For many of us, our morning cup of coffee is the only thing that makes us functioning humans. But I’m betting that rarely (if ever) our morning fuel-up do we consider the negative impact of coffee farming on the environment.

We should. Coffee consumption is on the rise, and according to a report by Conservation International, coffee growers may have to triple their demand by 2050 to meet demand. At the same time, global warming is making it harder and harder to grow coffee beans. In January of this year, Science Advances estimated that 60 percent of wild coffee species are under threat of extinction.

Seattle-based startup Atomo claims to bring you all the goodness of a cup of coffee — without the bean. Atomo’s so-called “molecular coffee” is made by reverse engineering the flavor and aroma compounds in coffee bean to make a substance that, when brewed, tastes and caffeinates like java. It’s made with natural ingredients and can be brewed one-to-one for coffee in French presses, refillable K-cups, pour-overs, etc.

Atomo’s original product was a liquid, which the team creates in small batches in their food scientist’s garage. But today they’re launching a Kickstarter to raise $10,000 to sell a ground version of their coffee, which they’re aiming to launch in Q4 2019. During a phone interview, Atomo CEO Andy Kleitsch told me that Atomo’s coffee would cost anywhere from $0.33 to $0.55 cents per cup — at least a fourth of the price of a cup from Starbuck’s. But if you’re a latte lover, Atomo might not be for you: as of now they only make ground coffee for drip, not espresso.

It’s no secret that plenty of crowdfunding projects don’t ever make it to market. But there are two reasons I think Atomo can pull it off. First of all, Atomo’s team has a good experience set: Kelitsch is on the board of the UW entrepreneurship program, and Atomo’s chief scientist Jarret Stopforth has helped develop products at Soylent, Campbell’s, and Chobani, and more. Secondly, Atomo is partnering with food and beverage development company Mattson to help quickly develop and scale their coffee.

In addition the environmental and novelty draws, Atomo is also marketing its product as a less bitter version of coffee. During their re-engineering process, Kleitsch and his team decided not to add back in the chlorogenic acid, which gives coffee its bitter taste. For those who need to doctor their java with cream and sugar, Atomo could offer a welcome alternative. In fact, during a blind taste test on the University of Washington campus, 70 percent of students preferred Atomo’s “coffee” to Starbuck’s. Admittedly, the experiment had a sample size of just 30 students. However, it goes to show that in situations where people are just looking for a pleasant-tasting jolt of caffeine, “to bean or not to bean” might not be such a big deal after all — especially with Atomo’s attractive price point.

Learning about Atomo’s reverse engineering process made me think of Ava Winery. Instead of coffee without the bean, Ava is making wine without the grapes, yeast, or fermentation by mimicking its chemical compounds. It makes me wonder: what other popular foods and beverages will we see “hacked” in the future?

At the end of the day, Atomo might not make the cut for true coffee aficionados. But for the average Joe (ha), Atomo’s “molecular coffee” could be just fine and dancy — and taste all the sweeter knowing they’re saving the environment with every cup.

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  1. Oh, that’s interesting! I’m all for trying out ‘hacked’ foods like Atomo, but it bugs me that they’re taking a sinking ship approach to a portion of their messaging.

    “Prices continue to rise, but quality goes down”. Therefore, we need a non-agricultural coffee alternative. (That’s roughly how that part of the argument goes)

    But that’s not really true – coffee is at an unsustainably low price today ($1.05 per pound, only half of what it was in 2014), and most coffee experts agree that quality is actually on the rise.

    I’m probably going to back this myself, but I wish they’d stick to flavor being their key USP, rather than leading people to believe we just need to allow coffee agriculture to spiral to its doom.

  2. Even in a future where we can replicate to the atomic level actual coffee, real coffee will always taste better. I know this because of Star Trek, so it must be true.

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