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Biologists are fixing the worst thing about coffee

Leanna Garfield*

It can be difficult to brew the perfect cup of coffee. Even if the beans are sourced from quality farms and roasted at the right temperature, baristas can still end up with a bitter brew.

Biologist Camille Delebecque and food scientist Sophie Deterre are looking at coffee beans under the microscope to enhance the flavor profile and eliminate bitterness.

“We’re in the third wave of coffee culture, when people don’t just look to it for a morning buzz. They want a higher quality coffee and are interested in the flavor of it,” Delebecque tells Tech Insider. “We’re uncovering interesting flavors that didn’t exist before.”

The pair founded Afineur, a Brooklyn-based company that ferments foods to make them taste better and more nutritious. Their first endeavor is producing their own fermented coffee beans, called Cultured Coffee.

Afineur is the first to ferment coffee that in a way that directly changes its flavor and levels of acidity.

Normally, coffee producers have two options to control the final product. They can choose where they order their beans from, and determine the time and temperature of the roast.

Once coffee cherries are picked, they are fermented in giant tanks filled with water. A microbial reaction of yeast and bacteria adds complexity and depth to the bean flavor.

But the beans’ taste and levels of acidity can still be somewhat of a mystery until they’re roasted and brewed.

Delebecque and Deterre’s method adds a way to directly control the taste.

Afineur gets its green coffee beans from farms in the East African country of Tanzania. In the lab, Delebecque and Deterre painstakingly grow their own special microbes. During their special fermentation process, these microbes chew away at the molecules that usually make the coffee bitter and acidic. After that process, the beans are roasted at Pulley Collective, an artisanal facility in Brooklyn. The entire process takes two days.

Delebecque and Deterre’s fermentation technique brings out existing flavors and create new ones when they add their specific microbes to the mix. Cultured Coffee, for example, has extremely low bitterness and acidity and high notes of berries, caramel, flowers, and chocolate.

The culture of coffee drinking has evolved dramatically within the past decade, so Delebecque says it was a natural product to experiment with. Much like wine and craft beer, producing the perfect caffeinated brew has become an art form. Coffee connoisseurs will pay upwards of $4 (or $15!) for an exceptional roast, but Delebecque and Deterre’s fermentation process makes the coffee’s flavors even more complex.

Afineur’s Cultured Coffee is not cheap, however. The first 10-ounce bags are now available to buy for $59.

The Kickstarter raised over $51,000 last year, and Delebecque says they plan to ship the first batch of the coffee to backers this month. _MG_0165 copy 2Camille Delebecque

The idea of fermenting food is nothing new. One of the oldest methods of food processing, it’s usually used to produce high-carbohydrate foods, like cheese and bread, and alcoholic drinks, like wine and beer.

In the future, the team will experiment with fermenting other plant-based foods. For example, some grains contain protein locked in molecules that we can’t digest, Delebecque says.

By fermenting food with microbes that can digest those molecules, we could boost their levels of protein.

In the meantime, the fermentation process could be a way to craft some of the most exceptional cups of coffee in the world.