were much more energetic people than this pic let's on :)
How does my Opa's ritual relate to this week’s post? Easy. With climate change threatening coffee production altogether and ultra low prices for green beans, coffee farming is not the first career pick for young generations. We are surely looking at supply shortages in the not so far future and we have fallen out of balance with nature. The difference between the days of my grandparents and today is that coffee is not seen as a special treat any longer. We live in times where demand must be met at all costs.
And the forecast for the global coffee market looks bright with an estimated 4.72% annual growth rate over the next seven years.
This is more than enough demand for generations to come. But at this rate, we have to exploit land and people to meet it, and even then, it’s not likely that we will achieve it.
Sustainability is a major topic in coffee production. For example, the water used to produce one cup of washed coffee is 140 liters (32 gallons) and not all of it is properly filtered and reused (which ties back into sustainable farming). For comparison, black tea uses 30 liters per cup, and mass produced chocolate uses a whopping 1,700 liters of water per 100 grams.
So it comes as no surprise that companies are looking for alternatives and additions. Three possible ways:
- Invest in research and development of pest- and temperature resistant coffee varieties by cross breeding and use of hybrid technology.
- Let consumers know about the differences between mass produced coffee and clean, sustainably produced coffee with health benefits, and promote more conscious consumption.
- Develop products (naturally or lab made) that act like coffee, and replace beans with more environmentally friendly ingredients.
Number one is actively being done, especially by large global players like Nestle which have the money to invest in and claim their future market stakes. This could help secure coffee production overall, but breeding and testing new varieties takes decades. An investment in sustainability and regeneration efforts is needed as well, and right away. Noteworthy is that there are only five groups that control 70% of all international coffee trade, so any money going into research is expected to yield a large return on investment. This makes it unlikely that new varieties will be freely made available to farmers or governments of coffee producing countries without binding contracts with the parent company.
Number two is where people like me are positioned, the closest to consumers via coffee schools and small coffee companies. This kind of education could (imo) have a deep impact, since educated consumers hold a lot of power. The problem is that creating awareness is like throwing a pebble into a pond and watching the ripple effect. Inspiring a shift in mindset is playing the long game and you need a lot of people throwing those pebbles over time. It’s worthwhile, I am in education for a reason (that’s also why I know how slow it is to take), but time is of the essence.
Therefore, option three is hot stuff right now and the main topic of this post. Producing beanless beverages with the same (or close to the same) flavor attributes that coffee has, with less negative effect on the environment seems like the golden ticket.
One of the companies that makes this promise is Atomo out of Seattle, WA. I might be the only one, but every time I read that name, I picture a DC comic character (big comic fan).
It’s a "dream come true" - type of story: The now four year old company started out with beanless ready to drink beverages (re-enter chicory), before raising more than $50M from several venture fonts, including Japanese Holdings Company Suntory that wants to help take them global. So they canned their ready to drink cans (probably a good move, because sustainability) to focus on their beanless espresso technology.
Et voila, Atomo Espresso is set to launch in September and will be pulled and poured into Lattes at partnering coffee shops.
We recently received some sample sachets and was happy and curious to try them. I won’t give an opinion on the product as a replacement in a Latte or Cappuccino since I do manual brews, but I tested it as a concentrate in a Delterpress and spoke to their sales manager to find out more.
Here is an overview.
What is in it if not beans?
According to the company, their beanless coffee alternative is made from upcycled superfood ingredients that are readily available (= no waste). Listed on the package are: Date Seeds, Ramon Seeds, Sunflower Seed Extract, Fructose, Pea Protein, Millet, Lemon, Guava, Defatted Fenugreek Seeds, Caffeine, Baking Soda.
Compounds commonly found in real coffee are being extracted from these alternative sources by use of proprietary technology. Let’s talk about the mission points.
One ingredient that stands out and is mentioned in all press releases are date pits which would otherwise be discarded, which is upcycling as intended. Since marketing suggests that all or at least most ingredients are upcycled, I asked for more information on how those are sourced and processed but was told it is proprietary, bummer.
Millet and Ramon seeds stood out to me here. Both of them are considered highly sustainable. Ramon seeds are resistant to droughts and have up to five years of shelf life (green coffee up to one). Ramon grows on rainforest trees and the more of those we can conserve, the better. Millet is a gluten free grain that is not often used because it is labor intensive to prepare but is said to have health benefits. It is grown in the US, and top international growers include India and Nigeria.
Both ingredients sound like good choices. Open questions are nevertheless, how and where these are sourced, especially when we think about global distribution on a large scale.
On to the carbon footprint: It is challenging to exactly determine it for a coffee beverage (let’s stay with espresso here) because it depends heavily on process at origin and means of transport and packaging.
But a good amount of reputable studies agree on a number of around 28g of carbon per shot of espresso (as high as dairy), but as low as 6g if made from coffee that is grown under sustainable conditions (e.g. water management, low chemical fertilizer use, shade), which is really good.
For beanless, according to interviews in 2022, the makers of Atomo set out to develop their proprietary technology to the point where it reduces water use by 93% and carbon emissions by 94% in comparison to coffee. I would love to learn if the goal was achieved and how each individual ingredient stacks up during processing, transport, and packaging (again proprietary, but I’d expect that they release a white paper at some point that outlines their achievements and cites at least in - house if not third party studies).
Supply chain -
Interesting point that ties into sustainability, but also the livelihood of people along the supply chain. I think it will have to be explored more.
Big one for consumers. Coffee has several health benefits according to studies from (among others) Harvard, Johns Hopkins and the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil (big time coffee producing country and very involved in studies on coffees’ effect on health).
Besides the main effects of caffeine, mental alertness and physical stamina (e.g. as a pre-workout drink), java is rich in antioxidants and can contain chlorogenic acid, sporting anti-aging and anti-inflammatory properties. Studies suggest that coffee can help reduce age or disease related memory loss, ease depression and lower blood sugar, which has a positive effect on type-2 diabetes. Cardiovascular and Liver health are also subjects of ongoing studies.
I would add inner balance, focus and clarity to the list if we count not only the drinking but also the making of it. To be fair, how much benefit we can get out of our daily dose of coffee depends on how it is grown, processed and prepared. As an example, I pick mostly low acidity coffees from our roaster and all come from farms that grow clean. That way it all ties together when we teach how to achieve ideal extraction rates as far as caffeine, antioxidants and of course flavor go. It’s like painting on a new canvas versus over a used one, you call the shots (pun).
Some of the ingredients in Atomos espresso have similarly impressive properties: Ramon is considered a superfood like coffee. Its seeds contain a high amount of fiber, antioxidants, calcium, zinc and even an amino acid that is said to help with anxiety and depression (note: the company does not claim any of these health benefits specifically, I add them here for background from studies). Millet reportedly helps to manage blood glucose levels in people with diabetes. And the caffeine source in Atomo is green tea, so lot’s of promising stuff.
The Atomo makers simply say (in more words): Low in acidity, high in antioxidants, easy on the stomach, might stain teeth less. The last one will probably be a legit purchasing factor for some, we were always quite unsuccessful in getting folks to accept sip lids for iced drinks. As far as measurable effects on health go, more data is needed and exact amounts of ingredients per serving if we were to compare them to traditional beans.
On to the yummy-ness factor! First, the caffeine content of one serving of beanless is 100mg, that’s 20mg more than a regular espresso, so you might be fine without that extra shot.
Coffee, as we know, is a combination of multiple complex flavors and textures. The precise compounds that the makers of Atomo extract from their ingredients are not disclosed.
Getting a bit nerdy here, but we know which 25+ volatile aromatic compounds in coffee are considered key aroma compounds and it seems relatively safe to assume that they shoot for the same (or closely related) ones that coffee shares with other plants.
Fenugreek for example would likely add some of that roasty, coffee-like bitterness that 2-furfurylthiol produces in real beans. Guava and fructose for depth and sweetness, lemon for acidity, and then there is a good amount of ingredients such as baking soda, sunflower seed extract and pea protein that might be responsible for mouthfeel and texture. It does make sense to me that they start out with espresso and recommend it for use in milk drinks.
Given that there are, at a minimum, half a dozen compounds that create the fresh aroma we all love in coffee. To replicate that in a beanless, pre-ground application is no small feat (they are currently testing shelf life and say the powder is good for four months).
My impressions -
Fresh out of the package, the fine powder does look like an espresso grind, and smelled expectedly like a soluble made from chicory, not coffee-like.
My Delterpress concentrate looked like a cup you would expect from a Chemex, delicate. I detected a faintly sweet aroma, and it tasted slightly sweet, low key fruity without distinct acidity that could be tied to a particular type of fruit, and, not surprisingly, with no body or texture even close to an espresso. It would have been completely lost in any type of milk.
However, had I been given this sample in a blind test with no further information, I would have believed it to be coffee, not one I would enjoy, but again, it’s not made for manual preparation and will surely act (a lot) differently if pulled as a shot. In essence, I think that Atomo gets amazingly close to the real thing and I’ll be looking for a partner cafe to try the espresso version.
The bottom line (for now)
For me it’s hard to imagine enjoying coffee without the ritual of brewing and the full sensory experience that comes with having an infinite number of flavor profiles to explore.
Coffee has no nutritional value, it's a treat and a bit of a luxury, with wellness and lifestyle mixed in - it's just not perceived that way.
Beanless is a potentially huge alternative with exactly the same message minus the sensory variety. If the two can successfully co-exist will probably depend on price next to flavor as much or more than on environmental impact.
Either way, I don’t think that there is a silver bullet that will solve all issues around sustainability and supply chains. Best case scenario, all possible options are explored and applied in combination to cover more bases at a faster rate. Lot's of food for thought over coffee!
I would love to hear thoughts and opinions on this, shoot me a line in our newsletter Q&As!
If you want to check Atomo out and find shops where you can try the product visit atomocoffee.com