The most expensive coffee in the world is called Kopi Luwak. It costs upwards of $80 per cup, due to both its exceptional taste and unusual origin. That’s because it’s made from coffee beans that have been partially digested, and then excreted, by the Asian palm civet – a relative of the mongoose found throughout Southeast Asia.
During the digestive process, microbes in the gut of the civets chemically alter the coffee beans and reduce their bitterness and acidity. And due to the increasing popularity of this delicacy, beans that were once collected only from the droppings of wild civets are now being collected from civets that are caged and fed a sub-optimal diet consisting solely of coffee beans. This has led to animal abuse, lower quality and a more inconsistent product.
This story was the inspiration for the formation of Afineur, a Brooklyn-based biotechnology company that improves plant-based foods by using synthetic microbes to feed on foods in a fermentation process, enriching both their nutrition and flavor.
Fermentation has a long history in human culture, with the earliest cheeses dating from 7,000 years ago. But in the past fermentation was used mostly for practical ends, as a food preservation mechanism. With today’s increased knowledge of biology and microbes, we now have the ability to select specific microbes that can change the chemical profile of foods in tailored ways. By applying these techniques to new categories, Afineur hopes to create new products with improved flavor, nutrition, and digestibility.
Afineur was formed in 2014 when synthetic biologist Camille Delebecque teamed up with his high school friend Sophie Deterre, a food chemist, to build a bridge between their two fields. They applied and were accepted to IndieBio, the world’s first synthetic biology accelerator, and in July of 2015 they launched their first product, Cultured Coffee, via a Kickstarter campaign that reached its initial funding goal in under six hours.
Cultured Coffee uses Afineur’s fermentation methods to go one step beyond the flavor of Kopi Luwak without any civets involved The result is a flavorful coffee with decreased bitterness and acidity, as well as better quality and consistency. Afineur also worked on improving its nutritional profile.Their specifically selected microbes chew away irritants present in regular coffee beans, making it drinkable by the 20% of consumers that are typically bothered by black coffee.
This innovation intersects with a shift in the coffee industry known as “the third wave” – a movement towards greater emphasis on the subtleties of flavor, inspired by culinary appreciation of wine, tea, and chocolate. This movement has resulted in increased demand for higher quality coffees that has yet to be fully met, and Afineur’s technique enables them to supplement sourcing and roasting with unique means to unlock new flavors and craft better coffees.
But Afineur’s vision is not just about coffee. They plan to focus on a wide range of plant-based food, with grains being their next target of innovation. Using their fermentation techniques, they can increase the amount of digestible proteins in grains, as well as reduce or eliminate their gluten content.
Afineur has assembled a unique library of over 700 types of micro-organisms for their tailored food fermentations platform. They assemble synthetic microbial consortia to realize their targeted chemical enhancements on the different food products they work on. Fermentation generally takes 2 or 3 days, and afterwards the food is sterilized so that people can consume their products in the same way as traditional products.
Cultured Coffee is currently available through Afineur’s website, and also in select stores.
Written by David Leibowitz with input from Camille Delebecque, May 27, 2016