By: James Pearce, Head of Technology Minus
“It sounds like alchemy.”
That was my initial reaction upon interviewing for my current role as Technology Lead at Minus Foods. Taking a bunch of agricultural waste and turning into coffee through fermentation sounded like magic. I was coming from a 20-year career in Agricultural Biotechnology. I measured outcomes in yield and disease pressure, not taste. “Buttery pie crust essence” was not a phrase heard in the corridors at Monsanto. Why was I hooked? The approach was intriguing.
At Minus we believe microbial communities are greater than the sum of their parts. Interactions between members of a community effect both population dynamics and its output. This is true on the surface of a coffee cherry and crucially, in a fermentation process. It's also why we work in teams.
(Left to right: Matt Hettlinger & Samuel Armstrong)
The underlying premise of our technology is that the sensory, textural and nutritional profiles of foods and beverages can be recreated from more sustainable plant ingredients through fermentation. Coffee is an obvious target because A) it is a resource intensive industry and B) it is processed through fermentation. During coffee processing beans are fermented by the native microflora of the bean which works collectively to remove a sticky out layer of the bean, called the mucilage. In doing so, pectin and other complex carbohydrates are broken down into various molecules which contribute to the beans flavor profile.
So how do you replicate this in the lab, minus the beans? The first trick to give the microbes something that looks as close as possible to coffee to feed on. A lot is known about the nutrient profiles of plant species and indeed that of coffee, so our food scientists got to work assembling various blends of different plants to try. Designing these blends correctly gives us something in the ballpark of coffee-taste. The second trick is to use the right microbes to elevate this to a brew with all the depth and complexity of flavor we love in our favorite beverage and for me this is the really cool part.
Minus spent a lot of time in the coffee-growing regions of the world working in partnership with local producers to collect the microbiomes of their coffee cherries. Each variety in each region brings its own unique microbiome which we can visualize using next generation DNA sequencing of all the microbial species in the community. It has been known for decades that fermenting coffee cherries with different microbial species results in different flavor profiles. We have then in our freezers a collection of chefs who will each put their own spin on a particular ferment. By tweaking the ingredients and the microbes used in the fermentation we can create coffees with different flavors.
This is a learning process. With each iteration we are building a data set of the flavor contribution of individual microbes as well as consortia of strains. In doing so we are developing the ability to predict flavor profiles that will be created, based on the genetic makeup of the microbes on a given plant ingredient. With this model, we will knowingly be able to add “buttery pie crust essence” like a microbial pinch of salt.
In short, it's not alchemy, its fermentation and best of all, its fermentation with a purpose.