Growing Ideas: The cherry on the top

Coffee Flour turns waste into delicious ingredient

The coffee beans for your morning brew are the seeds of a fruit called the coffee cherry. Billions of kilos of coffee cherry are discarded every year. Start-up Coffee Flour has turned a by-product into a valuable ingredient, creating jobs along the way.

Dan Belliveau is the CEO of Coffee Flour. A former engineer at Starbucks, he kept seeing piles of rotting fruit while visiting coffee mills in coffee-producing countries.

A mill owner explained that it was a problem that has plagued coffee producers for centuries: what to do with the fruit once the beans have been extracted? This fruit pulp is often left to rot or dumped into rivers. Although edible, the coffee cherry is delicate and spoils quickly after separation from the beans.

Separating the bean from the cherry

The secret ingredient

Belliveau developed a process to stabilize the cherry and slow decomposition. “It’s our secret sauce,” says Carole Widmayer, Vice President of Marketing and Sales at Coffee Flour. As the fruit must be processed as soon as the beans are extracted, this takes place at the coffee mills in the countries of origin. “The majority of our volume right now comes from Nicaragua and Guatemala,” she adds.

“21 billion kilograms of coffee cherry were discarded in 2015”

- Carole Widmayer, Vice President of Marketing and Sales at Coffee Flour

Once stabilized, the cherry is dehydrated and shipped to the US for finishing. Ground fine, coffee cherry resembles cocoa powder. It can be used as a substitute for cocoa or flour in baked goods, as a tea or to enhance the flavor of chocolate. How does it taste? “Like dark-roasted fruit, so dates or figs, with a hint of citrus,” says Widmayer.

Coffee cherry ready for sprinkling

A hard sell?

A flour that isn’t a flour? Coffee that tastes of fruit? Consumers need help understanding Coffee Flour. The company therefore decided to find partners to incorporate it in their products. Alvarado Street Bakery, Seattle Chocolates and Earnest Eats use Coffee Flour, it’s on the menu at Google cafeterias, and more are set to follow.

Coffee Flour has taken a waste product that causes environmental damage and turned it into a new ingredient, a nutritious one at that: Coffee Flour contains fiber, iron, antioxidants, protein and potassium. It is paying farmers for coffee cherry and has created just under 100 new mill jobs in Nicaragua, with more to come.

“Like any good social business, you have to do well to do good”

- Carole Widmayer, Vice President of Marketing and Sales at Coffee Flour

Too good to waste

In the long-run, the company wants to leave 30% of its total volume in-country to improve nutrition there. But, says Widmayer, “Like any good social business, you have to do well to do good, so we have to create a stable business.”

Coffee – and a coffee cherry cookie

So what’s the catch? Some claim the pulp could be made into fertilizer. But, Widmayer counters: “Coffee cherry is not easily composted due to the large amount of fiber in them.” She adds that it takes nearly a year to break down the fruit and the fertilizer doesn’t retain sufficient nutrients to nourish coffee trees. “What’s more, with 21 billion kilograms of fruit discarded in 2015, there’s no shortage of pulp.”

Coffee Flour was a finalist at Rabobank FoodBytes! in Austin in 2107. Watch the pitch here. Or go to the Foodbytes! website for more information on the events it organizes and the start-ups it boosts.