Better Coffee Through Bacterial Chemistry

Startup Afineur ferments pricey java without the cat gut.

Pictured, a palm civet with coffee cherries. Afineurs fermentation process resembles the one that takes place inside the civets gut.

Photographer: Sonny Tumbelaka/Getty Images

Kopi luwak, some of the world’s most prized java, sells for more than $600 a pound. The price is based on the Indonesian blend’s unique marinating process: A small, furry, catlike creature called a palm civet devours coffee cherries, then poops out the undigested seeds—that is, coffee beans, which ferment inside the animal’s digestive tract. Camille Delebecque, a biologist, and Sophie Deterre, a flavor chemist, have spent much of the past year working to replicate the civet’s flavor-altering powers while taking the mammal and its poop out of the equation.

Delebecque and Deterre co-founded startup Afineur in New York in late 2014. They’re practicing a form of synthetic ecology, a highly controlled process of trial and error meant to outperform the families of microorganisms found in the civet’s gut. Unlike the civet, “we control which microbes we seed the foods with,” Delebecque says. “We use this fermentation to tailor the chemistry of these foods.”

Civet-digested coffee beans go for more than $600 a pound; Afineur’s lab-cultured beans cost $69 a pound.

Civet-digested coffee beans go for more than $600 a pound; Afineur’s lab-cultured beans cost $69 a pound.

Source: Afineur

Afineur is infusing two varieties of beans—one Colombian, one Tanzanian—with bacteria and fungi chosen from a library of about 700 species not typically found in the world’s handful of naturally fermented coffees. The company steeps hundreds of pounds of unroasted beans in metal fermenters for one or two days with what Delebecque would only call a “supersmall amount” of its microbial cocktail, which eats away at the beans’ surface and changes their flavor. Roasting the beans burns off any lingering microorganisms.

The co-founders say they’ve identified species that perform specific functions you’d probably want done to your coffee beans. Some microbes eat chemicals that can make the beans taste bitter or astringent when roasted. Others chew away at sugar, protein, and even caffeine, for a kind of biological decaffeination. The Tanzanian roast doesn’t exactly match the taste of kopi luwak, but Delebecque says that’s by design. Afineur’s smooth, fruity roast has a relatively low acid content, making it potentially easier on the stomach. Producing the beans this way, instead of through civet farming, also means there’s no caging or force-feeding involved.

Delebecque and Deterre, the company’s only full-time employees, met in high school on the outskirts of Paris. Deterre went on to work as a flavor chemist at Grand Marnier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Mars, the candy maker. She was Delebecque’s first choice for a partner when he became passionate about experimenting with coffee as a caffeine-addled medical researcher at Harvard. “I take coffee very seriously,” Deterre says. “Like wine and cheese.”

The duo raised $60,000 in venture funding from startup accelerator IndieBio to get their company going. They say they made about $100,000 in revenue in 2015 selling their beans at a handful of retail shops and on Kickstarter, where they charge $29 for 5 ounces or $129 for 30 oz. That’s cheaper than kopi luwak and not far from a month’s worth of daily Starbucks lattes, but it’s an order of magnitude more than you’d spend on most brew-your-own Starbucks beans. Former Starbucks technical director Dan Belliveau says Afineur’s cost relegates it to a fairly small niche. “But if it’s being sold, that’s the free market,” says Belliveau, now the chief executive officer of CF Global Holdings, a startup that makes a high-fiber flour from coffee byproducts. “Power to them.”

Delebecque says he and Deterre are working on ways to ferment cereals. For now, they’re rolling out a global subscription service for their beans ($49 for 10 oz. of beans a month, or an undetermined discount for a year’s supply) and negotiating to put Afineur’s beans in Whole Foods stores and high-end restaurants in the New York area. Delebecque says he’s not concerned about the limits of the company’s audience: “Consumers are looking for interesting flavors. Fermentation’s unlocking a whole new element.”

The bottom line: Afineur is fermenting coffee with combinations of bacteria and fungi to give the beans more rarefied flavors.

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