Enter Atomo Coffee, which began as a science project for Kleitsch’s co-founder and microbiologist Jarret Stopforth, Ph.D, and gradually turned into a business proposition.
Stopforth - who has worked for companies from Campbell Soup and Chobani to Corbion, Soylent and Kettle & Fire - embarked on a mission to replicate the taste, aroma, and mouthfeel of coffee without the bitterness, using only naturally-derived ingredients, and found he was able to get tantalizingly close, Kleitsch told FoodNavigator-USA.
“68% of Americans* mask the flavor of coffee with cream or sugar, and the way we translate that is that two thirds of the people that drink coffee are not actually satisfied with it. You’re also adding calories to your coffee with cream and sugar.
“Jarret loved coffee but was modifying it every day with cream and sugar, and he realized that the bean is the problem. To fix coffee, he had to get rid of the bean, so he started looking at the 1,000+ compounds in roasted coffee and identifying the ones that are really essential for aroma and flavor, and there were about 40 or so, and we started sourcing naturally derived compounds and making coffee from the ground up. A great cup of coffee coats the tongue and activates all the senses.
“Jarret had worked with Mattson [Bay area based food science and development company] for years on brands including Soylent, and they started working on it together. The first product is a smooth cup of coffee, not too light, not too dark, but down the road we fully anticipate we can create a more nuanced cup and replicate different varietals, so this is a Columbian, this is an Ethiopian cup.”
We’re talking about delivering a full sensory coffee experience
The company is not yet disclosing the ingredients in Atomo ground coffee, but describes it as a caffeinated product that can be substituted ounce-for-ounce with regular ground coffee in drip machines, French presses, Aeropresses, refillable K-Cups, and pour-overs.
But why create ‘grounds’ at all if you can start from scratch? Why not create a soluble product that doesn’t generate any waste if you are not encumbered by the bean?
“Because coffee is a ritualized experience,” said Kleitsch. “We wanted to match that ritual and offer something that’s a one for one exchange.”
Barb Stuckey, president and chief innovation officer at Mattson, added: “A natural coffee flavor can only do so much. We’re talking about delivering a full sensory coffee experience.”
Why ditch the beans?
But why ditch the coffee bean at all? Aren’t there ways to make coffee less bitter through plant breeding, different processing techniques, or adding bitter blockers rather than trying to replicate the flavor and aroma of something so complex and nuanced with other ingredients?
Lots of companies have tried this, said Kleitsch - a serial entrepreneur best known for his work in mobile payment technology – but there are environmental reasons for looking again at coffee production, which utilizes pesticides, and can contribute to deforestation, while roasting coffee also creates acrylamide.
“We believe we have a moral obligation to stop harmful coffee farming practices, but none of us want to stop drinking coffee.”
Blind taste tests: The Atomo Challenge
So what kind of testing has Atomo conducted with consumers?
In a blind coffee challenge recently conducted at the University of Washington, students sampled Starbucks Pike Blend and Atomo’s prototype formula and were asked to choose which they preferred.
70% preferred Atomo over Starbucks, said Kleitsch. “In 60-90 days we’ll be testing among investors and influencers ahead of a Q4 commercial release.”
The branding: A ‘retro futuristic feel’
Atomo (Italian for ‘atom’) has a “retro-futuristic feel,” said Kleitsch (strapline: ‘molecular coffee’), but he acknowledged that the strapline and branding could evolve over time, given that Atomo is creating a new category.
As for the messaging, he said: “As scientists and geeks, we like the term ‘molecular coffee,’ but as a go to market strategy we might focus more on taste and flavor. But consumers don’t care that it’s an ‘engineered’ product. There has also been a lot of press lately about coffee and deforestation, and I think consumers will like the fact that it’s better for the environment.”
Stuckey added: “What will be extremely relevant to consumers - whether they care about the environment or not - is price, and if 60% of coffee species are at risk of going extinct, that will over time show up in pricing, so this is a way people can afford the things they love.”
Is it still coffee?
As for the word ‘coffee’ – is Atomo technically coffee at all if it’s not from the bean? There’s no standard of identity for coffee, noted Stuckey, and if it walks and talks like coffee, that’s what consumers will understand it to be.
“The word coffee is used fairly broadly, with things like herbal coffee, so we’re not held to an FDA standard.”
Atomo is starting out with a kickstarter campaign for a ground coffee product, and will then launch the product online in Q4 2019 at the same price as a premium coffee brand before a bricks and mortar rollout.
“I’m one of those people that has been doctoring coffee my whole life. I love the smell of coffee but just don’t love the taste, so for me to make a good cup of coffee I add a lot of milk, a lot of sugar and sometimes I add vanilla, because when you need a cup of coffee, you need a cup of coffee.
"So this project really appealed to me personally."
Barb Stuckey, president and chief innovation officer, Mattson