We love it when our local Starbucks and other java joints offer bags of used coffee grounds, free for the taking in a bucket near the door. They make terrific mulch for a variety of plants, offering a nitrogen boost and aerating the soil. Anecdotal reports also indicate coffee grounds kill slugs and snails, repel cats, and lure earthworms, as well—all good.
But alas, steaming grounds are only one byproduct of America’s favorite morning beverage.
According to the USDA, 11 billion pounds of coffee were produced in 2013. Along with all that black gold, growers produced a lot of waste. For every pound of beans you buy in the store, there's a pound of waste matter—the pulp that surrounds the bean in the "coffee cherry"—that's discarded, often dumped into rivers or left to rot. Not good. (And don’t even get us started on those paper cups and plastic lids!)
So we were intrigued to hear about coffee flour, a product dreamed up by former Starbucks employee Dan Belliveau to make better use of the industry's byproducts. Made by milling the coffee pulp, the stuff can be used to cook up such goods as breads, pastas, sauces, beverages, and more.
On paper, it sounds incredibly promising. Coffee flour has five times more fiber than whole grain wheat flour, yet it’s gluten free. It contains three times the iron of spinach, three times the protein of kale, and one ounce has two times the potassium of an entire banana. Producers say the flour “doesn’t taste like coffee,” and there is only minimal caffeine left over after processing.
The concept won the support of former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold, an inventor and foodie who co-authored Modernist Cuisine. Now in production in Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Hawaii and Vietnam, coffee flour is projected to hit store shelves in 2015.
If the product catches on, the impact could be huge. Not only would it reduce the negative environmental effects of coffee growing, but it would also provide growers with a secondary income stream. That could trickle down to the workers, who are notoriously underpaid. In a rose-tinted-glasses kind of world, this flour has the potential to create new, sustainable jobs for those who need them most.
But we’re waiting to get truly buzzed on coffee flour until we get our hands on the finished product and start baking.
In part, that's because there are a few obvious catches. For one, the company’s own recipes indicate that coffee flour almost always needs to be mixed with traditional wheat-based products. The recipe for pasta, for instance, contains 8 cups of semolina flour and bread flour to a half-cup of coffee flour. So much for that gluten-free label!
And then there's the fact that shipping bags of the stuff from the world’s equatorial regions—where coffee is grown—carries a massive environmental cost. Is that footprint smaller than importing conventional wheat from Kansas?
Still, our tastebuds are keeping an open mind.
Hero image: Flickr user "jaminsky" (CC BY-NC 2.0)