To make it into your fancy cup, specialty coffee undergoes a long, arduous and often continent-crossing journey during which the beans must be maintained at just the right levels of humidity and look absolutely flawless.
That’s no easy feat, especially when measuring all these parameters is done with work processes of yore.
“The coffee industry has hardly seen any new technologies enter it during the 20th century. People are working like they did 200 years ago,” says Eduardo Shoval, cofounder of Demetria, an Israeli-Colombian startup that aims to revolutionize that industry with the power of artificial intelligence.
“Suddenly you realize that you have something that is both a technological challenge and a business opportunity, that you can impact the industry from start to finish. This is not about upgrading a process here or there, but about pushing for a quantum leap in the industry,” he says.
Shoval is a serial entrepreneur, mentor and business coach who founded his first startup in the 1980s. His work on Demetria took off in 2018 when he met two of its other cofounders, who were scouring Israel in search of technologies they could utilize in the subtropical world.
“There are technologies in Israel that you can use to do amazing things in all sorts of places across the world, and we went for the world of coffee,” he says.
The result is Demetria’s spectrometer, a small, handheld gadget that will measure bean size, weight, humidity levels and other parameters and relay that information to a mobile app, saving coffee growers, traders, buyers and baristas a lot of manual labor, costs and troubles.
“To reach that point where you get the coffee that you love and want to get time after time, there’s a long process that we as coffee drinkers aren’t exposed to,” says Demetria’s VP Product Eliran Lazar.
“You need to make sure that you don’t accidentally lose the characteristics we wanted from that coffee,” he notes. “Today, that’s only done manually. At each point that you want to check the coffee you need to bring in a professional. We’re here to do this in a technological manner.”
The professionals that Lazar mentions do coffee cupping, a process in which they weigh, taste and evaluate coffee beans. Cupping can take place multiple times along the coffee supply chain, making it a costly endeavor. It is also reliant on oral traditions that are hard to pass along.
Artificial intelligence can handle that aspect. “We took a whole lot of coffee from our business partners, who supplied us with their coffee as well as what they know of it. We ran our analysis on it, and we’re teaching it to the computer,” Lazar explains.
“Our technology knows how to identify the different flavors and qualities of a species. We can provide tools that just didn’t exist in terms of quality control,” Shoval adds.
Demetria recently began to market two apps that address bean size and visual defects that are aimed at coffee buyers, but the user focus will expand.
“We think that our technology will be found all along the coffee supply chain, from the grower to the buyers all the way to the roasters. They’ll all want to use this technology in order to enjoy the advantages technology can offer each one of them,” Shoval says.
Coffee farmers, he notes, will be able to judge the quality and worth of their product immediately.
“These are families that grow the coffee. They receive a very small percentage of the sum that someone pays a barista in the end. Our technology has the potential to dramatically improve the income of the farmers, because they’ll be able to improve quality and get information about what they’re growing,” he says. “There’s a chance to impact the world’s 12 million coffee growers.”
Coffee buyers will be able to reduce costs and stop scouring the globe in search of the coffee that they need, while the big roasting companies will be able to use the technology to maximize their planning and logistics and purchase more coffee.
“We got lucky,” Shoval says. “At first we thought that we’re offering something more limited. But the more we spoke out about it we discovered that everyone’s interested, each from their own point of view.”
With a coffee AI lab set up in Colombia, Demetria plans on servicing the entire coffee industry and hopes to become the standard for evaluating coffee quality and traceability.
Despite having launched a global specialty coffee company, Shoval and Lazar remain modest about their personal cups of joe.
“I drink strong coffee. But I’ve yet to become a coffee expert and I still have much to learn,” Shoval jokes.
Lazar drank grainy Turkish coffee during his extensive military career, but now prefers Colombian natural coffee.
“What tastes good to you is probably the best coffee that you can get. It doesn’t matter if it’s coffee that’s worth hundreds of dollars or if it’s standard,” he concludes.