Plant-based meat may be the biggest thing in sustainable food trends, but one Seattle-based company hopes to make coffee part of the conversation by eliminating one key ingredient: the beans.
Local startup Atomo has developed a lab-based concoction it refers to as “molecular coffee,” in place of traditional grounds. By doing this, Atomo aims to alleviate some of the negative environmental impacts of growing beans.
According to the Rainforest Alliance, the increasing demand for coffee will likely be a large driver of deforestation over the coming decade, with climate change forcing many farms to shift to high-altitude, heavily forested regions. Similar research suggests that the expansion of coffee farming is now responsible for nearly 250,000 acres of deforestation a year. In that vein, a brand that attempts to reduce the reliance on coffee farming could open up a discussion in the industry about better practices.
“The coffee landscape is changing and people are looking for more sustainable options,” says Jarret Stopforth, one of the co-founders of Atomo. “We see ourselves as the Tesla of coffee.”
Good intentions are one thing; execution is another. Using his Ph.D. in food science and microbiology, along with more than 20 years of experience in the food industry at companies such as Chobani and Campbell, Stopforth and his Atomo business partner Andy Kleitsch (who was a product manager at Amazon) figured there had to be a way to break down what makes good coffee and hack it.
Stopforth declined to reveal the exact process or any of the ingredients. The company is still finalizing their patents and IP protection, so they continue to play things close to the vest for now. “We will be releasing ingredients and be totally transparent when we release product to market, but at this time we have to be opaque,” says an Atomo rep. More generally, Stopforth says, the coffee is driven by the concept of “create, don’t destroy,” making use of natural, plant-based byproducts. Color, aroma, flavor, body, and bioactives (such as caffeine and antioxidants) are the five main components of each cup.
After months of experimenting in a garage, Stopforth and Kleitsch decided to take samples of their first brews to the University of Washington, where they conducted a taste test with 30-plus students. About 70 percent of the students chose Atomo over Starbucks, Stopforth claims, serving as a springboard for them to take the next step.
The company launched its Kickstarter in February 2019 and gauged interest from multiple investors, including Horizon Ventures, one of the initial investors for Impossible Foods. Not long after that effort, Atomo had secured $2.6 million in funding.
Taking aim at the competition
The rapid rise of Atomo is certainly eye-opening, but trying to replicate naturally-grown coffee comes with complications, especially in a city that takes its brews extremely seriously.
“My initial thought was, ‘Damn, that’s so Seattle,’” says Tim Graham, the Sales Director at Broadcast Coffee (a small Seattle roaster). The idea of reverse-engineering something as popular as coffee almost feels post-apocalyptic in nature, he says.
“Coffee is one of the most complex foods that human beings consume,” Graham says. “By my definition, you can’t create a high-end product without that connection to the earth.”
Despite his skepticism, Graham says he doesn’t see Atomo as a competitor because of the difference in audiences. There’s a lot of growth in specialty coffee, he says, so there’s room for both.
“I think experimenting and trying to find better ways for consuming are essential,” says Graham. “It might get people to start asking questions and seriously think about what they want around them.”
But there could be unintended human consequences to what Atomo is trying to do. According to a 2016 study by the Climate Institute, there are approximately 25 million coffee farmers throughout the world with about 8.5 million people in the supply chain whose livelihoods are entirely dependent on coffee production. Many of these communities are already in a fragile economic position, particularly as temperatures in countries such as Ethiopia and Vietnam — two prominent regions in worldwide coffee supply — are expected to rise dramatically over the next 50 years.
For its part, Atomo’s co-founders insist they are not trying to replace the coffee farmer, but rather offer an alternative in a crowded market.
“The industry as a whole is not giving enough support to coffee farmers, and oversupply in the market is creating a further economic downturn for farmers,” says Kleitsch. “Atomo hopes to fill the gaps so consumers never feel the dip of an industry in crisis.”
Ross Beamish, the Sales and Education Director at Anchorhead — another local specialty coffee roaster — says he appreciates Atomo’s mission and can see a place for them in the current market.
“Consumers should be willing to pay more for coffee produced by small-holder farmers,” Beamish says. “If Atomo is modeling their work after such coffees, then I think they’re an ally in the sustainability message that specialty roasters have been championing for decades.”
The “Pepsi”-like challenge
Taste will still likely be the deciding factor on whether Atomo can break through or not. I did a blind taste test with the company’s cold brew concoction compared to three other competitors, including Starbucks and a Japanese brand called BOSS. Though Atomo’s drink was a bit watery, the flavor was smooth and comparable to the others (less bitter than Starbucks, milder than the bold BOSS). It was difficult to guess which one was the lab-created coffee and which ones were from beans — I chose wrong when asked to identify them.
It remains to be seen, though, whether blind taste tests will later translate to success. Atomo says it is still in the process of finalizing the product, but it’s about 90 percent there, with the goal to be ready for distribution by January. Since moving into their new Seattle office in June, the co-founders have been busy building out a lab and hiring a team, which includes a group of coffee chemists at the Coffee Excellence Center at Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland — one of the leading coffee research facilities in the world.
In the meantime, the company is trying to market itself as a fun, alternative brand, with quirky nicknames for its founders and staff (Stopforth is “Funky Monkey,” the marketing director is “Bear Hug”) on a bright, colorful website with a link to a “fan club.”
The next project will be to build a pilot facility for small-scale production, with hopes of reaching households and quick-serve restaurants in the near future with cold brew, espresso shots, and “traditional” ground coffee.
“We’re lucky in that our investors are not typical investors,” says Stopforth. “They want us to focus on the technology and build the best cup of coffee possible.”