Better Coffee Through Bacterial Chemistry
Startup Afineur ferments pricey java without the cat gut “We control which microbes we seed the foods with”
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