As I came out of the subway, I double-checked my directions: Go to the building at 30th and Broadway, sign in, take the second elevator on the right and go to the ninth floor. After five months, a handful of missed connections and scads of e-mails, this was it: I was finally going to taste coffee flour.
The brainchild of Dan Belliveau, Starbucks’ former Director of Technical Services, coffee flour is an elegant solution to an ugly problem. Coffee cherry, the fruit that surrounds a coffee bean, has long been a major pollutant in coffee-producing areas. Some of the cherry can be used for fertilizer, but most of it – more than 10 billion pounds per year – ends up getting dumped in waterways.
Belliveau’s company, aptly named “Coffee Flour,” uses a proprietary method to transform coffee cherry into a finely-ground, gluten-free powder that can be swapped out for flour. According to the company, the finished product is high in potassium, iron and protein, and is composed of almost 60 percent fiber, most of which is insoluble. It has 30 milligrams of caffeine per serving (about one-tenth the punch of a Starbucks’ grande drip) and about 20 times the antioxidant properties of blueberries. In other words, it’s a superfood with a peppy little caffeine zing that helps keep you regular.
As for how it tastes, well, that’s why I was waiting for an elevator at 30th and Broadway.
I didn’t know what to expect from Andrew Fedak, Coffee Flour’s co-founder. After all, his cryptic e-mails had led me on a five-month goose chase. When I finally got to his office, though, I immediately realized that he was hardly the mysterious operative I had imagined. With a firm handshake and a broad smile that was slightly reminiscent of Drew Carey, he immediately put me at ease. Of course, the bag of coffee flour chocolate chip cookies in his hand helped. I decided to trust him.
The cookies were good: crispy, rich and a bit salty, with an underlying flavor that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. When Fedak gave me some of the flour, I struggled in vain to pin down its smell. There was a touch of coffee richness, but there were other scents in there, too. Mulch. Tobacco. Fresh hay.
Unable to resist, I decided to give it a taste, but even then I couldn’t quite identify the flavor. It evoked pumpernickel, with a balanced, rounded spiciness and a slightly rich undertone. There were also hints of molasses and, of course, coffee. Before long, I gave up on trying to identify the layers of scent and flavor, choosing instead to just focus on the possibilities, on the myriad dishes that I could try it in. Onion rye bread? Gingerbread? Snickerdoodles? Pan-fried fish?
We talked for a while before he sent me on my way with a couple more cookies, a small bag of flour and a few other goodies from Coffee Flour’s tasting labs. Over the next few days, as I ate the coffee granola, coffee cookies and coffee energy bars, I realized that – in their test foods at least – Coffee Flour’s chefs had tried to tuck away the flour’s strong taste. In most cases, they had limited themselves to no more than 12% coffee flour in a recipe and had hidden it behind other, stronger flavors.
The flour’s strong flavor was only one aspect that needed consideration. Its powdery texture was fine, yet firm, and it was pretty clear that trying to swap it out for wheat flour would be a fool’s errand. On the other hand, it was very similar to oat flour – a key ingredient in one of my favorite gluten-free baked goodies, the toffee cinnamon oatmeal cookie bars from Oh She Glows. As an added benefit, the salty, sweet, nutty mix of flavors in the bars seemed an ideal counterpoint to the strong coffee flour. I swapped it out for a half cup of the oat flour in the recipe.
The finished product was sort of what I imagine a chocolate chip cookie would taste like if it was made by my eastern European great grandmother. Dense and rich, with a dark color that hinted at black bread, it was a far cry from the golden color of the usual bars. Flavor-wise, it was like a chocolate chip cookie crossbred with a slice of rye bread. The only problem, I discovered, was that the coffee flour pushed the salt in the recipe front-and-center. The next time I make the bars with coffee flour (and yes, I’ll be doing this again), I’ll cut back on the salt.
The salt issue was also apparent in my next dish. Noting the flour’s strange spiciness and its ability to blend well with other savory flavors, I added a couple of teaspoons to Food Republic’s blackened catfish recipe and reduced the salt by half.
The finished product was an unqualified success. The coffee flour blended with the oregano and thyme in the recipe, offering a robust counter-balance to the cayenne and paprika. Faced with other strong flavors, it retained some of its intensity, but also managed to draw the rest of the spices together. Tasting the fish, I understand why Fedak said that the coffee flour made a good addition to pork carnitas and chicken mole.
Unfortunately, I was only able to get hold of a few cups of Coffee Flour, so large-scale experiments like homemade rye bread and savory coffee flour crepes will have to hold for now. On the bright side, I may not need to wait for long: Fedak says that the flour, which is currently being test-tasted with consumer focus groups, will have a wide roll-out in 2015. He estimates that within a few years, the company will be producing millions of pounds of coffee flour per year. I can’t wait.
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