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The Next Big Thing in the Coffee Industry? Fermentation

Brooklyn-based startup Afineur is using microbes to make a healthier, more flavorful cup of coffee.

Associate Digital Food Editor
Afineur fermented coffee

Fermentation has been used to process all kinds of food for thousands of years, from wine and cheese to kimchi and sauerkraut. But according to Afineur founders Camille Delebecque and Sophie Deterre, we’ve barely scratched the surface. They are taking the fermentation process into unchartered territory, starting with their first product, Cultured Coffee. Both have serious science credentials -- Delebecque got his Ph.D. in synthetic biology, and Deterre has a Ph.D. in flavor chemistry -- and are combining their expertise to improve the flavor and nutritional value of coffee.


Coffee producers traditionally have had only two ways of controlling the flavor of beans: sourcing and roasting. Afineur brings a third, novel method into play: they ferment the coffee while the beans are still green -- a two-day process. The beans are then roasted at the Pulley Collective, a shared coffee roasting facility in Brooklyn. The result is a less bitter, uniquely flavored cup of coffee.


The idea for Cultured Coffee was born when Delebecque was still a graduate student grooming his coffee habit. He teamed up with Deterre, an old high school friend, to start experimenting with fermenting coffee in a controlled environment. They screened for natural microbes that would reduce the astringency of coffee and allow more interesting flavor notes to shine. They also worked on upping the health benefits of coffee, including making it easier on the stomach. The fermentation process modifies the molecules in coffee that can cause irritation and discomfort, which is experienced by 15 to 20 percent of coffee drinkers.


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Afineur fermented coffee from start to finish
The different stages of Afineur coffee: green, fermented, roasted, and ground.

After this year-long development period, Delebecque and Deterre launched Afineur on Kickstarter last summer and remarkably met their funding goal in under six hours. Delebecque says, "We really wanted to engage with our first customers and have an open discussion about the product and what microbes and biotechnology can do for food. We also wanted to keep the product close to us so we could keep learning how to tell our story and hearing about what was most interesting to our customers." Fans have ranged from fermented food enthusiasts and food tech people to serious coffee geeks and, surprisingly, tea drinkers, who describe the flavor of Afineur as a hybrid between coffee and tea.


What about the chic-sounding name? "It took us a long time to find a name that resonated with both the tradition of fermented foods and our French background," says Delebecque. There’s not an exact translation for the French word, but "an affineur is the person who looks after cheese as it matures in caves to make sure it gets to the right flavor profile. We went with the single 'F' to make it simple." Afineur’s beans are sold whole in refillable glass bottles and can be brewed via any method. They’re currently available at the Afineur website and will also soon be up for grabs at STORY, a "startup store" in New York that has an ever-changing rotation of vendors, and via Amazon’s Launchpad program.


Coffee is just the beginning for Afineur -- Delebecque plans to use controlled fermentation to tailor the flavor profile and nutritional value of all kinds of plant-based foods. So stay tuned for a possible fermented foods revolution!


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