Beyond the Bean
In java-obsessed Seattle, coffee flour is the new buzz.
STORY BY JULIE ARNAN • PHOTOS BY CHARITY BURGGRAAF
That foamy-white cappuccino – your sunshine in a cup – has a dark side. What you don’t see when you sip the perfect cup of espresso are the neck-deep piles of discarded coffee-cherry pulp rotting in the tropical heat, producing greenhouse gases and serving as breeding grounds for disease-borne mosquitoes.
A former Starbucks employee named Dan Belliveau is out to change all of that. Dan has found a way to salvage waste from the coffee-harvesting process, creating new revenue streams for coffee farmers, eliminating environmentally hazardous waste, and employing women, all while crafting a nutritious ingredient with a slew of tasty applications. Dan’s company, CF Global Holdings (CF), is rewriting the rules of the coffee industry by popularizing a product known as coffee flour, a natural byproduct of coffee-bean processing.
Coffee flour is not really flour at all. It is a dried fruit powder similar to cocoa powder, but less processed. From a nutritional standpoint, coffee flour ranks up there with other “superfoods.” Per gram, coffee flour has more fiber than whole-wheat flour, more protein than kale, more antioxidants than pomegranates, more potassium than bananas, and more iron than spinach. Coffee flour’s high fiber content helps baked goods retain moisture, meaning the potential for a longer shelf life. And coffee flour hits several modern dietary buzzwords: vegan, paleo, and gluten-free.
The finely ground, raw powder has a fruity flavor that works well with baked goods, chocolate, sauces, and even beverages. When used at about 10–15% along with wheat or gluten-free flour, it imparts a dark brown color and a deep-roasted fruit flavor.
Here’s how it works: The coffee beans you grind for your morning beverage are the seeds of a fruit called the coffee cherry, a bright red fruit the size of a table grape. The coffee-bean seed is extracted from a bed of white, mucus-like pulp, which is discarded and left to rot in heaps on the mill floor.
The fermenting pulp draws flies and mosquitoes, contributing to insect-borne diseases like Dengue fever. What’s more, the decay process produces large amounts of methane and other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. The highly acidic pulp leaches into and contaminates groundwater — or is dumped into lakes and rivers — creating a serious hazard.
But Dan found a way to rescue that pulp before it starts to decompose, partnering with mills to dry the pulp in tandem with the bean production process.
After the cherry pulp is dried, some of it stays in the country of origin to be used as a nutritious ingredient in local food (tortillas and rice, for example). Some countries, like Brazil and India, could retain 100% of their coffee flour production. Dan says this makes more sense than shipping it abroad just to make another penny or two. The dried pulp that is shipped out of the country heads to mills in Reno or Rotterdam for further processing.
CF’s main corporate goal is to get coffee-buying companies to begin purchasing the whole cherry, figuring out ways to incorporate the pulp into existing products. For example, says Dan, McDonald’s could easily find ways to add coffee flour to baked goods, meat products, even beverages. Nestle is the world’s largest buyer of coffee – somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.2–1.4 billion pounds per year (for reference, Starbucks purchases about 500 million pounds per year). The implications of a company like Nestle taking responsibility for the “whole cherry” would have far-reaching effects socially, economically, and environmentally in countries of origin.
But Dan isn’t glossing over the challenges of essentially starting an entire industry from scratch. Not only is CF having to construct production and milling systems, but they also have to figure out how to best use the powder in food products.
To spearhead the culinary R&D, Dan brought in James Beard Award–winning chef Jason Wilson, owner of Miller’s Guild and forthcoming Bellevue restaurant The Lakehouse. Jason converted the kitchen space from his former restaurant Crush, in Madison Valley, into ground zero for coffee flour culinary application research.
“We are literally writing the book on coffee flour,” Jason says.
Jason and two assistants experiment with coffee flour in a number of applications, from bagels and croissants to tortillas and pasta. Baked goods using finely ground coffee flour take on an appearance similar to pumpernickel, with a subtle flavor that hits at mid-palate. For pasta, coarsely-ground coffee flour lends a speckled, black pepper appearance.
Jason has already integrated coffee flour into various breads at Miller’s Guild. He says it lends fruity, nutty, and smoky qualities that work well for a sandwich base. Coffee flour adds a rich, spicy flavor to the house-made granola that pairs well with berries and creamy Greek yogurt. “It also works very well with chocolate,” says Jason, who puts it into the brownies on the dessert menu.
He plans to keep the trend going when he opens The Lakehouse, where he will make a coffee cherry ice cream in conjunction with Olympic Mountain Ice Cream and will add coffee flour into waffles and bread pudding. For customers wanting to try coffee flour in their home baking, Jason and his R&D team have posted many tips and recipes online at coffeeflour.com/culinary.
Other companies – some of which are heavy hitters – are getting on board, too. Dan’s former employer, Starbucks, rolled out a latte called Cascara that uses a tea from steeped coffee flour that’s then mixed with sugar and simple syrup. Eventually, Dan says, he can foresee a “whole-cherry” latte, where shots of espresso and Cascara are pulled together to create an entirely new beverage.
CF is also working with major baking-mix companies to integrate coffee flour into their master mixes – pre-mixed bags of dry ingredients that simplify the baking process. The idea is to create new products that allow more coffee flour to hit the market, whether on grocery store shelves or as baked goods produced in-store or at local bakeries.
A few companies have picked up CF’s raw powder to sell to consumers (Marx Pantry, Sprouts, Nuts.com), while other manufacturers are working on their own branded versions of the powder. CF’s coffee flour has also been added to various products like Earnest Eats Hot Cereals and Seattle Chocolates’ Jcoco chocolate bars. Trader Joe’s recently rolled out its own version called Baker Josef’s Coffee Flour.
But selling a pound of coffee flour at a time to consumers was never really the goal – CF is thinking about the global implications of its work.
With 18 billion pounds traded annually, coffee is the second-largest traded commodity in the world behind crude oil. CF understands the potential to turn the coffee industry on its head, enabling farmers to get paid for the “whole cherry” rather than just the bean – a move that would have profound effects on low-wage workers in developing countries.
“There are 25 million coffee farmers in the world that we are fighting extremely hard for every day,” says Dan. “The farmers are intelligent, hard-working business people that just happen to make $600 per year.”
An extra $100 check makes a significant impact in these Central and South American farmers’ lives. It’s the difference between educating their children or putting on a new roof. And, really, isn’t it only fair that the farmers get paid for the whole product, not just a few pennies for the bean that is then sold for $12 or $20 per pound to consumers around the world?
Adding the cherry-pulp-drying component to mills has had another unexpected benefit. Most of the work at a mill involves moving heavy bags of green coffee beans, which usually clock in around 132 pounds – work traditionally done by men. The dried pulp from the same amount of coffee cherries only weighs about 35 pounds when bagged. Since the arrival of the coffee flour operation, 76% of the new hires at the 11 mills CF works with have been women.
On a recent trip to Miller’s Guild, the server brought us a plate with two speckled dinner rolls made with coffee flour. I tore off a springy chunk and gave it a smear of salted butter. Lightly nutty with a delicate chew, I felt doubly satisfied knowing so much good – and good flavor – can come from thinking beyond the coffee bean.
Julie Arnan is a Seattle-based freelance writer specializing in food, beverage, and travel stories. She writes a regular food-centric column for 425 Magazine and has contributed to numerous local publications.