What’s in your coffee? How about deforestation, pesticides and labor abuses 

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What’s in your coffee? How about deforestation, pesticides and labor abuses 

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A Seattle startup has an alternative: Coffee buzz without coffee beans.

Coffee. It’s “a hug in a mug.” It’s “the sweet balm by which we shall accomplish today’s tasks.” It’s “a language in itself,” to quote just a few of the many sayings about the beautiful brew. 

The world loves coffee, but Mother Nature does not. The massive $460 billion global coffee industry has a well-documented history of exploitative trade and poor labor conditions, particularly in developing countries. Surging global coffee demand also threatens the loss of 10-20 million hectares of tropical forest (resulting in approximately 1.65 – 3.3 gigatons of additional carbon emissions), reports Coffee Barometer.

That’s why, in a warehouse in south Seattle — ironically within view of  Starbucks’ international headquarters — a startup called Atomo is feverishly working to replicate the flavor, experience and caffeine buzz, without using coffee beans. 

“[D]eforestation, water use, pesticides, slave labor, buying something on the other side of the world and shipping it over here — it has a big carbon footprint problem,” says Atomo CEO Andy Kleitsch. “There are a lot of different problems. It’s almost like there are too many to count.”

Atomo CEO Andy Kleitsch and co-founder Jarret Stopforth 

Molecular coffee from upcycled natural ingredients

After three years of research and development, Atomo is getting ready to launch “molecular coffee” made using palm date pits. As it happens, these pits are plentiful — they are generally a waste product from date palm plantations. These plantations are blooming across deserts from Northern Africa to California’s Coachella Valley — producing dates touted as “superfruit,” while at the same time gaining attention for sequestering high concentrations of CO2. A cup of Atomo produces 93% fewer carbon emissions and uses 94% less water than a conventional cup of coffee, by the company’s calculations.

Climate-conscious coffee lovers are also giving a thumbs up. In Atomo sponsored blind taste tests, participants have chosen its “molecular coffee” cold brews 70-80% of the time against other premium canned coffee products.

There’s enough positive feedback, and growing inventory, for Kleitsch to greenlight a public launch by the end of the year,  

When I sit down with Kleitsch in a plain conference room at Atomo — table, chairs, a whiteboard covered in hieroglyphics and plate glass window looking out on the rain-soaked parking lot — the CEO is trying to coin a word.

A cup of Atomo produces 93% fewer carbon emissions and uses 94% less water than a conventional cup of coffee, by the company’s calculations.

“Sustainalist? Conservation capitalist? Neosustainalist? … There has to be a shorthand way to say it. We need some type of word that captures a business that is actually doing better for the planet.” He has been reading from a list he’s been keeping, but eventually pockets it.

Kleitsch got the idea for his coffee when, as a mentor and coach at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, his students kept telling him that they wanted to start businesses that were planet-friendly. “First, I thought, oh, they haven’t had their hearts broken yet.” 

But then, with his own kids heading into adulthood, he had a “midlife awakening” — he too wanted to start a business that does better for the planet.

So Kleitsch, a successful developer of e-commerce platforms and mobile payment systems, started meeting with scientists and fellow entrepreneurs. He came across microbiologist Jarret Stopforth who wanted to reinvent coffee mainly “to make it more consistent, less bitter,” he says, pointing to an age-old gripe by the cream-and-sugar coffee set. Upon further investigation, Kleitsch saw reinventing coffee was perfectly aligned with his dream of building a “do better” for the planet.

An alternative coffee is in dire need in an industry that is both driving climate change and getting clobbered by it. Last year, the worst drought in almost a century followed by freezing temperatures hammered the coffee crop in Brazil, the world’s biggest producer, driving down annual output by 24.4%.

At the same time, coffee growers faced with higher temperatures are pressing into new areas — often higher altitudes — threatening some of the last intact primary forests on the planet, according to the report Coffee Barometer.  

Despite climate and labor commitments by coffee majors the industry is not changing fast enough, and the portion of coffee grown sustainably remains “limited,” the report concludes. 

All this while demand is exploding. 

“The business-as-usual scenario would require doubling or even tripling coffee production to meet demand in 2050,” the report says. 

Seed money for beanless coffee

Investors see the opportunity of Atomo. Shortly after the company launched in 2019, Horizons Ventures in Hong Kong provided $2.5 million seed funding. This VC company has also backed Impossible Foods, which makes plant-based “meats” and Perfect Day Inc., which develops animal-free dairy products. These investments were followed by another $9 million investment from Horizons, Chicago-based S2G Ventures, which focuses its investments in startups developing “nutritious, sustainable and traceable food” and San Francisco-based AgFunder. Now, Atomo is preparing to raise Series A funding, which Kleitsch says should be complete by the end of March. 

The quest for an alternative coffee has not been easy. When Atomo started in a small laboratory in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, the team focused on the 26 most prominent compounds in coffee, testing whether these compounds in a combination equaled coffee.“It turns out that it doesn’t,” says Kleitsch, who adds that after roasting there are nearly 1,000 compounds that give coffee its complexity, flavor and aroma. 

An alternative coffee is in dire need in an industry that is both driving climate change and getting clobbered by it.

Shifting strategies, Atomo turned its focus to seeds, stems, pits and leaves that are similar to those in coffee plants. Ultimately they found that date pits could be processed to look, chemically, very much like coffee, and then roasted to make a brew that tastes remarkably like it as well. Date pits also have a similar cellulose matrix makeup which means they promise to make similar grounds as well. (That’s still a work in progress.) 

Atomo is not alone in the quest for an alternative to traditional coffee. A research group in Finland is developing coffee grown in a laboratory setting, using coffee cell cultures. Kleitsch says others are working on biofermentation similar to what Atomo tried in its early days. 

The challenge, for all of these endeavors, he says, is scaling up. At its current location, Atomo is producing 2,500 cans a day. The company is completing a new 35,000 square foot facility for producing the grounds for hot coffee, and another even larger facility is on the drawing boards.

Atomo’s alternative coffee production facility 

“It took us a good couple of years to understand how to make a good cup of coffee and how to react raw materials to get them to look more like coffee, then how to roast them and how to extract them and basically how to get coffee from items that aren’t coffee,” says Kleitsch. “And then it took us a year to build this factory here to show that we could scale it from a benchtop laboratory to an actual manufacturing situation.”

Coffee lovers and tree huggers

It’s not by accident that Atomo has started up in Starbucks’ backyard, really on its front porch. The company’s first location was a few doors down from Starbucks’ very first store in the historic Pike Place Market. And Starbucks headquarters is within view of Atomo’s current location. But it’s not that Starbucks is the bad guy. The local coffee giant has one of the most advanced programs in the industry for fair trade and sourcing sustainable coffee. It’s the customer base that makes Seattle a good testing ground. 

“People care about coffee here. People also really care about the environment.”

“People care about coffee here. People also really care about the environment,” Kleitsch says. “What we’ve found is that the people who resonate most with our mission and care about what we’re doing are people that love coffee, are early adopters of technology and also care about the environment and sustainability.”

These remarkably coffee-like beverages, and yes they have caffeine, are just a start — an effort to make a dent in the demand for coffee — but far from a bid to take over the booming coffee market. 

“We’re trying to reduce the demand for coffee farmers to clear more forest to grow coffee,” says Kleitsch. “There are about 360 billion cups of coffee that have to move locations over the next 30 years. So, I’d like to just take a few billion of those cups and say ‘you don’t have to wipe out any forest’ to grow those.”

Written by

Kari Huus

Kari Huus is a writer and editor based in Seattle. She was a staff reporter for MSNBC.com from 1996-2014, with stints covering international business, foreign policy, and national affairs. Earlier, she reported on China for the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong, and Newsweek in Beijing. From 2015 to 2020, she was managing editor for the website Money Talks News.