Americans love their daily cup of coffee. According to Reuters, 83 percent of Americans report drinking coffee, and around 64 percent consumer at least one cup per day. All in, the average American spends about $1,100 dollars on coffee per year, and we drink more coffee collectively than any other nation (though Finland does beat us on cups of coffee per capita).
On the whole, we are a rather caffeinated nation – and growing even more so. The number of Americans reporting daily coffee consumption has been rising annually for the last six years.
That coffee habit is costing consumers, but it is also taking a toll on the planet. Coffee is grown on approximately 10.4 million hectares of land, about half of which is clear-cut to increase production levels to meet growing global demand. Apart from deforestation, the growing of coffee is also linked to the use of millions of gallons of pesticides and water, and it is widely considered one of the Earth’s more ecologically costly crops.
This reality has spurred the creation and expansion of “fair trade” coffee brands that pledge to promote ethically and environmentally sound planting practices. But for the team at Atomo Coffee, merely finding a cleaner way to grow coffee isn’t sufficient to solve the problem, considering that humans consume 1.1 billion cups of coffee a day around the world.
And so, in their words, they “hacked the coffee bean” to develop their product, the world’s first molecular coffee. The pitch? It looks, smells, tastes and brews just like the real thing, but no actual coffee beans are used in the process.
"Atomo's beanless coffee provides consumers with a sustainable choice while delivering the great taste and caffeine they expect in their morning cup," said CEO Andy Kleitsch.
Atomo Coffee is the brainchild of Kleitsch and chief scientist Jarret Stopforth, who holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology. “Hacking” a coffee bean entailed breaking down 1.000 or so chemical compounds in a bean in an attempt to replicate the blueprint of the basic taste and smell of coffee. From there, it was a chemistry experiment to recreate the look, taste and “mouthfeel” of real, bean-based coffee and create a brewable product for sale.
According to Stopforth, molecular coffee as a concept was inspired by the rapid-onset success of the meatless meat industry, and the massive untapped potential of consumers’ willingness to purchase a realistic “fake” in service of a greater social good.
“The acceptance of agriculture alternatives has been proven with meatless meats and dairy-free milks; we want to continue that movement in a category we feel passionate about, coffee,” Stopforth noted.
The brand is still in its very early days, and still very much in the product development process. Its original funding came from a popular Kickstarter campaign in February that managed to attract 693 backers and $25,331 in funds.
Not quite enough to take on Nestle or Starbucks just yet, but enough to attract more serious venture interest. Atomo has managed to secure $2.5 million in seed funding to further develop its molecular coffee concept in a fund led by Horizon Ventures.
Will Americans be ready to go synthetic when beanless coffee hits the market? Even Atomo’s founders don’t think so. Their goal isn’t to shut down bean-based coffee, but merely to slow down the speed at which it is eating up arable land.
Consumers, they believe, will always want a taste of the real thing. But if even a portion of the billion or so cups of coffee consumed each day were beanless, Kleitsch noted, the world would be a greener place without anyone having to sacrifice their morning wake-up routine.