GeekWire taste test: We put a Seattle startup’s beanless coffee up against Starbucks and others

GeekWire coffee tasters, from left, Managing Editor Taylor Soper, intern Nate Bek, and reporter Charlotte Schubert. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

In a blind and not-that-scientific taste test, a trio of GeekWire staffers took on the tough task of slugging back eight varieties of cold brew coffee in the middle of the afternoon to see if one Seattle startup was especially buzzworthy.

A Seattle coffee giant ended up making a stronger impression.

Atomo is attempting to attract coffee drinkers with a unique blend of product and mission. Its brew is made without coffee beans, and instead relies on a “reverse-engineered” concoction derived from upcycled plant waste ingredients. And the goal is to be more sustainable, reducing the effects of climate change on coffee growing regions and providing a substitute for the environmentally destructive process of coffee farming.

The 3-year-old startup just raised a $40 million funding round and is now selling its products online.

(Atomo Photo)

In its own consumer testing, conducted by National Food Labs, Atomo said last month that its cold brew outranked competitive conventional products on preference 2 to 1. The company said panelists were unable to recognize Atomo was made without conventional coffee beans.

GeekWire’s panel had a different reaction, quickly singling out two of three Atomo products hidden behind our expertly crafted cardboard barrier.

  • “It’s weird. It doesn’t taste like coffee,” GeekWire Managing Editor Taylor Soper said after wincing at a sip of Atomo Ultra Smooth Cold Brew. Soper said he likes the taste of coffee, but prefers tea as part of his daily habit.
  • “It’s kind of syrupy, and not in a good way,” said Nate Bek, GeekWire’s summer intern, who hails from Hawaii and drinks his fair share of brew from that coffee-growing state.
  • “It’s kind of cloying,” said GeekWire health sciences reporter Charlotte Schubert, another self-professed tea drinker who said she likes coffee but doesn’t really drink it.
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Cold brew samples from various coffee makers, lined up for a GeekWire taste test. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Our taste test pitted three Atomo products against five competitors.

Atomo Ultra Smooth Cold Brew, Atomo Classic Black Cold Brew, and Atomo Oat Milk Latte Cold Brew are all being sold in 8-ounce cans on the company’s website right now.

At a Seattle supermarket, I picked up cans of Starbucks Unsweetened Black Nitro Cold Brew, Chameleon Smooth Black Cold Brew, Ground Work Classic Organic Nitro Cold Brew, Stumptown Original Cold Brew and Stumptown Cold Brew with Oat Milk.

Reactions to other brews ranged from “it has a wood taste” to “this one tastes the most like coffee” to “I think I need to rinse.” There were a few “ugh” and “mmm” sounds mixed in. And one “nasty!”

As much as we set out to determine how the upstart, sustainable Atomo would fare, we learned that established coffee giants can still hold their own in Seattle where they popularized the coffee craze.

“It actually lacks a bitter aftertaste,” Schubert said of the Starbucks Nitro Cold Brew. “Whatever it is, I like it.” Soper also put the product at the top of his favorites.

GeekWire’s Charlotte Schubert reacts to a sip of cold brew coffee that didn’t quite hit right. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

On the reveal of the cans, I said, “You guys love corporate coffee!”

“Oh no, I love Starbucks!” Schubert laughed.

Bek ended up preferring the Stumptown Cold Brew with Oat Milk, because he’s a fan of oat milk. But he wasn’t running out to buy any of the product.

“I don’t think I would change any of my habits based on what I tasted,” he said.

Staring at the lineup of revealed cans and bottles, Soper looked back at his notes and recalled the taste of the three Atomo cans among the competition. His personal review ran counter to Atomo’s own report, in which the company said taste test panelists couldn’t tell it wasn’t conventionally made coffee.

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“You can really tell the difference with the beanless,” Soper said. “Maybe with some people that’s the appeal.”

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