Can coffee made of lupine, chickpea and blackcurrant beans taste as good as the real thing? Dutch company Northern Wonder is working with agricultural researchers to make sure the end product resembles real coffee.
During World War II it was called surrogate coffee and made from barley, peas, field beans, chicory and acorns. At a time of food scarcity, the drink had been a welcome addition. Nowadays, surrogate coffee is increasingly regarded as a sustainable alternative to the real thing.
That’s because palm oil and soy are major causes of deforestation and more and more tropical rainforest is having to make way for the construction of coffee plantations. According to a study by the European Commission, coffee is No 5 among the most important products that the EU imports from deforested areas.
Living in a forest
According to Klingen, a 39-year-old Dutchman, things can be done differently. His company produces coffee without using coffee beans or other tropical crops. “When I was young I lived in a forest, I went to an independent school and we had a vegetable garden,” he said. “My mother grew tomatoes and courgettes and we certainly didn’t eat meat.”
When it comes to meat consumption, it is common for people to pick a meat substitute instead of meat with a quality mark. “That should also be the case with coffee. Not using coffee beans at all is of course better than using coffee beans with a quality mark,” Klingen said.
“In India and China, the population is also drinking more and more coffee. To meet that demand, an endless supply of beans is needed and that comes at the expense of the environment.”
Northern Wonder’s Coffee Free Coffee packs are for sale in more than 500 branches of Dutch supermarket giant Albert Heijn.
The company has seven people on staff, including three co-founders who are also shareholders. “But I am the ideas man,” said Klingen.
The company works with several research partners, including Wageningen University & Research, to ensure that Coffee Free Coffee resembles the real deal.
“If you are an espresso connoisseur, you will notice that your cup of coffee tastes different,” said Klingen. But latte drinkers often don’t notice the difference, he added.
New fundraising round
Northern Wonder is also working on producing a coffee bean made from other compressed ingredients. “We have high expectations for that,” he said. That’s because this product “is patentable”, which makes it very interesting for potential investors, Klingen said.
The smell trapped inside the original coffee bean is important for the taste. “We try to imitate that,” said Klingen, adding it is still a long-term project.
It took Northern Wonder two years and an investment of €1m to get Coffee Free Coffee onto Dutch supermarket shelves.
The company is currently working on a new investment round to raise additional capital.
Klingen is optimistic about the future of the brand. “An increasing group of people are trying to tick all the sustainability boxes. In the Greenpeace canteen, the tea towels are probably made of organic cotton. But they do drink coffee every morning. Our product would be a better choice,” he said.
When asked whether any setbacks had come his way during the founding of the company, Klingen thought long and hard. “Actually, not really. But that could also be my character. I’m quite confident and things are going well.”
This article , written by Jennifer Mol, originally appeared in Dutch business newspaper FD, on 27 October, 2023