This Morning’s Coffee Grounds Could Be the Fuel to Cook Tonight’s Dinner

Coffee Coals is turning a common waste product into clean-burning charcoal.
(Photo: Coffee Coals)
Aug 15, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

In 2009, Rich Bruins, who was then associate campus minister at Purdue University, visited a Guatemalan community with a team of students. Their plan was to purify the water.

“We’d prepped for about a year and a half, because we really wanted to solve it on a level that was very sustainable,” he said, “not just Americans fixing things and saying, ‘See ya.’ ” Now, he’s helping to fix a problem in America, where a lot of people drink coffee and a lot of people love to grill. He’s helping to spark the latter pastime by helping make the former more sustainable.

In Guatemala, the group decided to take advantage of the mountains of pulp waste produced when the coffee cherry—the fruit surrounding what we brew in the morning—is separated from the bean. Using a biomass press, which takes agricultural and biological waste such as corn husks, leaves, sticks, and manure and compacts it into bricks, they packed the coffee pulp into energy-efficient briquettes the locals could then use for building fires, cooking, and boiling water. It struck Bruins that it was an idea he could bring back home with a slightly different application.

“If they can use coffee waste, we can use coffee grounds—we can harness that energy,” Bruins said he realized.

And there’s quite a lot of untapped energy there. I hate to talk trash about the world’s second-favorite beverage, but every step of the coffee production line is a big environmental bummer: 17 billion pounds of coffee cherries, 9 billion nonrecyclable single-brew coffee pods, and 146 billion disposable paper cups end up in landfills every year. As for the grounds, the average coffee shop throws out around 22 pounds of them a day. Imagine that on an industrial scale. Instant coffee, which half of the world prefers (unbelievably), is brewed on a huge scale before being dehydrated into crystals that can be spooned into boiling water.

“They have literally tons of coffee grounds per day they ship off to landfills,” Bruins said. “But used coffee grounds are more energy-dense than wood. It just doesn’t make a sense.” Furthermore, coffee companies know the reputation of their industry: It’s important that brands be seen as environmentally and socially responsible.

It’s the kind of promising head-scratcher that often precipitates a light bulb moment like the one Bruin had in his garage in 2013. There, inspired by the process he’d used in Guatemala, Coffee Coals was born.

Coffee Coals outperform other charcoal in ignition and usable BTUs; with a chimney, they are ready to cook in about 10 minutes rather than the usual 25, and a two-pound bag will burn at a temperature of 350–400 degrees Fahrenheit for 50 minutes to an hour. They're made without additives such as petrochemicals or synthetic binders. And no, your food won’t have a fresh-brewed Folgers-in-your-cup flavor. When you’re done, you can spread the ash, which plants love, in your garden.

It’s kind of a brilliant marriage of needs for grilling purists who also care about the provenance of their food. Traditional charcoal is made by burning wood without oxygen until all that’s left is carbon. Briquettes are created when that carbon is compressed with a few mystery ingredients. Kingsford, the biggest maker of charcoal in the U.S., is rather cagey about what’s inside its product, though its website lists coal, limestone, cornstarch, and borax.

Hardwood lump charcoal, on the other hand, tends to attract customers swayed by the word “natural.” Craig Goldwyn (aka Meathead) of The Science of BBQ & Grilling told NPR he sees lump charcoal “as just an extension of the organic movement. It’s still a tiny sliver of the market, but it reflects on the public’s desire to have less stuff in their food and their cooking.” Lump charcoal lights faster, burns hotter (helpful for searing), and doesn’t leave a Mount Everest of ash. Particular woods can impart a hypnotic pecan, cherry, hickory, or mesquite smoke scent and taste to your food. But in addition to being more expensive, lump charcoal is also less consistent—bags will often contain unusably small pieces.

With briquettes claiming 94 percent of the charcoal market, there’s an opportunity for a product that offers the best of both worlds. Why grill your $29-per-pound dry-aged, grass-fed, organic ribeye over the enchanting aroma of petroleum?

It’s why Bruins has partnered with a butcher shop in Sacramento, California, and Coffee Coals is also being sold in health food stores in West Lafayette, Illinois, where the company is based. A single-use two-pound bag costs roughly $6—about three times more than Kingsford's charcoal. Bruins said he’s struggled to articulate the value of the product.

“All the charcoal bags on the shelf say it lights faster and burns hotter. Ours is the only one telling the truth,” he said. “But once people use the product, they’re hooked.”

As the company continues to grow, Bruins said he doesn’t ever want to forget the origins of the idea. He plans to reinvest money into further environmental engineering and social-impact trips to coffee growing regions of the world.

“I know where Coffee Coals came from,” he said. “It was from helping people. We never want to lose sight of that.”