This startup wants you to like coffee-free coffee

The startup, which launched in 2019 and offered a limited edition to the public in September, makes a canned cold brew designed to taste like coffee and give you a boost of energy — but it’s not made with coffee beans. Instead, the brand uses a blend of date seeds, dandelion root, and grape skin, plus caffeine to mimic traditional coffee.

The company said that most of these components are recycled, which means that if they are not used by Atomo, they will likely be discarded. Andy Klitsch, CEO of Atomo, said date seeds, or pits, are usually “scattered in the field.” “We give them a second life.”

But that’s not the company’s only eco-friendly selling point. Klech said Atomo used a service called Carbon Cloud to calculate its footprint and looked into research on coffee’s environmental impact to see how its process stacks up. It concluded that the Atomo product uses 94% less water and produces 93% less carbon emissions than traditional cold brew coffee.

Atomo’s move is similar to that of the plant-based meat alternatives that have gained prominence in recent years: producing the current product — in the case of Impossible and Beyond, animal protein, in Atomo, coffee — is bad for our planet. This alternative is better, at least according to Atomo.

The company is still in its early stages. It has a plant in Seattle that can pump out 1,000 servings a day, according to Klitsch. Ultimately, the startup wants to offer a variety of products, including instant coffee and ground foods. Planning to launch in retail next year.

The opportunity for a company like Atomo is great. But it will face plenty of challenges, including convincing customers of its environmental claims. Furthermore, in order to get Java drinkers to buy their own coffee-free coffee, you have to prove to them that it’s as good as a real cup of joe.

Is there a market for coffee without coffee?

Since it may end up on retail shelves next to regular cold drink cans, Atomo could get a boost from the growing ready-to-drink coffee market which, according to Euromonitor International, reached $4.4 billion in 2021.

There is also opportunity in the new market for coffee alternatives, as coffee crops fall prey to harsh weather conditions, said Matthew Barry, senior beverage advisor at Euromonitor International. Severe drought and unusual frost conditions in Brazil, the world’s largest supplier of coffee beans, have caused chaos in the coffee market this year.

One day, “high-tech solutions for coffee analogues and grown coffees could be used to meet daily caffeine needs,” supplementing traditional coffee supplies, Barry said.

Jim Watson, senior beverage analyst at Rabobank, said the popularity of plant-based protein also paved the way for a concept like Atomo.

He said consumers may “expect the companies out there to use technology to do more for us,” by replacing traditional products with healthier or environmentally friendly alternatives. Anyone who sees Atomo using recycled ingredients might think, “I’ve found a coffee product that fits these trends…I’m looking for something coffee didn’t offer.”

But Atomo may not be convinced by its eco-friendly premise.

Klich warns that climate change and the increasing demand for coffee will force coffee growers to find new land and remove more trees to do so.

Coffee growing has certainly led to deforestation, and there are still plenty of coffee farms that don’t use sustainable practices, notes Tensie Whelan, director of the Center for Sustainable Business at New York University’s Stern School of Business, who previously served as president of the Rainforest Alliance.

“There are major challenges to the traditional methods… of growing coffee,” she said.

She stressed that there would be downsides to replacing coffee beans entirely. “When grown sustainably, it’s a really important source of income for local communities as well as a positive environmental benefit,” she said. She noted that sustainable coffee cultivation can contribute to biodiversity, adding that “It is too simplistic to say that [growing coffee] It always leads to deforestation.”

Klech agrees that there are sustainable ways to grow coffee, and because of the high demand for the product, he doesn’t think Atomo will lose out to local farmers. But he doesn’t think growing coffee sustainably will be enough.

“It’s going to require everyone to meet the demand for coffee,” he said. “We’re just trying to meet that demand in a way that causes as little damage as possible.”

taste test

In order to truly attract consumers to its corner, the company will have to win over another crucial factor: taste.

“When we first launched, we thought the true coffee connoisseurs would honestly hate us,” Klitsch said. “It was actually the opposite.”

CNN Business asked Tom Bumford, the coffee director for high-end coffee chain Black Fox Coffee in New York City, about his take on the drink. He said he thinks the Atomo product can actually move on to the real thing… with a caveat.

“It tastes like cold coffee,” said Bumford. “Just a bad cold coffee, maybe.”

This might not be a great review, but the product still managed to exceed Bomford’s expectations. “If you’re into a cold drink, there’s a good chance you’ll be OK with it,” he said.


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