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“We are conductors for an orchestra of microbes,” Camille Delebecque flashes a winsome smile as his eyes light up. The synthetic biologist and self-proclaimed “serial entrepreneur,” with top scientific accolades from Harvard and French universities, is about to get his geek on. This is a conversation about the science (and arguably art) of harnessing flavor compounds in coffee beans.
Camille is co-founder and CEO of Afineur alongside fellow cultured countrywoman and acclaimed AgroParisTech scientist Sophie Deterre. Their goal for 2016 is to transform your cup of coffee and potentially the coffee system itself, with far-ranging implications for other industries, too. This is the arena of what Delebecque calls “disruptive fermentation,” and together the duo are doing something big while thinking very, very small. So small in fact that you’ll need an electron microscope to see it.
Though you can’t see them with the naked eye, micro-organisms make and shape our world. They can be found everywhere from the air we breathe to our own guts. Microbes also tend to team up, creating colonies that help digest food, turn milk into cheese and cabbage into sauerkraut, for example. Indeed that’s where the fun part for us humans comes in: The chemical reactions that take place as microbes digest matter also lead to different flavors.
So where do Delebecque and Deterre get involved? Now that individual strains of microbes are available by mail order for everything from pharmaceuticals to cheesemaking, the scientists at Afineur wondered if they could curate the work of microbes using biotechnology.
When you study a single coffee bean under an electron microscope, you’ll see it’s teaming with microbes. Those microbes occur naturally, the result of their journey from plant to processing and beyond, and scientists now know that many of these are responsible for the bean’s flavor. By applying technology, spontaneous fermentation can now be controlled and curated to unlock new flavors and nutritional profiles in food. That’s where Afineur comes in.
In choosing their own blend of microbes (they source naturally occurring microbes from a private certified vendor in the U.S.), Delebecque and Deterre have developed a software program to categorize natural microbes based on the flavor-specific scientific data. The pair then select microbes to unlock mellow-sweet flavors in Arabica beans that are more commonly associated with bold or bitter cupping profiles.
But why coffee? Though Afineur’s founders can foresee their technology eventually leading to a range of different fermentation-based products spanning food to pharma, launching a high-tech dependent food start-up is risky. That risk is mitigated by the market economics of coffee, where paying for small-batch is already a well-established idea. In Delebecque’s own words, it makes good business sense to focus on coffee because as a “pleasure product” consumers will shell out a premium for flavor and bean scarcity. That enables his start-up to cover both the cost of sourcing quality beans and support a science-heavy production process.
Beyond the economics Delebecque, a committed vegetarian and animal rights advocate, hopes to harness the technology to stamp out what he sees as cruel practices in the industry. A trip to Indonesia introduced him to the concept of caging civet cats to produce “Kopi Luwak.” Caged civet cats are force-fed coffee cherries then their digestion and excretion creates coffee beans that are almost worth their weight in gold. Great for the coffee wholesaler and luxury coffee connoisseur, civet coffee being a much sought-after commodity. Not so great for the wild animals who spend their entire lives in a cage eating coffee cherries thanks to a quirk of nature.
With this second aim in mind, Afineur is set to experiment with coffee cherries later this year. Thanks to controlled fermentation technology that replicates the environment of the civet cat’s digestive system, the start-up can foresee producing fermented beans that taste just like Kopi Luwak without the cat. The co-founder plans to work with a range of producers and roasters in 2016. Aside from replicating existing flavors like Kopi Luwak, the technology could enable coffee brands to create new signature flavor profiles, too.
Behind the beans
Afineur has been a work in progress for over two years. Funded in part through a recent Kickstarter campaign, the two scientists chose to settle in New York because of its global business connections and thriving food start-up scene.
To get their ferments going, the two founders located to the Pfizer Building in Brooklyn’s South Williamsburg neighborhood. The repurposed factory, with roots coincidentally steeped in pharmaceutical fermentation, is not only a fitting home for Afineur, but plays host to a variety of food production businesses. It also provides a suitable space for Afineur’s production, which requires specialized equipment and sterile surroundings.
Their process starts with dry green (unroasted) Arabica beans, which they source from organic micro lots. Next, three to four strains of microbes are applied to hydrated green beans in a process Delebecque refers to as “synthetic ecology.” The microbes are applied following flash pasteurization to remove residual strains in order to control what flavors will be present in the finished product. The microbes then feed on specific molecules in the coffee beans while enriching others as they start to colonize the surface.
After application, microbes enjoy 36 hours of solid state fermentation where strains of bacteria colonize the solid surface of the beans. At that point, the beans are ready to be roasted as normal, whereby Maillard reactions, otherwise known as caramelization and browning reactions, amplify desired flavors in the beans.
Afineur then uses local shared roasting facilities Pulley Collective in Red Hook. The whole process is scalable and delivers consistent results, forging a middle-ground between the subtleties of terroir and commercial standardization.
The taste test
The results certainly make for an unexpected (well, at least for the first-time drinker) coffee experience. As a self-professed coffee aficionado, I won’t deny an eagerness to test out this coffee. Opening my first bag felt as if Lewis and Clark had been tasked to tandem canoe their way down a caffeinated waterway with the Star Trek crew in tow. Yes, it was coffee, but not as most of us know it.
The dark roast and moist surface worked their usual visual charm, the nutty scent starting to perform the usual morning mental ablutions. However the taste teased my senses back into slumber-mode. The expected punch of bold Arabica was missing and instead replaced with a soft sweetness that enveloped my tongue and whispered syrupy nothings to straining wakefulness. Definitely different.
From food thought leaders like Michael Pollan, to start-ups like Afineur and mushroom-specialist Mycotechnology, fermentation is in the spotlight like never before. However it is also just one of the many natural processes now under the start-up microscope. Together this new wave of start-ups speaks to an emerging trend for what could be called “elemental modernism.” Scientists, businesses and food thought leaders are exploring how to work with nature, rather than against it, to hopefully yield dividends for consumers, producers and the environment.
According to Delebecque, their technology could also be applied to new realms like “improving the bioavailability of … nutrients in plant based food.” Microbes could become “a tool to … replace flavoring and chemicals.”
Though currently too costly and cumbersome to harness outside a controlled laboratory environment, future technology could bring benefits to farmers, too. For example coffee farms could control the flavor profile of their beans before they reach commodity markets, thereby ideally putting them—and not the markets—in control of their own business. Disruptive ideas like this are likely to be well received at a time when environmental stress factors such as coffee rust and a changing climate are also putting increasing pressure on the farming industry in general.
First Afineur has to grow their business, though. With Brooklyn-based subscription coffee services like Craft Coffee and DriftAway, only time will tell if Afineur’s curated flavor profiles can hold their own in a crowded arena. For now, however, tides seem to be moving forward for their new and geeky approach.
Photos courtesy of Afineur.