Beanless coffee pods for your Nespresso machine? Northern Wonder is brewing just that: an innovative, alternative coffee product made sans beans to combat deforestation.
Coffee Free Coffee?
Northern Wonder, a European food technology company based in the Netherlands and founded by David Klingen, Bas Franse, Andreas Giel, and Onno Franse, is on a mission to create great coffee. The catch? There are no coffee beans. Its newest product, Coffee Free Coffee, was created for those seeking a sustainable alternative to their morning coffee fix. The product tastes like coffee, smells like coffee and is brewed just like coffee, but it is made without any coffee beans grown in a tropical environment.
Coffee Free Coffee features a unique blend of roasted cereals, legumes, roots, and fruits, including lupin beans, chickpeas, and blackcurrants. In order to get these ingredients to taste like coffee, the company has explored a range of R&D scenarios, from a lower-tech botanical quest with intense sensory profiling to high-tech fermentation processes. The product, which is the first of its kind in Europe, is currently available in 4 different varieties: a filter blend and Nespresso-compatible capsules, either with or without caffeine.
Coffee’s Deforestation Problem
When people think of deforestation, it is usually animal agriculture, soybeans, or palm oil plantations that come to mind. But coffee is actually a major culprit.
Our global appetite for coffee shows no sign of abating and this increasing demand creates the need for more new coffee plantations. But the planet is running out of coffee-friendly land. By 2050, the amount of land suitable for coffee cultivation will decrease by 50%. In addition, coffee trees are sensitive to climate change, forcing many existing plantations to shift to new locations at higher altitudes, causing even more deforestation. According to Ohio State University, deforestation decreases biodiversity of wildlife and plants, causes water pollution, and leads to soil erosion.
Coffee Free Coffee says it addresses this problem by eliminating the need for coffee plantations. “We really focus on combating deforestation with a non-tropical ingredient-based beanless coffee.” Klinger says. The ingredients in his alternative coffee product not only require less land use, they also use less water and fewer transport miles. As a result, the product has a much lower environmental impact than conventional coffee.
And what about the caffeine? After all, most people are turning to coffee for its stimulant properties. Klingen tells Green Queen that Northern Wonder adds synthetically produced caffeine to their beanless blend. Elaborating on this choice, he says that “in order to be guaranteed 100% deforestation-free, we explicitly choose to work with non-tropical ingredients only. As caffeine-containing products only grow in more tropical areas, we add synthetic caffeine.”
Despite new alternatives, the coffee industry has been experiencing massive growth. In 2021, the industry was valued at around $107 billion, and is projected to grow at a CAGR of 7.6% between now and 2027. But, growth at what cost? For one, coffee cultivation poses a big risk to climate change. According to the UNESCO Institute for Water Education, about 39 gallons of water are needed to produce one cup of coffee, depleting natural resources. For another, the coffee industry is rife with child exploitation. In coffee-growing countries, 20% of children become victims of coffee-related child labor.
What’s Next for Northern Wonder
After two years of development, Coffee Free Coffee has secured pre-seed funding from Oost-NL, a Dutch government-affiliated investment agency. Klingen says the company is looking to raise a seed round next to drive further growth including research and development efforts to enhance the product’s flavor. Although Coffee Free Coffee’s initial release is already very coffee-like, the company will continue to explore traditional and high-tech approaches to optimize its blending and roasting process.
The team is working on new end-products too, including espresso grounds, cold brew, and even whole bean alternatives. To Klingen, it is important that “people [can] brew the product at home, just like how they are used to with normal coffee.”
Coffee tends to be a big business kind of industry but for now, Klingen wants the company to remain largely independent. “We talk to many globally operating partners in the world of R&D and have cooperative agreements with a couple of them. Next to that, we are approached by some global coffee-selling companies,” he says. “But for the moment we make the choice to just keep doing what we do, and prefer to operate as an independent actor.”
The Future of Coffee
With coffee’s climate and social footprint only likely to worsen, the need for coffee bean-free alternatives is clear. So far, only a few U.S. startups have taken on the challenge. First-mover Seattle-based Atomo Coffee has been producing a plant and molecular liquid coffee alternative since 2019. The company recently raised a $40million Series A to scale. Over in San Francisco, Compound Foods uses microbial fermentation technology for its beanless brew.
Beyond just showing that coffee can be made without coffee beans, and turning the coffee world on its head, Klingen wants to make alternative coffee just as mainstream as coffee.
For Northern Wonder, it’s all about allowing consumers to maintain their coffee ritual “without the bitter aftertaste of deforestation.”
Lead image courtesy of Northern Coffee.