How the Swiss make chocolate, but in bioreactors

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Instead of relying on cocoa and cocoa crops grown in the tropics, Swiss innovations are developing these sought-after products on home soil. GettyImages/amphotora
Instead of relying on cocoa and cocoa crops grown in the tropics, Swiss innovations are developing these sought-after products on home soil. GettyImages/amphotora

Related tags cocoa Coffee cultivated

Switzerland is one of the world’s biggest consumers of chocolate and coffee, and now it’s home to a company making both – in bioreactors.

Switzerland is famed for its chocolate making skills, and the Swiss famed for their love of cocoa-based confectionery: more chocolate is consumed per capita in Switzerland than anywhere else in the world.

Swiss are also among the biggest coffee drinkers, easily making the top-10 of coffee-consuming countries per capita, at 7.9kg per year.

Now these caffeine- and chocolate lovers are rethinking how both products are made. Instead of relying on cocoa and coffee crops grown in the tropics, innovators are developing these sought-after products on home soil – using cellular agriculture techniques.

Food Brewer is already making its own French press coffee

Swiss start-up Food Brewer was founded in 2021. The company has since scaled to a team of almost 20 people, including plant scientists, entrepreneurs from the protein development sector, and cellular agriculture experts.

From the outset, the goal was to make tropical commodities sustainable for the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit. Food Brewer is hyper aware of the challenges facing the cocoa and coffee sectors, explained CFO Mathilde Dupin.

“We want to be able to supply cocoa in a sustainable manner, meaning healthy for humans and healthy for the planet, but also sustainable for chocolate manufacturers and coffee producers.”

Being financially sustainable for chocolate makers is particularly pertinent in this year, 2024, when the price of cocoa skyrocketed​ to reach an eyewatering $10,760 (€10,039) per metric tonne.

Food Brewer is already brewing its cultivated coffee in a French Press. Image credit: Food Brewer

Food Brewer initiated its cellular agriculture practices in cocoa, but soon chose to divide its attention between cocoa and coffee, given they’re produced in similar regions and climates. For both cocoa and coffee, Food Brewer wants to supply powders to the food sector, and it’s not far off getting to a first product.

“We’re already brewing our own coffee,” revealed Dupin. “We’re currently making it in a French press and we can imagine a myriad of applications in the food segment.”

How to make cultivated cocoa in a lab

To make cell cultivated cocoa, Food Brewer is mainly sourcing its beans from Latin America. Although most of the world’s cocoa is sourced from Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, it’s also grown further west.

“Interesting fruity varieties in Latin America and market demand led Food Brewer to start with cell lines from Latin American varieties,” Dupin told FoodNavigator, explaining why Food Brewer chose to source outside of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.

Once the start-up sources its beans, it then dissects them to find the optimal cells in terms of taste profile, aroma, and growth profile. The latter is central to ensuring scalability down the line.

Food Brewer then grows the cells in the right conditions with the right nutrition – like cultivated meat, though less complex, a culture media is used – so that the cells proliferate. That all happens in bioreactors at Food Brewer HQ near Zurich.

“We continuously monitor cell development over a number of days, and once we’ve reached the cell density we’re looking for, we harvest that biomass, dry it, mill it, and then roast it to bring out the various flavours required.”

Once it’s been roasted, it fits ‘very smoothly’ in chocolate manufacturers’ production processes.

And what about cell cultivated coffee?

For Food Brewer’s cell cultivated coffee production, the start-up is not sourcing from tropical regions. Instead – and perhaps surprisingly – Food Brewer is sourcing its arabica coffee cells a little closer to home.

“We currently source our coffee from a tropical house in Switzerland. It’s grown in Switzerland and is a purely Swiss product in that sense,” the CFO explained. “In the future, we’ll source coffee from several regions.”

Compared to the cocoa cell cultivation technique, the coffee-based process is similar. The start-up selects the optimal tissue material, and optimises the media and environmental conditions for the cells to thrive.

“We’re putting them in bioreactors, setting up the best conditions for them to multiply, and then harvesting the biomass. We then dry it, and proceed with the roasting process.”

While similar, the process is not identical. Each plant has its own specificities in terms of parameters, from growing conditions through to the growth media itself.

The coffee can then be brewed – like Food Brewer is already doing in its office – or incorporated directly into food and beverage formulations.

The start-up is developing cultivated cocoa powder which can then be mixed with fat and sugar to make chocolate. Image credit: Food Brewer

For cocoa, it’s a different story. To make conventional chocolate, cocoa powder is mixed in with fat and sugar. The start-up is currently exploring dark chocolate formulations, which means no dairy or alt dairy replacements. For the fat – designed to replace traditional cocoa butter – Food Brewer is working on non-tropical alternatives.

“We’re currently working on cultivating microalgae fat,” revealed Dupin, explaining that’s the third pillar of Food Brewer’s R&D stream. “We have three pillars: we’re pushing cocoa and coffee significantly, and are developing the sustainable fat as an enabler of cocoa and coffee.”

Does being in a non-EU Member State help with novel food approval?

Cell cultivated cocoa and coffee are both considered novel foods. As such, they require pre-market approval ahead of commercialisation.

In Europe, it’s the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) job to assess the safety of a novel food product. Some food tech companies have expressed concerns the process is slow in comparison to that of other regulatory agencies around the world.

Does being located in Switzerland, a non-EU Member State, put Food Brewer at an advantage in the regulatory process?

“We target large markets for the commercialisation of our products, such as the US and Europe. Therefore, the regulations applicable to these markets are relevant to us,” explained Dupin.

Food Brewer is ‘heavily’ focusing on US GRAS (generally recognised as safe) certification in the US, where there is more certainty on timelines. That’s ‘crucial’ for a start-up like Food Brewer, we were told.

The company is exploring both options in parallel, but expects entering the US market would be a faster process than in Europe.

Food Brewer is exploring both US and Europe for initial market entry, but suspects receiving approval in the US would be a faster process. Image credit: Food Brewer

Where being in Switzerland does benefit Food Brewer is in having access to the local, and very developed, chocolate making ecosystem. The start-up feels ‘privileged’ to be surrounded by a ‘network of experts’. “We have some of the biggest chocolate companies very close by and can exchange with them on a weekly basis.

“Some of the premium chocolate manufacturers are even shareholders of our company.”

How does Food Brewer set itself apart?

“From day one, we have been thinking: How will we bring it to scale?” said Dupin. Yes, the start-up is interested in developing different flavours and aromas in its products, but it’s also laser-focused on being able to bring its products to the masses, without them being an out-

Food Brewer is not the only company to be developing cell cultivated cocoa or coffee. Image credit: Food Brewer

of-reach luxury.

“Here in our pilot facility, we’re already planning for larger scale production. One of our next focuses will be to find an even larger facility for upstream and downstream processing,” Dupin revealed. “Scalability is top-of-mind at every single step.”

Food Brewer is not the only company to be developing cell cultivated cocoa or coffee.

In the US, California Cultured is working in the same space; in France, Stem​ claims to be the first to be developing cell cultured coffee for the masses; and in Israel at least a couple of start-ups – Celleste Bio​ and Kokomodo​ – are working in cell cultivated cocoa.

Food Brewer is convinced the space, and market, is big enough for all these innovators.

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