Cultured coffee… the beginning of a new fermented foods revolution?

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Afineur ‘cultured coffee’ boasts “extremely low bitterness with shining fruity, floral, and chocolaty notes.”
Afineur ‘cultured coffee’ boasts “extremely low bitterness with shining fruity, floral, and chocolaty notes.”

Related tags Coffee

Some fermented foods (beer and sauerkraut), have been around for years, while others (flavors, sweeteners, ‘animal-free’ dairy proteins) are pretty new. But what if you could use microbes to transform the flavor or nutrition of a host of agricultural products to make a third wave of ‘cultured’ products, from ultra-smooth coffee, to more nutrient-packed grains? 

This is the vision of Brooklyn-based start-up Afineur​, which has combined its co-founders’ expertise in flavor chemistry and microbiology to create the first ‘cultured’ coffee (in which bitter notes have been eliminated by microbes during a controlled fermentation process), and is now looking at how naturally-occurring micro-organisms could modify the properties of everything from cocoa to cereal grains.

To address the inevitable questions about GMOs, while Afineur co-founder Dr Camille Delebecque’s field of expertise is synthetic biology – which is utilized by next-gen fermentation companies such as Evolva​, Perfect Day​ and Geltor​ - Afineur is not using ‘synbio’ techniques to bioengineer microbes and does not use genetic engineering at any stage of the production process.

Instead, Delebecque and co-founder Dr Sophie Deterre - a flavor scientist - have screened thousands of naturally-occurring microbes from industry libraries and identified five that in combination, ‘eat’ away unwanted bitter notes in green arabica coffee beans during a two-day fermentation process.

Pricey, but more affordable than kopi luwak  

After roasting, a process that kills off all the microbes, the coffee beans are less astringent, less bitter, and more aromatic, such that consumers who can’t stomach coffee at all due to its bitter notes could enjoy it, while coffee drinkers who currently add milk or sugar to make their morning cup of Joe more palatable could ditch both, says Delebecque.

“We’re using strains that are GRAS (generally recognized as safe) and we are sterilizing the product.”

While there may well be mass market potential for smoother coffee, right now, Afineur's target audience is foodies, wine drinkers, tea lovers and coffee enthusiasts looking for premium new products, plus aficionados looking for something more ethical – and affordable – than the famed kopi luwak​, a super-premium coffee made from coffee cherries that have passed through the digestive tract of Asian civet cats, during which time the beans (the seeds inside coffee fruits) are fermented by bacteria in the animal’s gut.

Brooklyn-based Afineur was founded in 2014 by Dr Camille Delebecque and Dr Sophie Deterre. A biotechnology advisor to the European Commission, Delebecque specializes in synthetic biology, while Deterre is a flavor scientist with many years of experience at USDA, Mars and the AgroParisTech institute, where she worked on projects for Grand Marnier.

Coffee is just the beginning

And so far, feedback has been very encouraging, says Delebecque, who is charging $89 for a 5oz glass bottle of beans and three 5oz refill bags (20z coffee in total) via the company website and says Afineur is already profitable.

Afineur has also secured a deal to get onto Amazon’s Launchpad platform and is in talks with a range of other online and bricks and mortar retailers interested in stocking the premium product.

Afineur co-founder Dr Camille Delebecque: "Coffee is just the beginning."

As for financing, Afineur secured seed funding from the IndieBio​ accelerator in 2014 and reached its funding target on Kickstarter​ in 2015 in just six hours.

It is now talking to venture capital firms and the venture arms of some big CPG companies about raising $2m to help it broaden distribution of its cultured coffee and develop new products, he says.

“Our next product is a coffee that not only tastes less bitter and astringent, but does not cause digestive discomfort, something that about 20% of people experience when they drink coffee. We know which components in coffee cause digestive problems and we have identified microbes which tackle them.”

So is anyone else doing what Afineur is doing?

Right now, this field of food development is still in its early stages, says Delebecque, who says he is aware of MycoTechnology (click HERE​), which is using mushroom mycelium to alter the flavor and nutritional profile of a range of agricultural materials from cereal grains to cocoa beans and stevia leaves, but says they are both operating in a brave new world of food science, albeit using natural ingredients and traditional processes.

“It’s really the start of a journey; coffee is just the beginning. We are setting up a foundation platform to improve all kinds of food products, so we're looking at flavor, nutrition, protein content, and​ [eliminating] allergens."

afineur bottle

What's in a name?

Affineur​ is the French word for someone that is an expert in cheese aging/ripening.

Cultured coffee​? Afineur could have called its product fermented coffee, but co-founder Dr Camille Delebecque says the word ‘cultured’ has broader connotations, referring both to a microbiological fermentation process, and to societal trends.  

‘We reached our Kickstarter target in less than six hours’

But why make consumer packaged food products yourself when you could license your technology to a big coffee roaster and focus on your core area of expertise?

Lots of reasons, but the primary one is that getting a product in front of consumers quickly – which you can do as a start-up with a genuinely novel product and access to crowdfunding platforms – enables you to prove there is a market for what you are doing by establishing direct relationships with consumers, says Delebecque.

“We are open to licensing in the future but when you’ve got something really new it’s really valuable to get direct feedback from consumers to understand if they accept your technology and how to tell your story better.”


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