In July 2021, Brazil, the world’s largest coffee producer, was struck by an unprecedented frost. Temperatures in coffee fields dropped below zero, resulting in the encasement of coffee beans in ice. The cold snap followed the country’s worst drought in nearly a century, which had already weakened the coffee trees. Consequently, the price of coffee has reached its highest level in seven years in anticipation of a poor harvest next year.
As a tropical plant that is intolerant of temperature fluctuations and grows only in a narrow band around the equator, coffee is highly susceptible to climate change. It also contributes to deforestation, as the global demand for coffee continues to rise, making it a key driver of deforestation. When disease and pests, which have wiped out crops in many coffee-growing regions, are added to the mix, it is easy to see why people are looking for alternative methods of coffee cultivation.
In a lab near Helsinki, coffee has been successfully cultivated and brewed using cellular agriculture. “We began with a leaf,” explains Heiko Rischer of the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, a state-owned non-profit technology organization. The procedure entails sterilizing a coffee plant leaf to remove unwanted contaminants and placing it on a base of nutrients, including minerals and sugars, to stimulate cell growth. The cells are then transferred to a bioreactor, a temperature-controlled container containing a liquid suspension in which the culture can continue to grow. As more biomass is produced, it is transferred to bioreactors of increasing size until it is ready to be harvested; this takes approximately two weeks.
“The powder we end up with is a very different material than coffee beans, and roasting is a bit trickier — roasting is an art in and of itself, and we are by no means professional roasters,” Rischer explains. However, the results of a human tasting panel were promising: “This is similar to coffee.” “It’s not identical and it’s not what you’d expect from a high-quality coffee, but it’s very similar, and the different roasting levels produced distinct flavors,” explains Rischer. A similar conclusion was reached by an instrument-based analysis, which revealed “significant overlaps” with the flavor profile of conventional coffee.