There are lots of people who will drop nearly $50 on half a pound of coffee beans fermented by microbes to mimic the flavor of beans crapped out of a tropical catlike creature. Or, at least enough people that the startup producing said coffee beans was able to meet its $15,000 Kickstarter goal in only six hours, and more than double that goal in less than a week.
We wrote about New York City-based Afineur last year. The company uses carefully chosen microbes to ferment raw coffee beans before roasting them to synthetically replicate kopi luwak, an expensive specialty coffee that is produced by civets eating coffee beans and then people harvesting those beans out of the civets' excrement. Dubbed "cat poop coffee," kopi luwak can cost $500 per pound and, though it came from natural roots, has created a system of animal abuse that Afineur founder Camille Delebecque likens to the production of foie gras.
"A lot of people have heard of kopi luwak but they've also heard of the bad side, so that's part of the [interest]," Delebecque told me. "And I think teaming up with microbes to create a new kind of fermented food, there's some interest there."
Instead of force-feeding cute jungle animals, Afineur uses science—lots of science—to create its specialty coffee, and at a significantly lower price. Delebecque, a microbiologist, and his co-founder Sophie Deterre, a flavor chemist, analyzed the molecules in the coffee bean to determine which ones create which flavors, working with a master barista to help get the flavor right. They then choose microbes that can eat away at the beans to ferment it, breaking down some molecules and emphasizing others. That fermentation process takes about two days, Delebecque told me. After that, they roast it, and the beans are ready to brew.
Delebecque stopped by the office to give me a taste test, and like a true scientist he insisted on doing everything with precision. He boiled the water with his own kettle (the hot water from our cooler wasn't quite right), measured the coffee grounds and the water using an electric scale, and then timed the brewing down to the second before serving me a shot-glass sized taster.
The beans and grounds and coffee don't really smell like coffee. To my entirely unrefined nose, the scent was more flowery, and maybe a bit sour, like yogurt. Some of my coworkers likened it more to toast. Flavorwise, the coffee was good. Hearty, but sweet and without the typical bitter backwash you get with a standard cup of java. I love coffee, though I'm far from a connoisseur—I'll happily knock back a cup of sludge from McDonald's. Still, I drink one to two cups most mornings, and have for the last six years, so I know what I like and can say this is definitely a higher end brew.
"For this first coffee, we really focused on reducing bitterness because it's something that you find in coffee a lot and it's something that a lot of people don't like," Delebecque explained. "It also covers up a lot of the other notes, the fruitiness, the floral notes. If you can decrease that bitterness you can emphasize those other notes."
But it isn't cheap. The most popular option on the Kickstarter campaign costs $45, which buys its backers a 10 oz bag of the beans to be delivered in December. Everybody brews slightly differently, which alters how many cups you can get out of a bag, but Delebecque calculated a 10 oz bag would brew more than six wine bottles' worth of coffee. A standard wine bottle is 25 fluid ounces, so that works out to 25 cups of 6 oz coffee, at about $1.80 a pop. If you're a lazy idiot like me and buy your coffee at a shop every morning instead of brewing it at home, $1.80 isn't too bad, and compared to the civet-fermented beans, it's a downright steal.
Delebecque is hopeful they can ride the success of the Kickstarter to get Afineur beans on store shelves and in coffee shops around New York, as well as for sale online. He said they plan to develop other flavors and inspire people to think differently about how microorganisms can be used in food production.
"We want to showcase that microbes can do useful things for us," Delebecque said. "Most people when they talk about microbes they think of disease, but we can actually do really interesting things with them."