The Zero Waste Coffee Project

Upside down - the production of coffee pulp concentrate turns coffee into a by-product. BioFortune Group, Honduras.

Production of coffee pulp concentrate at BioFortune Group, Honduras

The following is an interview that I did with Ruben Sorto, founder of BioFortune Group, Honduras

Hello Ruben, it's a great pleasure talking to you again. You have not only developed a unique product, a concentrate made from dried coffee pulp, but you always have some surprises up your sleeve also. The first surprise I found already in a paper that is named after your company “BioFortune Group”. This paper states: “BioFortune Group is a corporate group of seven different business entities in Honduras, one in Guatemala and one in Panama that is dedicated to the production of exotic coffee varieties, as well as botanicals, fruits, and herbs.” When we spoke for the first time during Covid, you were only operating in your home country, Honduras.

Yes, many things have happened in the meantime, you are right. We now have operations and offices in several countries. Unfortunately, we had to give up our office in Taiwan; we are moving it to China, because Honduras ended its diplomatic relationship with Taiwan and started a new one with China. That office in China as well as the one in Panama are distribution offices.

Together with a partner we have opened a second facility in Guatemala. This facility is a replica of our original production facility here in Honduras, but for the moment it is focused on drying fruits like coffee pulp, pineapple, mangoes etc. But this will change, and we will make concentrates in Guatemala too.

In the early days you were diving very deep into fermentation technologies. Are you still working with fermentation?

Fermentation and vacuum-evaporation technology at BioFortune Group, Honduras

Yes, we started with fermentation, and it is still part of our processing. We are now operating with a brand-new vacuum evaporation production line. This technology enables us to manufacture all sorts of concentrates, while preserving the nutritional value of the original raw materials. We can start with basic infusions, we can increase the concentration of bioactives, sugars, or of any specific component of the raw materials that we use.

This production line is one of a kind, and from Guatemala to Panama and all over the Caribbean we are the only ones using this kind of technology. It is something that we are very proud of as it also allows us to operate as a circular business. It enables us to use what is considered by-products or waste. We are using one hundred percent of the coffee cherry. This brings significant value to the coffee value chain.

From where and whom do you get all the cherries?

Arrival of freshly harvested coffee cherries

Besides from our own farms, there are currently about 2500 small coffee farmers who work with us. They are our partners in our upcycling effort, and their number is rising steadily.

We have the capacity to process over one million pounds per harvest season of cascara, the dried coffee pulp, into a concentrate. Cascara has been on the market for quite some time; it brings some additional value to farmers, but it doesn't really make a change in the economy for the majority of those farmers.

In our case, we are not only purchasing the ripe cherries from the farmers and drying and hulling them at our location, we also later share our profits from the sales of our concentrate with them.

I also should mention that we have a regenerative organic certification for two of our own farms as well as for our facility in Honduras.

In the European Union, cascara is approved, but only for use in non-alcoholic drinks. For that reason: did your concentrate need approval in the EU?

No, it was not needed. But we had to prove that our product was free of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons. This is something that EFSA was very, very emphatic on us. We had to provide all the scientific and lab work, proving that our product was free of harmful chemicals; free of glyphosate, of other pesticides, but especially of these hydrocarbon ring aromatics like benzene. This has been the main hurdle to get this concentrate into the EU.  

Let me recap: in the past you worked a lot with fermentation; Now you are working exclusively with vacuum evaporation. Did I get this right?

Not precisely - controlled fermentation is part of a sophisticated and integrated process, protected by industrial secrets. We also use vacuum evaporation. It is a water-based process that is free of any chemicals. We don't use solvents to produce the concentrate. This is a relatively new technology, and it's not very common in the coffee business, but it's quite well known in the pharmaceutical industry.

Is your extract a dry one, or is it a liquid?

BioFortune´s liquid coffee pulp concentrate

It's a liquid. It easily dissolves in cold water which is a great advantage for the beverage industry. I should mention that several beer breweries in the US, including some very large ones, are doing trials with our concentrate regarding infused beers, alcoholic and non-alcoholic. If they are satisfied with the flavours that we can provide, it could become a great business for us.

Honduras is well known for its washed coffees. For that reason: for your concentrate, do you also use the mucilage as well as the wet pulp?

Actually, we only use the dried husk from Naturals for the moment. Because of that, we now produce 100% Naturals on our own farms. We also dry all the cherries that we buy from other farmers.  But we are months away of using the washed coffee pulp as well.

Our main product is the husk, not the green coffee anymore. For us, the green coffee bean is a by-product, which to be clear, our coffee fulfills the highest quality standards! But the coffee beans are our secondary income; the concentrate is our main income. I guess we are changing the way you look at coffee production. But as you mentioned, because of the large amount of wet pulp in our country – 85% of the coffee in Honduras is wet processed - we are trying to find ways to use the wet pulp in the future too.

At BioFortune Group, coffee beans are seen as by-product of the coffee pulp concentrate production

It looks like there is still a lot of work for you to do!

You said it! But we do it with great excitement.

Besides your concentrate: which other products do you have in store?

Because the vacuum evaporation enables us to use all sorts of raw material, and in order to diversify the income of our small coffee farmers who often grow other plants and fruits besides coffee on their land, we can concentrate fruits like cantaloupe, pineapples, mangoes, passion fruit, lemongrass, etc. Because of this, the farmers do not exclusively depend on one single agricultural product anymore; they can diversify their sources of income as we buy almost 100% of their agricultural products over the course of the year.

Let's say you are processing cantaloupes. Which parts of the fruit do you use?

We use the pulp. After the removal of the parts that we don’t need, which go to the compost, we do a stepping at low temperatures and an infusion at high temperatures, followed by the vacuum evaporation. I unfortunately cannot give you more details of this process as they are our secret.

The final concentrate has about 35-40 brix rating for some ingredients, for others can go as high as 65-70 brix. This is a great product and we sell to ice cream manufacturers and beverage companies in the US.

And not to forget: as with all our products, each farmer gets his or her corresponding share of our profit. This means, our farmers have two income streams: we first pay for the delivered raw material based on weight, and after the sales of the concentrate they get their share of our sales profit that we make.

Haven’t farmers been sceptical? This all sounds almost too good to be true?

Maybe in the very beginning they were. We started with a group of about 100 coffee farmers in 2021. Then we jumped up to 400; and in the 2023/24 harvest season it has been over 2,500. We are getting more and more attention!

Overall, I believe we have created an attractive and financially sustainable model. We have a portfolio of raw materials, and we are creating symbiotic relationships with the coffee farms. The farmers will grow more of the other fruit bearing plants or trees to get a higher diversification and a more stable income all over the year. They will not depend anymore just on coffee, which is infamous for its volatility. They also get paid for the harvested coffee cherries; so it is a new model.

This model exists only in Honduras or elsewhere too, like in Guatemala for instance?

For the moment only in Honduras. But our plan is to introduce this model in our new facility in Guatemala in about 12 – 18 months.

Who are your main clients?

Currently we sell our concentrate mainly to beverage companies, and our two largest customers are in Europe. But we are in the process of entering an agreement with a natural cosmetics and personal care product company. Especially the latter sector might have a great potential for us, just based on the number of requests that we get from companies in this sector, and the number of trials that are conducted. For example: one company in California is running trials with shampoos, another company in the state of New York is testing skin creams.

We are also entering a partnership with a US distributor and a manufacturer who makes a maple-like cascara syrup from our concentrate. Most recently we also entered into agreements with roasters in Europe for cold brew concentrates as well as cascara concentrates.

What are the main nutraceuticals that cosmetic companies are looking for?

They are looking in first place for polyphenols such as chlorogenic acids and caffeine, which both are potent antioxidants.

In the paper that I quoted in the beginning, you or someone else also said: “We are a vertically integrated venture, starting from nurseries all the way up to the post-harvest production of coffee, botanicals, food…”

Right! What we are doing is based on a broad concept. We follow organic practices, we have a great diversity of coffee varietals on our farms, and we do all the husk and bean processing in our facility. On top of that we do a lot of microbiological testing, a lot of biochemical testing, and a lot of physical work. The whole vision is that we are not only a coffee producer but also a food facility, and in a more holistic concept, we are a biorefinery. This biorefinery concept which will enable us in the future to extract valuable ingredients from the coffee cherry and other raw materials, for use in different industries. We already have been doing a lot of work together with several research centres and universities around the world.

At the end of the day, we are a technological hub that develops new methods and knowledge for the food industry. This is a new business approach for coffee producers. It will provide products and financial sustainability for us and all our suppliers.

The BioFortune Group´s processing facility in Honduras

This all is astonishing work you have been doing in the past years. But tell me: how do you finance all this?

Initially it was private equity from friends and family. We started growing and due to our approach, be it scientifically or technologically, we were financially viable to banking institutions. We got support from two local banks. In the future, I think, because of our model and because of the growth of our revenues, we probably will take a look at raising capital in the international markets, or even replicating our model through a licensing agreement using our intellectual property.

For your facility in Guatemala, if I remember right, you raised venture capital?

Yes, that's correct. And this enabled us to embed a “pharma-grade powdering production plant” which is unique in the industry. We still must develop powders for the market, for example the confectionery and baking industries, not only from the coffee cherry but from other fruits and plants as well. For example, Guatemala has a huge variety of botanicals. So, imagine, one day you will get from us a “turmeric-coffee fruit powder mix”. We would have a very potent mix of polyphenols and antioxidants; you can put them in a capsule or add the powder to milkshakes, ice creams or cold beverages. There are plenty of possibilities that we can and will explore to develop those markets.

But all your products that you get from the coffee pulp, liquid s or dry extracts, contain caffeine. Is there a possibility to extract the caffeine?

There is a university and in Denmark that has been working on that, as well as some research centres in Brazil. We have not focused on this aspect as our plate is very full, as you can imagine. But yes, there are technologies to extract the caffeine. In fact, there is a company based in England that provides nutraceuticals ingredients.

There is another research group at the university of Lavras and also one at the university of Paraná, both in Brazil, that have been doing research as well on those topics.

Ruben, I’m sure you won’t run out of work!

I´m sure you are absolutely right!

Good luck, and thank you so much for this wonderful interview!

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