The Future Of Coffee Is Here, And It's Beanless

The release of beanless products like Atomo Coffee might be heralding in a new era for caffeinated beverages.

Last month, I saw an article from GeekWire announcing the sale of a new ready-to-drink coffee product from a company called Atomo Coffee. Ordinarily, I wouldn't bat an eye at the announcement of a new coffee product, but Atomo doesn't involve a single coffee bean.

That's right. This is coffee, but without coffee. The future is now, apparently. We recently covered a profile of a company called Compound Foods, which aims to do the same thing, but Atomo Coffee's similarly positioned product was recently released to the public with a limited initial run of 8,000 cans. GeekWire reported that the cans retail at $5.99 each.

As a harvest, coffee isn't exactly known as being environmentally friendly. Our World in Data says that coffee is the sixth most polluting crop in terms of greenhouse gas emissions across the supply chain. Our cups of morning joe are something that many are now seriously reconsidering. And because climate change and shrinking farmland are only exacerbating the issue of growing enough coffee plants to feed demand, companies like Atomo are looking to create a satisfying version of coffee that takes way fewer resources to produce.

According to Atomo's website, its coffee boasts the use of 94% less water, 94% less carbon emissions, and is made of 98% upcycled ingredients, which come from plant waste from farmers. Those ingredients are processed into compounds found in green coffee beans. Then they're roasted, ground, and brewed—just like regular coffee. It all sounds pretty wild. Technically, there's no regulatory definition for coffee, so it can still be called coffee anyway. (Unlike plant-based milks, aka nut juice.)

But what is it made of? The Atomo Coffee ingredients list simply reads: "Brewed Atomo Coffee (water, extracts of date seed, chicory root, grape skin) inulin, natural flavors, caffeine."

Curious, I reached out and asked for a sample, and Atomo kindly sent me a package of both varieties, the Classic and Ultra Smooth. The Classic is supposed to be like a regular bottled black coffee, while the Ultra Smooth has had its acidity and bitterness removed for those who prefer a softer beverage.

"Think of non-coffee drinkers drinking coffee," Jarret Stopforth, Atomo's co-founder and chief scientist, told GeekWire about the Ultra Smooth. "We'd give them Ultra Smooth. Wouldn't have to add sugar or cream, just drink it. It's perceived as sweeter because the bitterness and the acidity are gone, even though there's no sweeteners at all."

If I was going to try a coffee substitution, I figured I'd try it with some people who deal with coffee on a daily basis. So I brought a can of Atomo Coffee over to Moonwalker Cafe, my neighborhood coffee shop. I tasted it with chef and owner Arlene Luna and her boyfriend, Jack Blue, Moonwalker Cafe's primary barista.

Blue poured us some iced coffee from local roaster Dark Matter, and we did a side-by-side comparison of the two drinks. Visually, the two looked like, well, coffee. The Dark Matter iced coffee was a little bit on the cloudier side, but so far, so good.

I took a sniff of the Atomo, and was immediately stunned at how much it smelled like black cold brew. In fact, if you'd have told me it was coffee, I would have believed you immediately.

"Ooh, I love this smell," Luna said.

"Yeah, it has a nice smell to it," Blue added.

My first sip of Atomo was a jarring experience. Because if I didn't already know what I was holding, I would have immediately identified it as a cup of coffee. I couldn't believe what I was tasting. The drink hit all the big roasty notes in a typical cup of iced black coffee, and I was genuinely speechless for a second. Then I tried the Dark Matter brew, and noticed some differences in both texture and flavor. The traditional coffee had a drier, siltier, finish, but the Atomo had a slightly more substantial, syrupy texture.

"I like this molecular cold brew," said Luna after her side-by-side tasting. "I think this was a lot smoother. I like the smell, I like the texture too."

"It's smooth on your tongue," Blue noted. "And not that this [Dark Matter coffee] isn't, but it just feels different. [Atomo] is smoother; it almost coats your tongue. It has like a tiny, tiny sweetness to it, but it's not sugary."

The longer I sipped on the Atomo, the more apparent it became that this wasn't actually coffee, but not in a bad way. The Atomo managed to capture the roastiness of coffee beans; it was just missing a certain type of acridness I got from the Dark Matter brew. But like I mentioned, the Atomo Classic was otherwise so impressively close to the real thing I was almost alarmed.

The next morning, I cracked open the Ultra Smooth. It was definitely much smoother and less bitter than the Classic, but because there was even less bitterness in this variety, it tasted less convincingly of coffee. I much preferred the Classic version to the Ultra Smooth.

Now, in terms of your morning wake-up call, each can of Atomo has 84 milligrams of caffeine in it, which is derived from tea. I'm used to a slightly punchier cup, but considering that I'm trying not to overdo it with the caffeine in general, I don't consider this a bad thing.

I reached out to the Atomo team and asked Liz Green and Riley Erekson, research and development scientists at Atomo, about the creation of their coffee.

The Takeout: How did you come up with the combination of grape skin, date seeds, and chicory root?

We have a whole database of upcycled ingredients we have screened for use in building Atomo Coffee that provide critical components for reverse-engineering the fingerprint of coffee. These ingredients, in combination with our patent-pending process, provided the many characteristics of the traditional coffee we all know and love.

Sustainability is also a primary consideration for ingredient selection. Annual global date seed waste equates to over a billion cups of our molecular coffee, and these seeds have physical and chemical properties ideal for hosting the reactions driven in our patent pending process.

TO: How many iterations of the product did you come up with before settling on the current formula? Is this one set in stone, or are you still tweaking it?

Our formulations have changed dramatically over the past two years. We experimented with a variety of different base materials, processing methods, roast profiles, grind sizes, extraction protocols, etc. before we landed on the current formula. Coffee is an extremely complex beverage and as a tech company we are always working to improve it.

TO: Were there any discoveries during the development process that caught you by surprise? Like a "eureka" moment?

We had a few big eureka moments that gave us a large push in the right direction, but for now we cannot share too much until our IP protection is finalized.

We've done a significant amount of blind taste-testing with coffee consumers and have found that nine times out of ten, people cannot tell our coffee is not made from coffee beans, and they also prefer it against marketplace bottled black coffees.

I think we'll be seeing a steady increase in these types of beanless coffee drinks on the market in the coming years. Coffee is only going to become more expensive in the long run, and the environmental toll of its massive footprint is only bound to get worse as climate change intensifies.

I can imagine a lot of diehard coffee drinkers are probably unhappy about this idea, but what's the alternative? I mean, chocolate is also on its way to having its own beanless future (and a dairy-free one, too). Unless we do something drastic to halt climate change or turn coffee into a sustainable crop, I'm not seeing a big turnaround in the coffee industry anytime soon. Hence, products like Atomo are hitting the market to address the issue from another angle.

When thinking of the future of coffee, it's hard for me not to think of something like truffle oil. We've been able to create an approximation of truffle flavoring that people are more or less okay with: Despite the fact that truffle oil generally doesn't even contain truffles, its sense of luxury still remains. Imitating coffee might initially be sort of a depressing thought, but destroying the environment over a cup of coffee sounds even more depressing.

I don't think you'll ever be able to replace a good cup of coffee, but Atomo's version of coffee is so damn close to the real thing. If the formula can only be improved from here on out, which it likely will be, then coffee's future may actually be beanless.