Match­ing the world’s best-tast­ing coffee—with­out all the civet poop

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

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents -

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

Civet-di­gested coffee beans go for more than

lin­ger­ing micro­organ­isms.

The co-founders say they’ve iden­ti­fied species that per­form spe­cific func­tions you’d prob­a­bly want done to your coffee beans. Some mi­crobes eat chem­i­cals that can make the beans taste bit­ter or as­trin­gent when roasted. Oth­ers chew away at sugar, pro­tein, and even caf­feine, for a kind of bi­o­log­i­cal de­caf­feina­tion. The Tan­za­nian roast doesn’t ex­actly match the taste of kopi luwak, but Dele­becque says that’s by de­sign. Afineur’s smooth, fruity roast has a rel­a­tively low acid con­tent, mak­ing it po­ten­tially eas­ier on the stom­ach. Pro­duc­ing the beans this way, in­stead of through civet farm­ing, also means there’s no cag­ing or force­feed­ing in­volved.

Dele­becque and Deterre, the com­pany’s only full-time em­ploy­ees, met in high school on the out­skirts of Paris. Deterre went on to work as a fla­vor chemist at Grand Marnier, the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, and Mars, the candy maker. She was Dele­becque’s first choice for a part­ner when he be­came pas­sion­ate about ex­per­i­ment­ing with coffee as a caf­feine-ad­dled med­i­cal re­searcher at Har­vard. “I take coffee very se­ri­ously,” Deterre says. “Like wine and cheese.”

The duo raised $60,000 in ven­ture fund­ing from startup ac­cel­er­a­tor Indiebio to get their com­pany go­ing. They say they made about $100,000 in rev­enue in 2015 sell­ing their beans at a hand­ful of retail shops and on Kick­starter, where they charge $29 for 5 ounces or $129 for 30 oz. That’s cheaper than kopi luwak and not far from a month’s worth of daily Star­bucks lat­tes, but it’s an or­der of mag­ni­tude more than you’d spend on most brew-your-own Star­bucks beans. For­mer Star­bucks tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor Dan Bel­liveau says Afineur’s cost rel­e­gates it to a fairly small niche. “But if it’s be­ing sold, that’s the free mar­ket,” says Bel­liveau, now the chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of CF Global Hold­ings, a startup that makes a high­fiber flour from coffee byprod­ucts. “Power to them.”

Dele­becque says he and Deterre are work­ing on ways to fer­ment ce­re­als. For now, they’re rolling out a global sub­scrip­tion ser­vice for their beans ($49 for 10 oz. of beans a month, or an un­de­ter­mined dis­count for a year’s sup­ply) and ne­go­ti­at­ing to put Afineur’s beans in Whole Foods stores and high-end restau­rants in the New York area. Dele­becque says he’s not con­cerned about the lim­its of the com­pany’s au­di­ence: “Con­sumers are look­ing for in­ter­est­ing fla­vors. Fer­men­ta­tion’s un­lock­ing a whole new el­e­ment.” �Peter An­drey Smith

a pound; Afineur’s lab-cul­tured beans cost


Afineur’s fer­men­ta­tion process re­sem­bles the one that takes place in­side the

civet’s gut

a pound The bot­tom line Afineur is fer­ment­ing coffee with com­bi­na­tions of bac­te­ria and fungi to give the beans more rar­efied fla­vors.


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