“Beanless coffee” is making its way to store shelves, but will consumers give up their beloved cup of Joe for a more eco-friendly option?
“I don’t want my daily habit to be contributing to climate change, but I also don’t want to stop consuming the product. So how can we create something in the middle?”
That daily habit—coffee—is shared by billions worldwide, and this is the question that led Costa Rican entrepreneur Maricel Saenz to start Compound Foods, a San Francisco-based biotech startup that launched its first product late last year. Called “Minus,” it’s a cold brew that’s meant to taste and feel just like coffee—minus the beans.
It’s made by fermenting roots, pits, and seeds, about half of which are upcycled, or waste products. “We use grape seeds, date seeds, chicory, carob, lentils, and millet malt,” Saenz says. “Each one of these ingredients has a specific role, whether it’s to help with the mouth feel, the acidity, or the sweetness. We then grab some of those ingredients and put them through our proprietary fermentation process that allows us to develop some of the complexity around flavor and get some of the brightness and acidity notes that we’re looking for. And then we brew it with a process as close as possible to traditional coffee.”
In the two years leading to launch, Saenz and her team (whose headcount is now eleven) spent significant time on the flavor, first by working with coffee experts, then by staging blind tastings. “We repeated them almost on a monthly basis until we got to the point where over 60 percent of tasters preferred our beanless coffee sample over traditional coffee.”
Minus is meant to taste like a mocha java blend, with a medium roast, some chocolate and almond notes, and no acidity, according to Saenz. proto.life was sent a single 8.4 oz bottle of mocha java-flavored Minus Cold Brew to sample, which we split between four tasters. “It’s great,” said one. “Pretty good,” said another. In terms of flavor, the taste was strong but pleasant—neither lacking in flavor nor off-putting in any way. The most apparent taste was a slight hint of chocolate. It was hard to detect any discernible coffee flavor, but most commercial mochas don’t have an overpowering coffee flavor anyway. In any case, it wasn’t really missed. All four tasters liked the beanless coffee.
The brew shares some ingredients with Atomo Coffee, a competing product with a similar production method, which launched with a small batch in late 2021, at a whopping $7.50 per 8oz ready-to-drink can. “It’s a very different taste profile,” Saenz says. “It almost feels like they come from different regions.”
The hand-produced launch allotment of Minus was a bit cheaper, at $6 per can. Although Saenz won’t reveal the quantity that was made, she says her first batch sold out online in 30 hours. More consumer insight was gathered via mobile pop-ups in San Francisco, and Saenz says more than 70 percent of those surveyed expressed interest in the product. “It was interesting to see that most of the people who wanted to buy it, it was just because they truly, really liked it,” she says. “They loved the taste, they loved the product. We’re a sustainability-driven company, we’re a climate tech company, and therefore we always lead with our environmental story. But those benefits came as a plus. It was really driven by taste.”
After scaling up production, Atomo relaunched their product line in June last year with three variants, including an oat milk latte, which sell for $16.99 per pack of four cans, or about $4.25 per can. At the same time, it announced it had received $40 million in funding, bringing its total to $51.6 million. Compound Foods announced $4.5 million in seed funding in 2021, but the company declined to confirm their total funding.
Coffee: both threatened by and contributing to climate change
Some 19 billion pounds of coffee are produced every year, and it’s the second most traded commodity on the planet. Demand for it continues to grow with the global market size valued at $384 billion in 2021 and projected to grow to $497 billion by 2028, according to market research firm IMIR. However, it’s become increasingly apparent that this rising demand is driving deforestation, as more land is cleared to grow hectares and hectares of coffee beans. In addition to that, the coffee plant is water intensive, and only grows in tropical and subtropical regions within narrow temperature ranges. An alarming wake-up call came in 2021, when the world’s top producer—Brazil—was hit by historic droughts followed by a frost, and the price of coffee skyrocketed to a seven-year high. An analysis by the Swedish Environmental Institute found that climate change could reduce global production of arabica, the most prized coffee type, by 45.2 percent, and of robusta, which is sturdier but inferior, by 23.5 percent in the long term.
“It’s just such a long and fragile supply chain, with 12 hands touching your cup of coffee before it reaches you.”
“When we look at the data around how climate change is hindering our capacity to grow coffee, it’s just becoming scarier and scarier. It’s an unsustainable model,” Saenz says. “Costa Rica is decreasing its exports of coffee year over year. It’s just such a long and fragile supply chain, with 12 hands touching your cup of coffee before it reaches you, and that makes it really exposed to things like volatile oil prices.”
Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food policy at Dalhousie University in Canada, agrees. “Given how unsustainable supply chain economics related to coffee are, when you look at the inequities across the board, as well as climate change, you do question whether or not the model will continue to work,” he says. “I actually do believe that at some point most players will realize that the current model is not sustainable. Technologies like Atomo and Minus are, in my view, part of the future.”
However, Charlebois adds, they won’t spell the end of traditional coffee, or traditional coffee growing. “What these technologies will be doing is to recognize that the coffee market is anything but homogeneous. Many people will keep on looking for traditionally grown coffee. For the trained palates, you can’t replace coffee at all.”
Caffeine, coffee’s irreplaceable stimulant, is added as an ingredient in both Minus and Atomo, in amounts comparable to traditional cold brews or energy drinks: 100mg per can in Minus versus 84mg in Atomo. (A typical cup of traditionally brewed coffee has around 95mg.) Both prominently display the caffeine content and Minus even makes it a part of its marketing strategy. “Caffeinate your climate change activism,” says a message on the cans. They also both display the words “beanless coffee,” right under the branding. Although it’s doubtful that this will be challenged in the future—much like “oat milk” and other milk alternatives—it might inspire questions of authenticity in some consumers, because unlike “milk,” the word coffee has never been used to refer to anything but actual coffee—unless it’s used as a modifier, like coffee-colored.
Saenz is aware of the challenges involved in changing people’s coffee habits, especially in the United States, where coffee is more popular than tap water. “I love coffee, and part of what we want is to not have to sacrifice on the quality or experience of their daily coffee ritual,” she says. It’s hard to predict exactly which elements could be key in achieving that, but two of them will most likely be price and taste, according to Charlebois. “To get people to try, it has to be competitively priced. There’s no other way,” he says. “And the other thing, of course, is taste: You can have the most efficient product out there, and you can click all the boxes you want, but if it doesn’t taste good, it’s just not going to go anywhere.”
Saenz says that once Minus is available again—there’s no set schedule while Compound Foods looks at ways to scale up production—the price will be reduced from $6 to $5 a can, still firmly on the premium side of the market.
Next up for Compound Foods is researching more coffee products to develop, including ground coffee equivalents to brew at home. But perhaps more intriguingly, Saenz wants to expand her fermentation process beyond coffee itself: “We’ve built a technology that allows us to understand what makes coffee what it is, and reproduce those flavors in the most efficient way,” she says. “We’re going to be able to leverage that technology for other crops as well, within five years.”
When pressed on what those crops may be, she won’t budge: “We have some targets, but I don’t think we’re ready to share those until we’ve done some more work on them.”