Long-Lost Plant Delivers a Jolt to Coffee’s Future

On a small hill in Sierra Leone near a busy highway, Jeremy Haggar discovered what could be the future of coffee. Haggar, a coffee researcher at the University of Greenwich in the United Kingdom, was observing a single, waist-high, green tree hidden in the dense undergrowth of the West African nation.

If the tales were true, the humble plant possessed an almost unbelievable combination of characteristics. The plant, referred to by scientists as coffea stenophylla, was once cultivated for commercial purposes but has been extinct for the majority of the last century. It was rumored to tolerate higher temperatures than other commercial species, resist droughts and fungal infections, and, astonishingly, taste better than the vast majority of coffees currently available on the market.

Haggar was in Sierra Leone as a result of his years of scientific investigation aimed at rediscovering stenophylla. Others and he had pursued leads across the nation in search of the legendary coffee species, only to encounter dead ends and false hopes.

As their frustration increased, so did the stakes of their search. The best coffee-growing regions are experiencing steadily rising temperatures as a result of climate change, and in recent years, forecasts for the future of this beloved bean have become increasingly dire. By 2050, between a quarter and a third of the coffee-producing regions in some South American and Latin American nations could be rendered unsuitable for cultivation. Ethiopia, renowned for producing some of the world’s finest coffee, may lose more than half of its growing capacity by the end of the century.

Aaron Davis, the head of coffee research at the U.K.’s Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, explains, “There is a clear, and I would say urgent, need among growers to find more crop species.”

Due to its resistance to heat and drought, stenophylla could be the solution that coffee farmers so desperately require. Haggar and his team were able to collect enough beans from stenophylla plants in Sierra Leone to send a small sample to Europe for testing after further exploration. There, they would be roasted, ground, and brewed to create the first cup of stenophylla coffee in more than fifty years. And they would be prepared to face perhaps the most daunting challenge of all: coffee connoisseurs.

Read more • discovermagazine.com

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