Sustainable Startup CoffeeFlour Inspires NYC's Culinary Experts
Rebecca Isbell, the executive pastry chef at Betony, is used to baking challenges. This summer, for example, she experimented with making her pastries and bread without any butter. Now she's playing with an unproven ingredient no one has ever heard of — well, almost no one.
When Isbell took her first whiff of "CoffeeFlour," a fine powder milled from the husk of the coffee cherry, she knew right away she wanted to bake a German-style black bread, Schwarzbrot, with it. She swapped out the espresso in her recipe and replaced it with CoffeeFlour. "I noticed a more fruity, earthier flavor in this pumpernickel than in recipes that I've made without it," Isbell tells the Voice. She's also utilizing it in a dessert with cocoa nib ice cream, cascara (an herbal tea made from the coffee cherry husk) cremeux, and torched meringue. "The CoffeeFlour and cascara are steeped much like tea," she says.
Another chef tinkering with the product is Blue Hill's Dan Barber — he first added it to an espresso gelato served at his sold-out WastED pop-up in Manhattan this past March. Barber liked the unusual additive so much that he made another dish that was served to world leaders at the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Summit in September.
The meal, playfully dubbed the "Landfill Lunch," featured dishes that could have come from the trash. "CoffeeFlour is a good example of what can happen if we stop thinking of our food system in silos and start looking at the byproducts of one industry as the ingredients for another. Here's something that makes sense — not just from an economic or an ecological perspective, but from a gastronomic one as well," Barber says.
CoffeeFlour is neither coffee nor flour, but a food-grade powder that can be added to most anything. Even tequila. Dan Belliveau, the founder of the Seattle-based company, describes testing it with every alcohol in the liquor cabinet until successfully trying tequila (he recommends using the sous-vide method to infuse the liquor with the heady, coffee-scented powder, and then straining the particles out).
When it comes to coffee, most of us care about one thing: the bean found inside the fruit. But in addition to the bean, there's a husk that encases it, which is typically cast aside. Leave it to Belliveau, a Starbucks corporate alum, to notice the debris and to devise a solution for using it. Now the cherry pulp is dried, milled, and turned into "flour" that is high in protein, fiber, and antioxidants.
Coffee is predominantly grown in developing countries like Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Colombia. As our coffee consumption grows, so does its impact on the environment. Seventeen billion pounds of coffee cherries are thrown away each year. A small portion is repurposed as fertilizer, but the rest is heaped in giant piles and left to rot and mold, seeping into lakes, rivers, and streams and increasing pollution. Because the problem is far away, hidden at high elevations, most consumers are unaware of it — but Belliveau noticed.
Belliveau became aware of the dilemma on his many international travels and decided to do something about it. His creation is a gluten-free "flour" that is a nutrient-dense super-ingredient. Why the scare quotes? Because you’re still going to need to add other flours to make your recipe work. The goal, Belliveau says, is to be "the Intel Inside other products": a fortified ingredient that will “boost other brands.”
In addition to spreading the gospel of its new ingredient, Belliveau's startup is committed to being a socially responsible partner to its farmers. Currently the product is milled in three places: Nicaragua, Vancouver, and Los Angeles. The eventual plan is for it to remain at origin, to be milled as close to site as possible. "Our goal was to leave 30 percent at origin, which means we had to come up with methods and means to go through the whole process," Belliveau says.
CoffeeFlour currently works with farmers in Hawaii, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Mexico, Vietnam, and India. It's also working with several mills in the flour industry on the multi-step milling process, which Belliveau says can be achieved with just a few minor changes. When that happens, CoffeeFlour can also put into place its other plan — to create businesses in each of the origin countries. Several cafés are already using the ingredient in Nicaragua, but ideally it will be added to everyday staples like masa and tortillas.
Early on, the company began working closely with culinary experts. They teamed up with Seattle chef Jason Wilson, who built out a lab for the company to better consult with clients around the globe. The chef admitted that it wasn’t an easy ingredient in the beginning. Because of its high fiber content, and despite a gluten-free composition, it still lends baked items some lift. "I’m using it as an ingredient, not as a flour — a builder for body and structure. I did simple stuff to start; it seemed to be a good alternative to cocoa powder and nut flours. Then we made madeleines and blended it with 20 percent all-purpose flour to get the right balance," says Wilson.
In New York, the product has been introduced to other chef influencers, including Michael Wurster, the regional executive chef for Google New York, who'll soon be serving up pasta and bread made with it. And the Brooklyn entrepreneurs behind Izzy & Em’s, who specialize in gluten-free treats, are baking up brownies, cookies, and coffee cakes, sold at Brooklyn Roasting Company’s handful of locations.
CoffeeFlour is finding itself as far afield as Japan in a chocolate-flake product. The Japanese company plans to make a CoffeeFlour crumble out of chocolate crepes. Belliveau is even in talks with a pizza and bagel maker in Costa Rica.
With so many people testing and using CoffeeFlour, it won't be long before it will be found on shelves in the marketplace, and the team hopes to make it available online next year. What can you do with it at home? Use it to replace coffee or espresso in most recipes, or add it to smoothies and baked goods and in hot drinks and cocktails.
Originally published for the Village Voice.