Whether you get your morning espresso from a croissant-laden van or you’re more of a 99p-Pret-filter kind of guy, chances are you wake up with a cup of joe. Coffee is vital stuff.
So vital, in fact, that after petroleum, it’s the second most traded product in the world. We consume it by gallon load. Some £730 million is spent on coffee each year in the UK. Worldwide, well over 400 billion cups are poured, stirred, and drunk in the same time frame. In the US—the planet’s largest importer—around 50 percent of the population drinks 3.4 cups a day.
Coffee may be the most popular drink on the planet but not many of us are aware of the production process behind it all. It takes about 40 beans to make your espresso. These beans come in “coffee cherries,” which are largely discarded and laid to rot without use after they’ve been shelled. Only around 15 percent of the pulp is used as low-quality fertiliser, leaving mounds of disused plantstuff after every coffee bean harvest.
CoffeeFlour is a Seattle-based startup with plans to turn this coffee waste into a commodity, and create a new, sustainable economy for coffee producers.
“CoffeeFlour is essentially a by-product of something huge,” explains CoffeeFlour CEO and former technical services director for Starbucks, Dan Belliveau. “It’s something wasted that doesn’t need to be. When I was at Starbucks I used to visit farms that produce coffee. The scale is incredible but I found that the fruit—the pulp from the coffee cherries—were simply thrown away. You’d have these huge piles of rotting stuff that I thought there must be a better use for.”
Over two years since its conception, these rotting piles are being turned into CoffeeFlour on farms in Nicaragua, Mexico, and Vietnam. If Belliveau has his way, 2015 will be the year we start eating CoffeeFlour rye crackers and brownies.
“When we discovered this technique to make actual flour, we knew we were onto something. The farmers don’t have to do much more work to make it happen,” he says. “Instead of throwing it away, they have something else to work with and to sell.”
Belliveau’s first attempts to find a use for the offcuts of our coffee addiction were deemed impossible. It was only when he and his team found a way to process the cherries by drying them out and milling into a flour (along with a “secret” step that Belliveau couldn’t reveal), that investors —including coffee trading giant Mercon Coffee Corp—started to take notice.
“We want the communities that harvest coffee to see economic gains. We’re talking about billions of pounds of rotting coffee cherries,” explains Belliveau. “These can be used in delicious recipes and that means profits for farmers, without too much extra work.”
Thanks to a surprising lack of coffee taste, CoffeeFlour can be used to make things like breads, cakes, and noodles. The startup also claims its product has “84 percent less fat and 42 percent more fibre than coconut flour,” as well as more protein per gram than kale. With this level of health hype and an ethical backstory, the flour verges into “superfood” territory but Belliveau is keen to emphasise CoffeeFlour’s social impact.
“In India, for example, we’ve been trialing coffee flour in things like naan bread,” he says. “This is an ethical, sustainable new product that can feed people.”
So far, so noble, but ethics and sustainability aren’t much help unless CoffeeFlour works as an ingredient. I called on head chef at London restaurant Bistrò by Shot and former pastry chef, Fabrice Meier to see how CoffeeFlour stands up in a commercial kitchen.
“It’s very potent,” Meier observes when mixing the CoffeeFlour into cookie dough. “And it’s quite grainy and harsh. But there’s also a real sweetness and depth to it.”
First, we decided to use it on its own to see the flour at its most natural. The cookies were bitter and a little dry, but there’s potential for CoffeeFlour to be sculpted and cooked successfully—if you know what you’re doing. When matched with something like buckwheat and split 40 to 60 percent, you can see why Belliveau thinks coffee isn’t just an Americano, but the complimentary biscuit, too.
“It works well with the raisins and oats,” Meier points out, as we make our next batch with a much better blend of gluten free flour. “I like it. I like how it’s robust and tough; there’s a really new, distinct flavour there. It’s not coffee. It’s something different entirely.”
CoffeeFlour needs more moisture than other flours to form a dough, but cooking it off with a load of butter and crumbling as a kind of soil seemed to be the winner, especially when paired with Meier’s quenelles of forced rhubarb compote, apricot jam, and crème fraîche.
Belliveau seems keen to push CoffeeFlour’s culinary potential and has worked with Jason Wilson from Seattle’s Crush restaurant to find ways of incorporating CoffeeFlour into fine dining dishes, including dusted duck breast. CoffeeFlour is also being developed for packaged foods like granola, cookies, and brownies.
“What’s truly exciting is the idea of how flavours change from around the world. Coffee from India is completely different to coffee from parts of Africa,” says Belliveau. “Some is drier and works better in breads; fruitier varieties are great in brownies.”
Thanks in part to his Starbucks’ hookup, Belliveau has received interest in CoffeeFlour from a number of big players, and not just in the world of coffee. Caffe Nero is already interested in working with CoffeeFlour and in Nicaragua—where the company is fully operational—the Casa del Café chain of coffee shops is serving muffins and cookies made with the flour. Belliveau also tells me Google has been experimenting with using CoffeeFlour in its canteen.
“We’re about a year ahead of where we thought we’d be but we’ve still got a long way to go,” he says. “We’re working in a handful of coffee-producing countries but there are hundreds more untapped. We want this to be global.”
However ethical an idea, there’s profit to be made from CoffeeFlour. Belliveau couldn’t name an exact figure (it’s probably rising all the time) but given the billions made through coffee beans, it appears the fruits in which they grow are beginning to blossom too.