A Synthetic Bio Startup Is Making Cat Poop Coffee Without the Poop (or the Cat)

It's all in how you ferment the beans, the company says.

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Aug 20 2014, 8:35pm

Image: Flickr/Surtr

Among coffee enthusiasts, kopi luwak, which is made from beans that have been partially digested and defecated by an Indonesian wild cat, is often held up as the best brew in the world. A pound of good kopi luwak beans can fetch $500, if you can even manage to find it. So, that's why a synthetic biology startup is trying to make something resembling the beans without using the animal at all.

Unlike other synthetic bio companies, New York City-based Afineur isn't starting with trying to reengineer a bacteria or yeast to do something it wasn't originally designed to do (at least, not yet). 

In the last few years, it's become like the foie gras of coffee. We've emulated it without the animal.

Instead, the company is experimenting with ways of creating new flavor profiles in fairly ordinary coffee beans. So far, Afineur says it has created something that smells and tastes like kopi luwak, without requiring the beans to be pooped out of anything.

"What we have is quite comparable to kopi luwak. It's less bitter, less astringent, and more aromatic," Camille Delebecque, one of the company's founders, told me. "In the last few years, it's become like the foie gras of coffee. We've emulated it without the animal, without the price tag, and without the ecological impact."

That's good news on all accounts: The so-called "cat-poop coffee" industry is rife with animal abuse, with the civet cats often being kept in tiny cages and forced to eat the beans. And then, of course, there's the price. Delabecque estimates that, when it's ready to go to market, he'll be able to sell the coffee for no more than other upscale artisanal coffee roasters, perhaps as cheaply as $50 a pound.

A civet feeding on coffee beans. Image: Leendertz

Delabecque has a synthetic biology background, and when he ended up trying kopi luwak in Bali, he said he had to try to recreate the smell and taste in the lab.

So, how does it work? Delabecque says the process is still patent pending, but he and his partner have basically found a way that, using specific strains of microorganisms during the fermentation process, they can tease out certain flavors and aromas that exist in standard Arabica coffee beans. 

"We start with the kind of coffee beans that stores around the corner would serve. We do fermentation on those beans, and then at the end of the process they're dried again," Delabecque said. "Right now, it's all natural. There's no synthetic biology involved right now—we don't think the customer base is quite ready for that yet."

Over the last few months, the company has been working at a synthetic biology startup accelerator in Cork, Ireland, where other companies are trying to create yeast that can make THC. The difference with Afineur, however, is that the process was already perfected back in a lab in New York. Now, they're working on doing chemical analysis of both kopi luwak and the new blend to figure out what, exactly, is going on during the fermentation process to make it taste so close to kopi luwak.

"We've had two sensory experts come in and do an analysis, and we're exactly where we wanted to be with this," he said.

Delabecque says the company will be launching a Kickstarter in early fall, and could be ready to sell its beans early next year.