Sometimes people love coffee but it doesn’t love them. The acids in the beans can cause digestive ailments, and coffee drinkers want the java jive, not the upset stomach.
And these days, more and more consumers believe that acidic drinks such as coffee, soda and orange juice can upset sensitive stomachs and bring on heartburn. As a result, the demand for low-acid options is increasing.
Puroast Coffee Co Inc. claims that research and testing show that its coffee has 50 percent less acidity than regular coffee, and executives at the L.A.-based company believe that makes its product a more stomach-friendly cup of joe.
Linda Machi, a coffee specialist at Whole Foods in Pasadena, said customers often ask for coffee that is lower acid, and she refers them to Puroast’s brew.
“I haven’t had anyone come back and say they didn’t like it or return the coffee,” Machi said. “A lot of people are coming in and specifically asking for something that’s low acid because of stomach problems.”
Puroast Chief Executive Kerry Sachs, who co-founded the company with his brother Jim, said that his innovation was to roast the coffee differently, rather than add a neutralizer.
“For many years, people have wanted to reduce the acid in coffee or make it easier to drink for people with stomach problems,” Sachs said. “And up until now, people have put in an additive to neutralize the acid or treat the coffee before roasting it.”
Sachs said he was able to perfect a slow-roasting method that he learned from Venezuelan farmers more than a decade ago and adapt it to mass production.
At first, Sachs didn’t know that the roasting method resulted in lower acidity levels. But early customer testing revealed that the coffee was gentler on sensitive stomachs. Scientific testing showed that it wasn’t an illusion.
“We had the research data come in, and we saw an advertisement on the Super Bowl for Nexium, and then we were in the store one day and saw low acid orange juice,” Sachs said. “And then we were convinced that it was a good deal we were sitting on.”
Puroast began marketing its coffee as low acid in November 2005 with the idea to reach consumers suffering from acid reflux; heartburn; and the more severe gastroesophageal reflux disease, commonly known as Gerd.
According to the National Heartburn Alliance, some 25 million Americans suffer from heartburn on a daily basis and most attribute the pain to the foods they eat. What’s more, experts estimate that $10 billion is spent worldwide each year on antacids.
Puroast isn’t the only coffee manufacturer with a product that targets consumers with acid issues.
Melitta USA brought its low-acid product, Melitta Classic Lite, to market in April 2006, five months after Puroast. Melitta claims its Classic Lite has 40 percent less caffeine and 45 percent less acidity than regular coffee.
Coffee giant Folgers introduced its Simply Smooth product in May 2006. Folgers’ claims its coffee is stomach friendly because it’s made from specially selected beans that are roasted to reduce irritants to the stomach.
But some industry experts think that the coffee loses its flavor when the beans are manipulated to be less acidic.
Ken Davids, editor-in-chief of online publication Coffee Review, said the organic acids in coffee give it the robust flavor most consumers like.
“There are a lot of ways to get caffeine,” Davids said. “Coffee is really people’s favorite because of the positive sensory characteristics. And a lot of that sensory complexity comes from a complex set of organic acids.”
Davids reviewed Puroast coffee for Coffee Review in 2007, and noted that the flavor was “rather flat and simple.”
Sachs shoots back: “It’s a smoother, less bitter taste. And it tends to not to have an aftertaste. It’s a gourmet coffee with a much smoother taste.”
Puroast produces about 3 million pounds of coffee beans per year, and Sachs said the company is projected to hit $10 million in revenue for 2009.
Before Sachs ever thought about entering the coffee business, he was an agricultural engineer who taught farmers in developing countries how to store their crops after harvest and before sale in ways that prevent them from getting stale or moldy.
In the early 1990s, Sachs spent time working in the Venezuelan Andes, where he first learned about ancient roasting methods that are still used by the people there.
Sachs then moved back to Los Angeles and began designing a roasting machine that could be adapted to Venezuelan roasting. He launched Puroast a few years later with his brother Jim, who’s director of sales and marketing. To date, the company has raised about $5 million from investors.
Puroast’s machines are housed in a 35,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Northern California. The beans are roasted with a method called conduction: They are placed in sealed metal drums, which are then heated. That’s in contrast to the most common roasting method, convection: A stream of hot air roasts the beans.
“The way in which you apply heat to coffee during roasting has a big impact on the taste and acid chemistry,” Sachs said.
Puroast coffee is sold in natural food stores and major grocery chains across the United States, plus Guam and the Virgin Islands.
A 12 oz. bag retails for about $8.99. By comparison, an 11.5 oz. bag of Folgers Simply Smooth retails for about $5.69 and an 11.5 oz. can of Melitta Classic Lite costs about $4.49.
Sachs said Puroast is more expensive because of its 100 percent Arabica beans, which are more costly. But he also noted that people who buy Folgers and Melitta were used to a certain price point, while Puroast was launched after higher coffee prices became more common.
“We entered the market after Starbucks has entered the market and introduced the concept of gourmet coffee at a higher price, the $8 to $10 range,” he said.
Puroast is ready to branch out into ready-to-drink coffee products – comparable to bottled Starbucks Frappuccinos – and market them internationally. The first step is forming partnerships with Japanese companies.
Sachs said canned coffee drinks now sold in Japan often contain baking soda, which is added to neutralize the acid. Because they want to eliminate the baking soda, some beverage makers have approached Puroast about adding its low acid coffee to their ready-to-drink beverages.
“2010 will be an interesting year,” Sachs said.
Puroast Coffee Co. Inc.
CORE BUSINESS: Manufacturing low-acid coffee beans and ground coffee
EMPLOYEES: 25 (up from 20 in 2008)
GOAL: Take Puroast public or sell to a larger company in the coffee industry
THE NUMBERS: Projected revenue of $10 million for 2009
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