In Gloucester, a tech start-up is charting the future of coffee
At its heart, Cometeer brews high-quality coffee, similar to what champion baristas can create, and freezes it at -321 degrees Fahrenheit. to lock in aroma and quality. These washers, roughly the size of K-cups, are delivered to customers in boxes of dry ice. All the customer has to do is put the coffee cube in a cup and pour it hot or cold water on it to melt. (They can be stored in the freezer and cost around $ 2 per capsule.)
The company is starting to gain ground. Respected coffee lovers stand behind the quality of the coffee. Venture capitalists pour millions into the business. On Tuesday, Cometeer said it had raised $ 35 million in new funding, bringing its total to around $ 100 million.
But its journey has been hampered somewhat by the pandemic, and the competitive landscape is brutal. Specialty cafes, which brew high-quality coffee, seem to dot every street corner in the city. The startup is entering the market with giants like Nespresso and Keurig already dominant. And most notably, it remains to be seen whether the product will shift from coffee fanatics to mass market appeal.
Despite this, the founders of Cometeer believe they are offering something simple.
“There are a lot of people who love coffee, and who love coffee as it is today,” said Roberts, the managing director, in an interview. âWe just think we can improve their experience. “
Step inside Cometeer’s 70,000 square foot factory, located in an office park near the three Gloucester wind turbines, and it looks less like a coffee maker than a biotech company.
Exclusive, patented coffee machines that fill rooms over a thousand square feet are hidden behind locked doors. Advances in flash freezing technology are being perfected. Coffee masters – armed with Princeton degrees and hired by companies like Blue Bottle and George Howell Coffee – analyze the quality of the coffee. The company sources coffee beans from around the world and partners with specialty roasters across America.
Doug Hoon, co-founder and chief technology officer of the company, which has started building much of the equipment in his Connecticut basement, said freeze-drying and brewing technology is crucial.
Extracting coffee and making sure it maintains its high quality when frozen requires control over things like water chemistry, brewing temperature, and grind size – things that the coffee maker does. Most of the industrial coffee equipment on the market cannot do this.
The extract they brew is ten times stronger than a normal cup. Once brewed, Flash Company immediately freezes it and stores it in oxygen-free, recyclable, aluminum capsules. These capsules are then poured into liquid nitrogen to freeze the coffee compounds.
âIt wasn’t easy,â said Hoon, an MIT-trained engineer, of his team’s journey through machine and process design. âIt took us a long time to figure it out. “
Cometeer’s origin story dates back to the early 2010s. Roberts, an economics graduate from Bentley, studied abroad in Spain and developed a love of good coffee. After returning to Boston, he started brewing his at home and struggled to consistently make a quality cup.
Inspired by his trick to freezing coffee in ice cube trays, he started tinkering to do it better. At the same time, he was looking to start his own business, and the cafe looked more promising than his other business – an e-commerce site similar to Groupon.
Having no formal training on coffee, Roberts set out to learn from the experts. Early on, he searched for George Howell, a Boston entrepreneur widely regarded as one of the pioneers of the specialty coffee movement.
Roberts, who said he was “such a rookie in coffee at the time,” discovered Howell at a coffee conference in Boston. He claimed his attempts to freeze coffee were the next big thing. Roberts gave Howell a taste of his first product. It didn’t go well.
“He practically spat it out,” Roberts recalls.
But over time, Howell took Roberts under his wing. Roberts began flash freezing high quality coffee shots taken by Howell’s coffee quality manager. He would put this coffee between two blocks of dry ice, vacuum it, then present it months later. It would still keep its flavor and aroma, Roberts recalls.
âThat’s when I saw George’s excitement,â he said. âThat’s when I knew we really had something. And that’s when I really got into this with a credit card.
Shortly after securing Howell’s support as a counselor, Roberts met Hoon, who was the father of one of his classmates.
The duo worked to perfect and protect their flash brewing and freezing technology, as well as their capsule design. A few years later, they were ready to show the product to the coffee world.
In April 2019, they secured a booth at the Specialty Coffee Association Exhibition in Boston. Their product, which looked like a K-Cup, initially aroused skepticism from “the biggest coffee snobs in the industry,” Hoon said. But after telling attendees that the company had connections with established coffee figures like Howell, people gave it a try.
âAt the end of the weekend, you couldn’t come near our table,â he added. “It was just a phenomenal acceptance of the product among this elite group of coffee professionals.”
Soon after, the funding began to flow. In November 2019, the company raised $ 10 million, according to data from PitchBook. In April 2020, an additional $ 40 million was paid. The company declined to release subscriber data, but said its sales had increased “10 times” since the start of the pandemic. His investors include venture capital firms like D1 Capital and Greycroft.
The Cometeer team has grown to over 110 employees. He renovated a factory that smelled like “fish sticks” into a sparkling facility with industrial freezers, nitrogen tanks and a coffee lab.
But, Roberts admitted, the pandemic has “hurt” its rate of growth.
âCoffee is better with others,â he said. âFewer people were showing our product to their friends. … I think we missed that networking effect of our product’s ripple, without people going out into the world and meeting over a cup of coffee.
Kent Bennett, partner at venture capital firm Bessemer Venture Partners, said Cometeer could face challenges to scale up its complex production process. Smoothing the supply chain for frozen foods could also prove difficult, he said. (Bennett, who has invested in Toast and other food and beverage companies, is not involved in Cometeer.)
But he said that even if the company doesn’t achieve dominance in the coffee world, it might be fine.
âNo product will ever ‘own’ the coffee market,â Bessemer said. âIf Cometeer can deliver truly superior tasting coffee that is convenient to produce, I’m sure there is a huge market of coffee lovers ready to embrace it.