Researchers working at Finland’s VTT technical research institute are working hard to find new ways for us to get our morning cup of joe. Their efforts recently paid off, as the team successfully developed lab-grown coffee.
Most of us rely heavily on coffee to get us going in the morning, every morning. But the sheer demand for coffee has caused its share of environmental issues. The plant is quite picky in regards to soil and climate, which has led to wide areas of unique ecosystems being leveled to clear the way for plantations, for example.
The research at VTT, however, is paving the way towards a more sustainable and eco-friendly method of growing coffee. In the long term, the team hopes that such an approach will allow us to conserve vital ecosystems while still getting to enjoy a high-quality roast.
Better latte than never
“It’s really coffee, because there is nothing other than coffee material in the product,” said Dr Heiko Rischer from VTT, who led the research effort.
This coffee is the real deal, although it doesn’t come in bean form. It’s actually grown from a cluster of coffee cells in a bioreactor, under the ideal temperature, light, and oxygen conditions to allow them to thrive. As an approach, it’s not that different from the way lab-grown meat is being produced.
All of this yields a powder that, after roasting, tastes, smells, and behaves just like conventional coffee. It can also be brewed into coffee that’s indistinguishable from the regular drink.
Apart from the damage caused to the environment as plantations expand, rising average temperatures are also making coffee plantations around the world less productive. This, in turn, means that farmers are forced to clear away ever-larger areas of the rainforest to keep up with demand. This new approach could help offset some of that demand while also helping restore ecosystems and combating climate change.
“Coffee is of course a problematic product,” Rischer said. “There is the transport issue, the fossil fuel use… so it totally makes sense to look for alternatives.”
For now, the team is still hard at work analyzing the lab-grown coffee and assessing how sustainable and practical it would be to manufacture it on a large scale. The data so far points to it requiring less labour and resources to grow than conventional coffee, however. Water use, in particular, seems to be an area where lab-grown coffee has a definite edge over its conventional alternative.
Naturally, what matters most for consumers will be how coffee brewed from this powder tastes in comparison to the regular brew. So far, a panel of specialists is taste-testing the product, although they’re only allowed “to taste and spit, but not swallow it,” as the lab-grown coffee is classified as a “novel food”. However, they report that this coffee is less bitter compared to regular coffee — which could come down to a slightly lower caffeine content — and tastes a tad less fruity.
“But that being said, we really have to admit that we are not professional coffee roasters and a lot of the flavour generation actually happens in the roasting process,” Rischer said.
The team estimates that we could see their lab-grown coffee commercially available in a minimum of four years, during which time they’ll work to perfect the product, gain regulatory approval, and commercial backing.