Bet­ter Coffee Through Bac­te­rial Chem­istry

Startup Afineur fer­ments pricey java with­out the cat gut “We con­trol which mi­crobes we seed the foods with”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - TECHNOLOGY -

Kopi luwak, some of the world’s most prized java, sells for more than $600 a pound. The price is based on the In­done­sian blend’s unique mar­i­nat­ing process: A small, furry, cat­like crea­ture called a palm civet de­vours coffee cher­ries, then poops out the undi­gested seeds—that is, coffee beans, which fer­ment in­side the an­i­mal’s di­ges­tive tract. Camille Dele­becque, a bi­ol­o­gist, and Sophie Deterre, a fla­vor chemist, have spent much of the past year work­ing to repli­cate the civet’s fla­vor-al­ter­ing pow­ers while tak­ing the mam­mal and its poop out of the equa­tion.

Dele­becque and Deterre co-founded startup Afineur in New York in late 2014. They’re prac­tic­ing a form of syn­thetic ecol­ogy, a highly con­trolled process of trial and er­ror meant to out­per­form the fam­i­lies of micro­organ­isms found in the civet’s gut. Un­like the civet, “we con­trol which mi­crobes we seed the foods with,” Dele­becque says. “We use this fer­men­ta­tion to tai­lor the chem­istry of th­ese foods.”

Afineur is infusing two va­ri­eties of beans—one Colom­bian, one Tan­za­nian— with bac­te­ria and fungi cho­sen from a li­brary of about 700 species not typ­i­cally found in the world’s hand­ful of nat­u­rally fer­mented cof­fees. The com­pany steeps hun­dreds of pounds of un­roasted beans in metal fer­menters for one or two days with what Dele­becque would only call a “su­per­s­mall amount” of its mi­cro­bial cock­tail, which eats away at the beans’ sur­face and changes their fla­vor. Roast­ing the beans burns off any

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