Civet Coffee Without the Civets

Civet Coffee

At up to £60 a cup, kopi luwak is one of the rarest and most expensive kinds of coffee in the world – it is also one with perhaps the oddest source. The coffee is made out of the beans from partially digested coffee berries that have been eaten and… umm… defecated by Asian palm civets (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), mongoose-like animals that live in South and South East Asia.

As well as being collected in the jungle, the coffee also comes from civets kept in appalling battery-type conditions in Indonesia. And this is where biotechnology comes in – researchers at food and science start-up Afineur are developing coffee inspired by the civet’s fermentation process (without the civets being involved, of course) using controlled processes to create ‘flavour landscapes’. These will not just mimic the civet coffee flavours, but will bring in other flavours too, and the company describes this as ‘the 4th wave of coffee’.

Synthetic biologist Camille Delebecque and food scientist Sophie Deterre spoke to the coffee news and culture blog Sprudge, explaining that they use solid-state fermentation processes, meaning that flavour components are not diluted and lost.

“The [microorganism] strains that we use directly grow on the surface of the beans and changes their chemistry by ‘eating away’ some of the components while adding other interesting ones. The result is a green bean with a unique chemistry (tailored flavour precursors, sugar, lipid and protein profiles) which in turns really changes the maillard and caramelisation reactions happening during roasting, ultimately resulting in quite a unique cup.”

If palm civet digestion and partial fermentation changes how the beans respond to being roasted Afineur is able to do the same and more by altering the microorganisms on the bean. Modifying the ecosystem on the bean controls the browning and sweetening reactions that occur when it is roasted. This reduces bitterness and astringency and allowing other flavours to be revealed.

The processes the company is using have not been entirely revealed, but according to an article in Wired (perhaps an apt publication for coffee), the fermentation takes two days, and then the coffee beans are roasted. The Wired journalist described the roasted coffee beans as having “a nutty, toffee-like aroma”, with a less bitter and astringent flavour than the unfermented beans.

Crucially for UK consumers it looks unlikely that Afineur is altering the coffee bean directly, rather it is changing the microorganisms on its surface. In fact, the process may be closer to cheese production where different mixtures of microorganisms make radically different cheeses. Thus, once roasted they would not be a GM food even if engineered organisms were used and could be available in the EU where strong regulations control the release of GM products.

While the Rainbow Seed Fund isn’t directly involved with Afineur, the Midven-backed fund is excited about practical and useful consumer applications for biotechnology and synthetic biology (and looks forward to tasting its first cup of Afineur’s coffee!)