“We’re targeting specific microbes that are going to chew away specific molecules in the coffee, like those for bitterness,” explained Camille Delebecque, one half of Afineur. “Truly, the idea is to use fermentation as a tool to make better coffee.”
Camille became interested in coffee in a situation not unfamiliar to most of us: the university. He was working toward his Ph.D. in microbiology at Paris University with a focus on fermentation as a means to create new biofuels. He took a vacation to the Indonesian island of Sumatra and came across something of interest there, too.
“I found this really weird coffee which is partially digested by a small animal that runs around the coffee plantation,” he explained. OK.
The coffee is called kopi luwak, or civet coffee. It comes from the poop of cat-like animals called civets. The civets eat coffee cherries (the coffee bean in the wild is surrounded by red fleshy fruit, and is akin to the pit of a cherry) and, through digestion, ferment and release enzymes into the coffee bean. The result is the most expensive and most sought-after coffee in the world. In London, a cup can sell for £60.
“There is a better way to do that,” Delebecque thought. “It’s a creative idea but we can be more precise.”
His solution was to bioengineer a similar process, but with more precision. He and his partner, Sophia Deterre, work to isolate the molecules in unroasted, green coffee beans that they want to attack with which microbes.
“It’s identifying which flavors are important, like bitterness and acidity, and then picking the specific microbial strain that’s going to eat away at those,” he said. “We’re basically mining biodiversity for strains used to produce specific reactions. A lot have been identified in the literature and we’re working in a big data approach to find them.”
It’s more than just trial and error.
“We’re using a lot of precision scientific tools, which is unusual for the industry,” Delebecque added. “Tools that basically sample the coffee and detect all the molecules, and we’re able to contrast that fermented coffee with a control.”
Delebecque and Deterre met in high school and had similar interests. They studied together for the French college entrance exams and stayed in touch afterward. Deterre went on to specialize in food science and got her Ph.D. in food chemistry. Delebecque studied microbiology and specifically synthetic biology. The pair teamed up again in New York when Delebecque had the idea.
Fermentation is not a new idea, it’s one of the oldest ways of processing food, but it has been traditionally limited to high-carbohydrate foods: berries, grains, etc., which is what bacteria feed on most during the process.
Afineur recently won the French-American Entrepreneurship Award, which gives the startup, among other things, free office space in Manhattan. The founders also recently received their first bit of funding. Now they’ve teamed up with the artisanal coffee group Pulley Collective to roast their beans at the group’s facility in Red Hook. Delebecque and Deterre are underway with a Kickstarter campaign, which is proving wildly successful, having raised three times the pair’s $15,000 goal with five days remaining.
“It’s for this first batch of product,” Delebecque explained. “We thought Kickstarter was way to get your first customers. The best customers you can have.”
The next immediate steps are to fulfill the orders. A $49 donation will result in a 10-ounce bag of beans, which Afineur says is 20 percent cheaper than the future price, which would be $59 for 10 ounces. Beyond that, Delebecque does not seem interested in stopping at coffee. There are very few fermented products on the market, and if the coffee is successful, there seems to be plenty of room to grow.
“We’re working on a few,” he said. “I can’t really tell you which right now. What I can tell you is they’re all plant-based foods.” -30-