Fermenting Coffee with Koji?

A two-time Finnish Barista Champion made headlines with his unique cup of joe at the World Barista Championship in Italy — a koji-fermented coffee. 

Aiming to make better coffee than what’s available on the market, Kaapo Paavolainen (pictured) studied how he could maximize the flavor in coffee beans. “Sugar in beans is responsible for coffee’s inherent sweetness but the lack of it results in unpleasant bitterness. But the current methods can extract only 70% of available sugar,” he told Forbes.

After reading about koji in the books Koji Alchemy (by Jeremy Umansky and Rich Shih) and The Noma Guide to Fermentation (by Rene Redzepi and David Zilber), he realized koji can tap into the remaining 30% of sugar in beans. 

Incredibly, this koji-based method was used on subpar coffee beans in experiments and still transformed the coffee. Umansky described the flavor as “deep, earthy and leathery. Depending on the roasting level of the beans, the flavor ranged widely from tropical fruits like pineapple and mango to chocolate and gingerbread. The mouthfeel was strikingly silky and luxurious like butter. The rounded, full-bodied texture made these tastes last very long.” 

Paavolainen aims to scale the koji process with a partner farm in Columbia. This new coffee method could aid coffee farmers, many of whom are financially challenged and are struggling to maintain farms in the face of climate change.

Read more (Forbes)

The Brewing Coffee-Farming Crisis

Many pressures are building on coffee farmers, making their jobs increasingly difficult. Climate change is causing numerous impacts — temperatures are rising, rainfall is increasingly unpredictable, weather can swing from drought to flood, and new crop pests are emerging. And these problems are on top of existing environmental concerns, as growing coffee requires large amounts of water. 

Further, studies show that, even with “modest declines of greenhouse gas emissions, about 50 percent of the land with conditions suitable for growing the two main species of coffee, arabica and robusta, which account for 99 percent of commercial supply, ‘could disappear by 2050.’ Brazil and Vietnam, major producing countries, would be especially hard hit.”


The Times details several organizations’ efforts to aid coffee farmers by restoring and protecting water resources, supporting more efficient use of water, improving crop yields with targeted fertilization and starting a global breeding network for new coffee species that can withstand tough climates.

Read more (The New York Times)

A research team has made the first comprehensive analysis of Mexico’s traditional ferments. Utilizing the country’s native cacti, agaves and maize, these diverse beverages are unique to their region. But they are poorly studied, and some are endangered as they fall out of style with younger generations.

“Many of Mexico’s finest microbiologists and ethnobotanists are giving ever-greater attention to this fascinating but once-forgotten foodscape, but even they are willing to admit that we’re just beginning to scratch below the surface of understanding all the biodiversity in these bottles of blessed ferment,” says Gary Paul Nabhan, research scientist at the Southwest Center of the University of Arizona (U of A). 

Researchers in various disciplines (microbiology, ethnoecology and genetics) from five different schools (U of A and four universities in Mexico) took part in the study. The results, Traditional Fermented Beverages of Mexico: A Biocultural Unseen Foodscape, are published in the international journal Foods

Sixteen traditional Mexican fermented beverages were identified: tepache, pulque, hobo, Mexican wines, colonche, nawait, pozol, sidra, tejuino, tesgüino, taberna, cocoyol, tuba, Mexican palm wine, balché and xtabentún. Those 16 drinks were made from 143 plant species and include 102 genre of microorganisms.

In each region, “a distinctive set of plant roots, leaves, fruits and stems were added as fermentation catalysts, flavorants, colorants and stabilizers,” reads the U of A press release. “A large number of bacterial strains and yeasts — in addition to common brewer’s yeasts and water kefir grains — enabled the nutritional transformation of these raw materials into a wide array of unique nutritionally rich, probiotic beverages.” The team mapped the regional variations and ecological niches of the fermented drinks.

Sustainable Future

The study notes this level of analysis is “indispensable” to promote fair trade and sustainable food production. Industrial mezcal, for example, has created a monoculture of blue agave, and farm labor often works in exploitative conditions.

“These products have been embedded as part of the daily lives of many people, including those currently marginalized rural or Indigenous groups,” the study reads. “The diversity of fermented products is an outstanding reservoir of genetic resources that has high potential to obtain secondary products such as extracts, enzymes, dyes, and others compound that can be involved in global markets and could help to solve problems such as hunger and poverty and may play a key role to reinforce cultural identity..”

Traditional Mexican fermented beverages also provide important nutrients for consumers as the globe battles a changing climate.“The naturally-occurring yeasts and kefir-like tibico grains found in association with prickly pear cacti, saguaro fruit, century plants and desert spoons (sotols) likely tolerate much higher ambient temperatures than those from the semi-arid highlands and wet tropical forests,” Nabhan explains.

Extinct Drinks

Some healthier artisanal drinks “have fallen out of fashion and face local or broad extinction,” the press release notes.  In some areas of the country, these “forgotten ferments” are still used in the home, but not commercialized. 

“Now that the days of Prohibition are over and there is a great need for arid-adapted crops with highly-efficient water use, some of these traditional agave and cactus varieties should be revived for the local production of healthful beverages,” Nabhan suggests. “In fact, traditional beverages such as tepache, tesguino and colonche have made a comeback in the Tucson, Arizona, region since it received recognition as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. These traditional beverages are also being employed by mixologists in novel cocktails now being featured in nearly every state of Mexico.

Cacao is one of the most environmentally harmful and ethically dubious commodities produced on the planet. It plays a huge role in deforestation, uses an alarming amount of water and more than 2 million children work in cacao farms. Yet cacao hasn’t been reimagined the way other foods with similarly harmful footprints have. 

“There’s a lot of ethical quandaries around the production of chocolate,” says Johnny Drain, PhD, co-founder of WNWN Food Labs. “Cacao is a huge contributor to climate change, and child labor and slave labor are hardwired into the supply chain.”

Drain’s nickname is the “Walter White of fermentation” because of his work helping pioneering restaurants and bars around the world incorporate fermentation into their food and drink. Now Drain can add “Willy Wonka of chocolate” to his resume. He is co-launching a cacao-free chocolate, next in the wave of alternative products designed to replicate flavor and texture without a harmful production cycle.

A Chocolate-Potato Connection?

WNWN (Waste Not, Want Not, pronounced “Win-Win”) happened by chance. About five years ago, Drain was boiling old, green potatoes, and leaned his head into the steam. He was surprised it smelled like chocolate. 

“I had this light bulb moment where I thought ‘There must be some compounds within the skins that are also found in cacao and chocolate.’ I wondered — ‘Could I make chocolate from potatoes? What other weird and wonderful things could make chocolate?’” Drain says.

WNWN plans to release a small-run batch of their chocolate next month. Drain and co-founder Ahrum Pak, a former investment banker and fellow fermenter-turned-food-activist, are calling the product category choc

WNWN’s choc ingredients are proprietary until its formal release but, as with traditional chocolate, they are plant-based and fermented. Drain describes them as familiar, whole ingredients that are common in an average person’s diet. 

“It’s not a Frankenstein, lab-created product, mixing this potion with that potion. We take whole ingredients, we ferment them just as we would chocolate, then we end up with this delicious chocolatey paste that goes into a quite conventional chocolate-making procedure,” Drain adds.

WNWN also replaces cocoa butter — made from cacao pods — with plant-based oils. Cocoa butter is what gives traditional chocolate a silky, creamy texture as it melts in your mouth. 

Fermented Flavors

At the heart of choc’s flavor, though, is fermentation.

“Cacao is fermented to make chocolate in the same way our product is fermented. We use similar, friendly microbes to create complexity,” he says. “We’re recreating that flavour profile of chocolate that we all know and love using the same fundamental techniques that are used to make chocolate.”

High-quality chocolate contains roughly 600 different flavor and aroma molecules. Cacao fermentation involves lactic acid and acetic acid bacteria, along with various yeasts, to create its flavor.

“If you didn’t have that cocktail of microbes, you would end up with something that only tastes vaguely like the chocolate we know and love,” he adds. “At the heart of this is fermentation. The product that we have, if we produced it without the fermentation processes, it wouldn’t taste anything like chocolate, just like if you eat a raw cocoa bean or even a roasted, unfermented cocoa bean, it doesn’t really taste like chocolate. You have to have that very complex cascade of chemical reactions, made possible by the fermentation, to get the final chocolate flavour.”

The Next Big Alt Movement?

Drain is quick to point out WNWN is not the only company trying to create what he and Pak have coined “alt-chocolate.” Three companies — QOA, Voyage Foods and Cali-Cultured — all officially launched in the past three months.

Some of these companies have been operating in stealth mode for a number of years but made official launches once word of competitors began to circulate. QOA and Voyage appear to be using approaches similar to that of WNWN. CaliCultured is using a syn-bio precision fermentation route to modify yeast cells to produce lab-grown cacao cells that are genetically identical to those found in the wild.

Drain says he’s encouraged by the other companies. 

“It’s exciting that there’s multiple people working in this space,” he says. “Look at the plant milk space or alternative protein space — there’s definitely plenty of room in this marketplace too, and collectively we are all doing this because we care about the ethical and environmental damage being wrought by the current cacao supply chain.” 

European and American consumers historically dominate chocolate sales, but chocolate sales all over the world are increasing

Drain and Pak feel that a shake-up in the industry at the top is needed. Huge international producers are responsible for the vast majority of global chocolate. Mars, Nestle and Hershey promised over 20 years ago to stop using child laborers, but reports say the problem continues.Similarly, these companies pledged a decade ago to source more sustainable chocolate, but negative environmental problems from cacao continue to increase. 

“The way in which we consume food has to change. It’s unrealistic that millions of tons of mass-produced cacao is somehow ethically- and sustainably-produced,” Pak says.

Drain adds; “So, really, we’re not anti-chocolate, we’re anti-big-chocolate produced in unethical, unsustainable ways.” 

Recreating Food

Chocolate is merely the first challenge that WNWN wants to address. Coffee and vanilla are next, foods with similar human rights and sustainability concerns. The company is building a software system that can ideate fermentation pathways for creating sustainable, flavour-identical analogs to delicious – but unsustainable – products.

“When you really start looking at how most of the world’s food is produced and consumed, there are so so many cases where it’s produced in a really terrible and damaging way,” Drain says. But “the market wouldn’t have been ready for a product like this five years ago. People are becoming much more aware of where their food comes from. People are thinking about ‘How do I make my purchasing habits, my diet better for the planet in a way that I don’t have to sacrifice the flavors and taste that I love?’ There will be work to do. But people are more receptive now that fermentation is more of a household name than it was five years ago. I think the fact that more people want to remedy these challenges is brillant.”

Drain will be speaking FERMENTATION 2021 on “The Alt-Universe”

Melinda Williamson has always been fascinated by plants — she grew up watching her mother make baby food with produce from the garden, later studied medicinal plants in college and dedicated her career as an ecologist to researching microbial communities in soil.

So, when Williamson became extremely sick with an autoimmune disease eleven years ago, it was not surprising that she turned to plants. She began making green smoothies daily and, after a student shared a bottle of it with her, drinking kombucha.

“I became really conscious about what I was putting in my body, really focusing on where my food was coming from,” says Williamson, founder of Morning Light Kombucha in Hoyt, Kansas. “I started researching my illness, and found that a lot of stuff stems from the gut. It brought me into this world of ferments.”

The health-scare-turned-health-revival changed the course of her life. Mother of a then-young child, Williamson moved back to Kansas to raise her daughter closer to family. She took a language program job  on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation reservation in her hometown, then spent her hours off work fulfilling a  dream of running her own business. She perfected a home-brewed kombucha  and began selling it at local farmers markets, gas stations and yoga studios.

The pandemic easily could have shuttered a small brewery like Morning Light which, prior to 2020, Williamson ran on her own. But she designed a website, opened an online store, started curbside delivery and launched a canned line — and sales grew by 25%. By the end of 2021, Morning Light Kombucha will start shipping nationally and, by the end of next year,  they plan to break ground on a 4,000-square-foot facility on the reservation.

“What I really want to do is get my product into more native communities, so they can find healing just like I found healing,” says Williamson, head of the only Native American kombucha brand. “That’s more important to me than seeing my product on the shelf of Wal-Mart or Target. I’m not in it to be rich. I still plan on living in my little house here on the reservation close to my family. I just want to do something that has meaning and an impact.”

Below is an edited Q&A between Williamson and The Fermentation Association.

TFA: Where do you get your ingredients? You forage some of the ingredients yourself on the reservation.
MW: We go out and harvest wild blackberries, wild raspberries, chokecherries and pawpaws mostly on the reservation. There’s edible plants everywhere, it’s surprising the places you can find them. We just went to Overland Park, which is the city near us, to forage for pawpaws. 

Some of the ingredients like gooseberries, those we find in small quantities. If we go out and we only get four cups of berries, we may not make any kombucha with it. But sometimes I’ll make a little five gallon batch.

Most of our ingredients, we partner with local farms in Northeast Kansas. It comes down to the importance of knowing where our food comes from. My goal was to always work with local farmers and source ingredients locally, I knew I wanted that as part of my business foundational value. 

As much as possible, we keep sustainability at the forefront of everything that we do, being really conscious about our footprint. It’s really nice because, being in Northeast Kansas, people aren’t thinking about stuff like that. They’re more and more thinking about where their food comes from, but it’s been really nice to have those conversations with the community and get people really thinking about supporting the local farming economy, supporting local business.

A big part of it really comes down to what we’re showing our kids. Before my daughter was born, I had her when I was 23, I was eating a lot of fast food. I was like “I’m free! I’ve got a job! I can buy and eat whatever I want!” I was eating so much junk food. And then I got pregnant and wanted to feed her properly. I grew my own garden and started making my own baby food, just like my mom modeled for me. Food is so important, it’s a constant conversation in my life and in my business.

TFA: Do you make seasonal flavors then?

MW: We launched our canned kombucha line in February. Prior to that, we were doing about 100 flavors a year, so now that we’ve launched our canned kombucha line, we’ve had to whittle that down because we have to have four flavors constantly. Our rotations have diminished a little, but we’re still putting out about 60 flavors a year.

Our berry flavors are our most popular — blackberry lemongrass and strawberry. Seasonally, our smaller batches that people love are mulberry, that is a top seller. People also love the ginger and chokecherry flavors.

TFA: How do you sell your small batches? Are you selling them retail or filling kegs on site?

MW: We sell direct-to-consumer, like at the farmers markets and events. We don’t have a brewery that’s open to the public. We do curbside pickup, that was something that was developed in response to the pandemic. We could no longer sell directly to the consumer, so we just started doing doorstep delivery, then the curbside pickup. Basically, people just have their empty bottles in their trunk and call us and we come out and grab their bottles, and swap them for new, filled bottles. It’s contactless, but we still got to see our customer and wave. We’ll probably continue to do that, we’re still in this pandemic, and the most important thing is to keep our community safe and our elders up here safe. We will continue taking all precautions to protect people around us until we hit a safe spot. 

TFA: A portion of your sales goes back to the native communities. Tell me about that.

MW: We donate where we feel like the money would be used best, things that we’re passionate about and things where we see we can make a difference. For example, we just recently donated to one of the residential school survivor nonprofits. We’ve taken clothes to Standing Rock Sioux Tribe where they were protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, we’ve donated to our Boys and Girls Club here on the reservation, we’ve donated to our youth soccer teams, we’ve donated to First Nations programs in Canada.

TFA: Morning Light Kombucha is a trademark American Indian Food product. What does that mean?

MW: So that trademark American Indian Food falls under the Inter-Tribal Agricultural Council, which is a subset under the USDA. The program really highlights American Indian food producers. You apply and then the program supports you in different ways. We’re able to network with other American Indian food producers, brainstorm together and talk about what we’re experiencing and try to make movements when it comes to distribution. The program is really big with international exporting, so all the American Indian food producers have the opportunity to attend large trade shows internationally, they’ll fly us there, ship our products and give us the opportunity to have a booth and get our product in front of people who are interested in American Indian food products. I’m not ready for something that big, I am so small, but I’ve gone to a domestic show through the program. I went to a food show in Chicago and got in front of a lot of people who are interested in my kombucha. We have really big plans in 2022 to expand our facilities, and hopefully expand domestically.

TFA: What are Morning Light Kombucha’s plans for 2022?

MW: I just bought 10 acres here on our reservation. My plan is to break ground and build a production facility. It will be three times the size of what we’re in now, which will be really, really nice. There’s a pond on the side, we’ve got a creek, timber, a lot of foraging areas. The plan is to build an off-the-grid brewery, too, so it will help us provide more jobs in our community and it will allow us to do some of the things that we haven’t been able to do.

I mentioned sustainability is a big part of what we do. We compost 100% of our brewery waste, but I have to truck it to my house to my compost pile because, where we’re at now, we just can’t compost large quantities at our site. The waste water from our water filtration system, it’s totally usable water, but we don’t have any place to store it currently. Our waste water is not like gray water,  it’s clean water that’s just wasted during the filtration process, it’s usable. For every one gallon that’s filtered, there’s three gallons that’s wasted. It’s so insane, it killed me when I found that out. Once we are in our new facility we can begin to recycle it on property. We have this dry pond. Our plan is to see if we can get it lined, divert the waste water in there and start filling the pond. 

TFA: Scaling will be big for you in 2022.

MW: I know, I just hired three employees recently because it’s just been me for the past few years. I work part-time for our language department, and my kombucha business has been my side hustle. In the past year, I’ve realized the potential. People really like my brand and they’re noticing it and requesting it. So I thought “Maybe I could grow this brand into something bigger.” 

TFA: I am beyond impressed — you have been building a kombucha brand by yourself?!

MW: Family is always there for me. My boyfriend is at the market, my nephews help with anything I need, it’s a family affair even though I never really had anybody on my payroll until recently. Now I’m getting to a point where I need help all the time. I hired my sister as my brewery manager, she keeps a tight ship. It’s allowed for me to really work on expansion while she’s running operations at the brewery. 

TFA: Yours is still the only Native American-owned kombucha brand. 

MW: With my business, I like to think that I’m also giving a voice to native issues. I would never want to be an authority on native issues, but there’s a lot of things going on in Indian country that people don’t see in the mainstream media and mainstream social media. If I can build a brand that can also bring awareness to these things, that’s really important to me.

TFA: You have a background in academia. What got you interested in ecology before switching to kombucha?

MW: I’ve always loved science, I’ve always loved the outdoors, I’ve always been super eco-friendly, I’ve always been conscious about our impact on the earth. I love animals, I love nature. I was taking some of my general ed classes at Haskell (Indian Nations University) and took an ethnobiology class. I just fell in love. I ended up transferring to Kansas State and got my degree in environmental biology (then a masters degree in rangeland ecology and management from Oklahoma State University.) I went with my boss from K State to Oklahoma State and ran the grassland ecology lab for years.

TFA: Where do you see the future of fermentation?

MW: There’s an explosion. I see it continuing to grow and expand and people are coming out with really innovative ways to bring fermentation to the table. Like Wild Alive Ferments out of Lawrence, Kansas. We’re a part of a local CSA with them. The owners just came out with an apple kraut flavor, an autumn harvest with spices that is so amazing. 

In the U.S. especially, we have a lot of people who are sick with illnesses or cancers and autoimmune issues and I think we’re starting to see more people look at what they’re putting in their bodies. They’re realizing the importance of gut health, the importance of ferments, and that it affects so much more than just your gut. It’s a movement — and I’m really excited about it.

Alternative protein companies need to stop advertising their brand as the most ethical choice and instead appeal to consumer’s taste buds. 

“Sometimes plant-based food companies don’t really market themselves as food,” says Thomas Rossmeissl, head of global marketing for Eat Just, Inc., which develops plant-based “eggs” and cell-cultivated meat. “There’s this inclination to talk about mission. We say ‘We’re good for the planet,’ ‘It’s good for you,’ ‘It’s good for animals’ and obviously that’s all true and it’s admirable and it’s what drives me in our company. But it can come off like we’re sort of apologizing, that we’re negotiating with consumers, that a consumer is sacrificing something delicious to get something ethical or healthy.”

“People not buying (traditional)meat and cheese because an animal was killed or tortured. They buy because it tastes great.”

Irina Gerry concurs. Gerry is the chief marketing officer for Change Foods, an animal-free dairy brand that will launch their product in 2023. Alternative protein brands need to “flip the script from plant-based, rationalizing the food choices.” Brands need to help consumers feel that purchasing an alternative protein is a “natural choice rather than a sacrifice.”

The two spoke on a panel Insights on Consumer Perceptions of Alternative Proteins at the virtual Good Food Conference. The conference is put on by the Good Food Institute, an international nonprofit that promotes plant- and cell-based meat.

Wide Consumer Base Wanting Animal-Free

Animal-free is the main driver for customers to buy alternative products. The alternative protein industry is not just marketing to vegans, they’re also selling to flexitarians and omnivores concerned about welfare. Ninety-four percent of Eat Just consumers consume some type of animal protein. 

“Sustainability is skyrocketing and potentially could cross over health as the main motivator, especially in the younger population,” Gerry says.

The modern American household family fridge is divided. There may be three types of eggs in there — conventional, cage-free and plant-based — and three types of milk — dairy milk, almond and oat. Consumers as young as 12 are the ones educating themselves on alternative proteins.

“We’re going to see this younger generation drive families to plant-based solutions,” Rossmeissl says.

Staying Honest, Maintaining Trust

Transparency will be central to public adoption. Laura Reiley, a reporter for The Washington Post who moderated the panel, noted “there hasn’t been tremendous transparency” with the alt protein market. She’s written about the market since its beginning and notes, because there’s intellectual property and so much research and development dollars, most companies have kept their food shrouded in mystery.

“We don’t want to sort of follow the example of the conventional industry. We can do better than that,”  Rossmeissl says. “On the cultivated side, we have a huge responsibility to get this right. Not just as a company but as an industry, we can’t screw this up.”

Perceived unnaturalness by consumers of alt protein is a challenge. Using the term lab-grown “is disparaging to us as an industry” he continues, “but I think the best way we can address that is by being really honest and what’s in it and how it’s made.”

Gerry notes 90% of dairy cheese sold globally is made with non-animal remnants through precision fermentation — and that’s been the predominant way traditional cheese is made for over 20 years. It’s the same technology Change Food’s animal-free cheese uses. 

“(These traditional cheeses) made through precision fermentation, they’re labeled under natural and oftentimes organic cheese products and nobody’s grown a third leg and nobody’s freaked out, right?” Gerry continues. “But now we’ve added one more element of that cheese — removing the cow from the cheese — and everybody seems to be greatly concerned.”

Price and regulation are big roadblocks for alternative proteins, an industry that is expanding rapidly, as more consumers turn to animal-free products out of concern for their health, the environment and animal welfare.

“People love meat but, at the end of the day, they’re not really attached to how it got to their plates,” says Brett Thompson, co-founder and CEO of Mzansi Meat, a cultivated meat company in South Africa. Thompson spoke at the TFA webinar The Forefront of Alt-Proteins in Africa with another leader in the South African alternative protein industry, Leah Bessa, PhD, co-founder and CSO of De Novo Dairy.

Alt-protein companies all over the world are bringing cultivated meat and dairy to consumers, but Africa as a continent has lagged.. Thompson founded Mzansi Meat Co. in 2020 and hopes to bring cell-cultured beef, chicken and braai sausages (traditional South African BBQ-style sausages) to retail shelves next year. De Novo Dairy, formed in 2021, is using precision fermentation to create milk proteins for animal-free dairy products, but without cows.

This novel biotechnology is new in South Africa, but it’s a critical element in addressing food security problems in Africa. Africans don’t consume enough food, especially protein, and as drought continues to plague the continent, raising animals for traditional meat products is becoming less and less sustainable.

“It’s a very different conversation to the rest of the world,” Thompson adds. “It’s about getting more protein into more people’s stomachs and plates.”

Big Production Costs in New Alt-Protein Space

Interest is high from investors, but scaling from pilot stage to large-scale production is challenging. Equipment is costly and labor is difficult to recruit to a new industry.

In a survey conducted by Mzansi, 50% of South Africans were willing to purchase alternative protein products — and they’d pay a higher price than for traditional meat.

“But we just got to make it available,” Thompson says. “That’s going to be the biggest hurdle for us, getting it into retail and getting it in front of people so that they can make that decision.” 

Bessa says that, critical to the adoption of animal-free dairy, the consumer must receive “nature identical” products. These must replicate the taste, texture and nutrition level of traditional dairy — and precision fermentation is a “powerful tool” to helping achieve that goal.

“It’s going to be a very easy sell,” Bessa adds. “What’s really great about precision fermentation is, as a technology, it’s not limited to just one or two proteins. You can really explore other functional elements and other functional proteins across the food industry. So we’re really looking beyond just dairy, but we want to solve a big problem in the dairy industry because it’s very unsustainable.”

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly of Government Regulation

Bessa notes regulation is a bigger challenge than technology for De Novo. Three governmental bodies in Africa oversee food production — the departments of trade, health and agriculture.  Mzansi is exploring launching in food service, as an alternative to the long, arduous process of securing government approval to sell a product at retail.

“Consumers want something that’s familiar but, now with regulatory hurdles, if you have to classify and label them differently, then how familiar would that label be to consumers?” says Josephine Wee, assistant professor of food science at Penn State University (and a TFA Advisory Board member). Wee moderated the discussion with Thompson and Bessa. “I think it’s an important conversation as well because it might be confusing if it tastes just like milk but is labeled completely different.” 

Transparency is a priority for both Mzansi and De Novo. Thompson says companies preaching sustainability can’t be “cagey…or you send out messages that are convoluted.” Bessa agrees, noting a young company may never recover from bad publicity over transparency issues.

“Working with new technologies, especially in food, which is such a personal thing for people, you almost want to get ahead of assumptions, you want to be the one putting out the information and the correct information,” Bessa says. “That’s why it’s so important because you’re working with a novel technology,  you’re feeding people with this novel technology, and so it’s important to be transparent so that they feel comfortable and they can relate to what they’re consuming.”

A new wood alternative made from a byproduct of kombucha brewing waste  won this year’s James Dyson Award, which celebrates problem-solving design. The material, called Pyrus,  was invented by sustainable-design student Gabe Tavas. Tavas’ company, Symmetry,  makes small items from Pyrus that replicate exotic woods like mahogany or purpleheart (two wood types found in the rainforest and endangered by aggressive deforestation).

Tavas was inspired to create Pyrus after seeing  designers use kombucha bacterial cellulose (the  film that grows on top of the beverage during brewing) in various projects. Tavas was struck by the fact that trees are  made from cellulose, and he began experimenting in his dorm room with the waste from his own kombucha brewing. He eventually partnered with local Chicago producer, KombuchAde, which supplies Tavas with 250 pounds of cellulose a day.

Pyrus is made by pouring cellulose into a mold, adding agar (an algae-based binding gel), and then dehydrating and compressing  it. The synthetic wood can be sanded and cut, but will decompose in contact with water.

Read more (Fast Company)

Alt Fish Protein Launch

A female-led food startup is the first in the world to develop a whole-muscle cut of alternative seafood “meat.” Aqua Cultured Foods, based in Chicago, uses biomass fermentation technology to produce alternative fish products, like filets of tuna and white fish, calamari and shrimp.

The company  makes  seafood analogs using a proprietary strain of fungi. Vegconomist describes their microbial fermentation process as “growing” protein rather than food processing of a plant-based product. Fermentation allows Aqua Cultured Foods to mimic the taste, texture and nutrients of fish.

“Biomass fermentation delivers a whole, unprocessed seafood alternative that is very different from plant-based seafoods available today. We can adjust the production conditions and inputs to create a different texture, shape, or nutritional profile,” says Anne Palermo, CEO & Co-Founder of Aqua Cultured Foods. “The excitement around these products is coming from several sectors, including restaurant and foodservice as well as fresh refrigerated set for grocery. In the same way some vegan products are now featured in the meat department, ours can be sold alongside animal-based fish at the seafood counter.”

Read more (Vegconomist)

Investors in alternative protein don’t see the market slowing anytime soon, but they do anticipate a shakeout. Alternative proteins are a mere 1-2% of the $1.4 trillion meat industry. The current giants of the alternative space — Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods — are just the beginning. Industry investors predict the next challengers will come from fermentation, air and mycoprotein sources. 

“We saw the alternative milk market take 20% of that (dairy) market. We think that [in] the meat market, the same thing could happen,” says Darren Streiler, managing director of ADM Ventures. Streiler calls products utilizing precision-based fermentation, gas-based fermentation and fungi the “next wave of alternative proteins.” 

Utilizing fungi, also known as mycoprotein, involves fermenting the spores of specific mushrooms to produce protein-rich food. (Fungi on parasites and yeasts are also used, but not as frequently as mushrooms). “Flexitarian” consumers, Streiler adds, are seeking these hybrid food products.

Streiler was on a panel of investors discussing trends at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) annual meeting and expo, IFT FIRST. Sanjeev Krishnan, chief investment officer and managing director of S2G Ventures, and Jeff Grogg, managing director of JPG Resources, joined Streiler. The three agreed that taste, nutrition, affordability and sustainability are key to succeeding in the alternative protein market. 

“I think we’re at the iPod phase and not even in the iPhone phase of this protein revolution,” Krishnan says. “That transition from iPod to iPhone I think is going to require more focus on taste, particularly the fat side of the equation, to get that umami feel of traditional protein. And I see a lot more opportunity to innovate.”

The alternative protein market is still dominated by plant-based options but, as arable land becomes more scarce, sustainably-produced protein will be critical.

Why Sustainable Protein?

It takes two years for a steak to get from farm-to-fork — raising cattle contributes significantly to carbon gases, pollutes water and requires a large amount of land. The world is facing an impending global food crisis: there will be 10 billion people to feed in 2050, requiring a 70% increase in food production. But the amounts of farming land and fresh water are declining, while greenhouse gases increase. Air Protein founder Lisa Dyson thinks fermentation can help mitigate these trends.

“We’re taking something that’s similar to fermentation — you can think about it as fermentation reimagined —  we’re taking cultures, but with the typical fermentation process, you actually emit carbon dioxide. We’re reversing that. We’re actually using carbon dioxide as an input instead,” Dyson says.

Dyson also spoke at the IFT event. Chef Carla Hall, who introduced Dyson, called Air Protein “the rocket science of food.”

Closed-Loop Carbon Cycle

Founded in 2019, Air Protein uses  a half-century-old food technology originally intended to feed astronauts on long space missions. In the sixties, NASA discovered microbes — called hydrogenotrophs — could harvest energy from carbon dioxide in the air and, in a matter of hours or days, turn it into nutrients. The process is completely carbon negative — astronauts in a spaceship breathe out carbon; that gas is captured and fed to cultures, which in turn create a protein. 

Culinary techniques can then be applied to that protein, mimicking the textures and flavors of a juicy steak or chicken breast. Dyson says innovators in alternative proteins  still call this food meat.

“It’s the new meat of tomorrow, the future of meat as it were,” she says. And hydrogenotrophs don’t require light or arable land to grow. The process, according to Dyson, is “immensely scalable.” An Air Protein “farm” could be put anywhere  you could build a brewery. 

“Imagine this process that is essentially super efficient, going from air to plant in a matter of hours, a matter of days, versus years,” she adds. “So this is a very fast process and it allows us to make food and feed the nations, the growing population in a way that uses minimal land, minimal water, and is actually carbon negative.”