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How a New Startup Is Refining the Flavor of Coffee via Microbial Fermentation

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Afineur is considering the science behind animal poop coffee kopi luwak and using technology to alter beans.

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Inspired by the popular, pricey and controversial coffee known as kopi luwakcoffee beans plucked from animal dungCamille Delebecque has co-launched a company focused on enhancing the flavor of coffee beans using natural fermentation techniques in the lab. Last Wednesday, Afineur launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to produce "cultured coffee," and hit its target goal in just six hours.

Delebecque’s lab work aims to tweak two widely-discussed coffee qualities: bitterness and astringency, characteristics which the Frenchman sees as curves on a sine graph that he can poke and prod. "What excites me is bringing innovations to the marketplace," Delebecque says about his startup. He labels Afineur’s approach to food science as "synthetic ecology."

The coffee's flavor is reminiscent of a high-quality black oolong tea as opposed to joe from Starbucks or Stumptown.

In the simplest of terms, Delebecque uses data and fancy equipment to find specific microbes which feast on undesired molecules in coffee. He selects Arabica beans from the Huehuetenango region in Guatemala, then introduces yeast and bacteria, and allows his beans to ferment for two days while the microbes do their job to yield a cleaner-tasting bean.

For his first batch, Delebecque worked to dramatically lower bean bitterness so that other fruity, floral and chocolaty notes shine through. And like winemakers who release an annual cuvée or special blend, Afineur plans to introduce a new varietal each year.

Initially, the idea behind Afineur struck Delebecque while he was traveling through Indonesia. There he stumbled on kopi luwak, an extraordinary cup of coffee that begins with a cat-like animal called a civet. After eating the coffee cherry, the civet passes out the beanswhich can’t be digestedin its droppings. Unflinching farmers pick through the dung to reach the fermented beans and a unique and costly form of caffeine.

On his return to New York, Delebecque decided he wanted to unlock this same process in the lab. "I thought I could do it better," Delebecque says. "It opened my eyes." That’s when he partnered with high school friend Sophie Deterre, Afineur's flavor architect. Both hold masters degrees in food science and bioengineering, respectively. Deterre also holds a PhD in flavor chemistry from AgroParisTech and Delebecque a PhD in synthetic biology between Harvard and Paris Universities.

In 2014, the duo joined Indie Bio, a synthetic biology accelerator, where they spent three months working on Afineur and perfecting their proof of concept at the University of Cork in Ireland. When the program was over, Deterre joined Delebecque in New York to make the company official. The pair has mostly been working virtually, using outside labs like Harlem Bio Space to perform tests on green beans. The lab-enhanced beans then travel to the Pulley Collective, a specialty roaster in Red Hook, Brooklyn. During the roasting process, the beans are, in effect, sterilized, and microbes are burned off.

Afineur hopes to revolutionize the food industry by showing that natural fermentations can enhance plant proteins, craft healthier foods and replace chemical or artificial flavoring ...

Afineur beans look like standard coffee beans, though they contain slightly less caffeine and taste clear and bright, with definitive floral aromas. The coffee's flavor is reminiscent of a high-quality black oolong tea as opposed to joe from Starbucks or Stumptown.

Aided by the Kickstarter campaign, the team plans to ship its first commercial batch of cultured coffee and test the concept with the deeply-invested community of coffee lovers next year. When Afineur opens to the public, coffee could cost up to $100 per pound, but those who donate to its Kickstarter can score five ounces for $29.

In harnessing its methods as a tool for science education, Afineur hopes to revolutionize the food industry by showing that natural fermentations can enhance plant proteins, craft healthier foods and replace chemical or artificial flavoring to unlock new tastes far beyond coffee. As fermentation inches over from trend to everyday, it looks like the French are, once again, showing us how to work with food, and this time it’s in our own backyard.

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