Beanless coffee: Is it really sustainable?
Coffee production is under threat from the growing impact of climate change. Jenna Gottlieb speaks with Atomo Coffee’s head of growth, Ed Hoehn, to find out whether “beanless coffee” products hold the solution.
As climate change continues to reduce the land available for growing high-quality coffee, fears of a future without arabica become increasingly widespread.
Recent studies found that climate change could reduce global arabica coffee production by 45% within the next few decades, which could cause many to abandon their farms and seek new sources of income.
Solutions put forward have been varied, from the introduction of climate-resilient varieties to to a renewed focus on the potential of specialty robusta.
One of the latest is the development of “beanless coffee” products: drinks made from upcycled ingredients intended to replicate the characteristics of coffee without the inclusion of any coffee beans.
The concept has been spearheaded by a small number of brands in the United States, which have launched beanless coffee products in the cold brew ready-to-drink (RTD) format.
Ed Hoehn is head of growth at Atomo Coffee, a Seattle-based startup that recently secured multi-million dollar funding for its beanless coffee drinks made from a blend of chicory, grape, and tea-sourced caffeine.
He says that the response to their beanless coffees so far has been positive. “We have enjoyed tremendous support and excitement around our product. Once people try it, they are amazed.”
The blends were developed with the help of scientists, who studied the compounds in coffee in an attempt to mimic flavours, aromas, and mouthfeel. The upcycled ingredients are processed to produce these same compounds, before being roasted, ground, and brewed like regular coffee.
However, while the cup profile is undoubtedly similar, one of the big selling points that beanless coffee brands claim is that it is a more sustainable alternative to coffee. So is it true?
What are the claims?
Most experts agree that unless carbon emissions are slashed within the next few years, the future of arabica coffee production will be under considerable threat.
As well as being sensitive to a minute change in temperatures, arabica plants are vulnerable to higher levels of rainfall and increasingly frequent outbreaks of diseases. Meanwhile, Kew Garden scientists from London predict that 60% of the world’s wild coffee species face extinction due to climate change, deforestation, and pests.
However, it’s not just external sources that need to lower their environmental impact. For the sake of its own future, the coffee production sector also has a responsibility to find ways of cutting emissions.
Indeed, a University of London study found that growing a single kilogram of arabica coffee and exporting it to the UK produces average greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 15.33kg of CO2.
Ed explains that beanless coffee holds potential because of its ability to meet the demand for coffee without the associated carbon footprint.
“Atomo’s mission from day one has been to provide a sustainable alternative to traditional coffee using natural and upcycled ingredients,” says Ed.
“We have worked with Carbon Cloud to validate that our cold brew product utilises 94% less water and 93% less carbon when compared to those made with traditional coffee,” he says. “Delivering the most sustainable coffee on the planet, we are helping to meet rising demand. Doing so in a way that does not cause deforestation.”
Is it really sustainable?
Atomo Coffee isn’t the only beanless coffee brand that has placed sustainability at its core. Compound Foods – which uses synthetic biology to recreate coffee flavours – claims it is motivated to reduce water usage and carbon emissions involved in producing coffee.
Founded by Costa Rican entrepreneur Maricel Saenz, Compound Foods says it recreates what happens at the coffee farm in the lab using “sustainably grown microbes to produce a coffee with sweet tones, bright acidity, and nuanced aromas”.
However, while beanless coffee products may cut emissions, the question of where this leaves the coffee producers themselves remains unanswered. Specifically, if future “coffee” products aren’t made from coffee beans, how could this affect those who rely on coffee production for their livelihoods?
With average C market prices already well below what is needed to provide producers with a sustainable income, encouraging people to ditch coffee in favour of synthetic coffee products could present its own set of challenges.
A 2018 study conducted by coffee trader Caravela Coffee found the C price – a global benchmark for the price of coffee – often failed to cover the costs of coffee production for farms in Peru, Colombia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Guatemala and El Salvador.
As such, it is important that any solution which claims to offer a sustainable route for coffee must incorporate the 25 million or so producers who need income from coffee production to survive.
Until then, the coffee industry must continue its search for a climate change solution.