"Atomo Coffee" is a food tech start-up with a team of food scientists and chemists that are working on what can be described as "coffeeless coffee". Believe it or not, their coffee is made of ingredients like sunflower seed husks and watermelon seeds. Atomo basically harvests plant material that would typically be thrown away. So everything from pits, seeds, stems etc.. are given a second life as a "molecular coffee ingredient". Moreover, according to their FAQ page the coffee also contains caffeine (or doesn't - if you're more into decaf). Interestingly, Atomo points out that "60+ plants naturally produce caffeine." and they are "..on a mission to source our caffeine from THE MOST sustainable plant possible." This post will review their business model along with some of its implications on the industry and world at large.
Molecular Coffee and Climate Change
Sadly, the coffee industry is one that's extremely vulnerable to climate change. Most plants used to make coffee thrive in cooler regions and depend on reliable seasonal changes in weather to flourish. Climate change is increasingly causing those habitats to shrink. Temperatures continue to rise which fources farmers and growers to relocate to cooler climates.
Atomo's product looks to provide an alternative to coffee that relies on those plants and habitats. The idea is that if they can help slow down the need to plant more they can help create a more diversified and sustainable coffee industry.
The "Plant Based Foods" Trend
Plant-based foods are increasingly considered a high-growth category. Even massive corporatations like Nestle, for instance, are investing in production sites for plant-based burgers, schnitzels etc.. in Asia. McDonald’s is piloting meat-free, plant based burgers in Europe. The demand for plant based foods and beverages is there, and clearly a variety of food industries are taking notice.
What Does This Mean For Coffee
Despite there clearly being a trend towards plant based food, the question of what that actually means for coffee remains. Plant based burgers, to some degree, have seen success. But will coffee consumers really be satisfied with a plant based alternative? Consider, for instance, that world wide searches for "plant based coffee' hover at around only 590 per month:
On the one hand, a move to plant based coffee represents an extraordinary way of differentiating a brand and product. The pivot to "molecular coffee" sounds pretty cool, scientific, and advanced. On the other hand, coffee consumers tend to be steeped in a specific kind of "coffee culture". They increasingly gravitate to sophisticated coffee products that are all about how the coffee bean is sourced, roasted, and brewed. More educated and steadfast coffee consumers might not see the appeal of "coffee without the bean". Still, there's considerable overlap between coffee consumers and those who are understandably concerned about the environmental impact of their choices. Plant-based coffee can honestly boast a lower carbon footprint and seems to have been developed with sustainable business practices baked into the foundation of the model.
"Better coffee, for a better planet." That's pretty good as far as taglines go. It's still early days in terms of evaluating the promise and popularity of molecular coffee, but we know enough to say it's absolutely a trend to monitor. If it takes off, it could push all the right buttons ("cool", "sustainable", "something new") and take off in a big way.