WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Today we can take the cells from plants and animals and grow coffee, dairy, fish, and meat in a lab, and it’s changing how we produce food.
Brazil, the world’s largest coffee producer, was hit by a historic frost in July 2021. Temperatures in coffee fields dropped below zero and the beans became encased in ice. The cold snap came right after the worst drought the country had seen in almost a century, which had already weakened the coffee trees. As a result, the price of coffee has shot to a seven-year high in anticipation of a poor harvest next year.
As a tropical crop that dislikes temperature variations and only grows in a narrow belt around the equator, coffee is extremely vulnerable to climate change. It is also contributing to it, because demand for coffee keeps rising worldwide, making it a key driver of deforestation. Add to the mix disease and pests, which have wiped out crops in many coffee growing regions, and it’s easy to see why people are searching for alternative ways of growing coffee, such as creating the world’s first molecular coffee or growing it in a lab instead …
In a lab near Helsinki, where coffee has been successfully grown and brewed using cellular agriculture a revolution is brewing – literally.
“We started with a leaf,” says Heiko Rischer of the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, a state-owned, non-profit technology company. The process involves sterilising a coffee plant leaf to get rid of unwanted contaminants and placing it on a base of nutrients, such as minerals and sugars, to stimulate cell growth. Once that is achieved, the cells are moved to a bioreactor, a temperature controlled container with a liquid suspension in which the culture can grow further. As more and more biomass is produced, it is transferred to progressively larger bioreactors until it’s ready to be harvested; the process takes roughly two weeks.
“The powder we end up with is a very different material from coffee beans, and roasting is a bit more tricky — that’s an art in itself and we are by no means professional roasters,” says Rischer. However, a tasting by a human panel gave encouraging results: “This is close to coffee. Not exactly the same, and not what you would expect from a high grade coffee, but it resembles it very much and the different roasting levels actually gave different flavours,” says Rischer. An instrument-based analysis returned a similar verdict, showing “significant overlaps” with the flavour profile of conventional coffee.
There’s room for improvement: “The beauty of this kind of technology is that the composition of the final product, for example caffeine content, can be steered quite a lot by adjusting certain conditions,” says Rischer. That might mean changing parameters such as the amount of oxygen or the mixing speed in the bioreactor, or adding chemical triggers called elicitors that induce the formation of a desired compound. The next step for VTT is partnering with companies willing to invest in this kind of cellular agriculture, which they are testing on a range of plant species, including some endangered wild Nordic berries.
While there won’t be a shortage of tasters — Finland is the world leader in coffee consumption per capita — regulations could pose a few hurdles: “In Europe, we would need to go through an approval process just to let people try this. Even internally we had issues, because for this kind of experimental material we need the approval of our ethical committee, which we got in this case,” says Rischer, adding that in the most optimistic scenario, the coffee could be commercially ready in about four years.
If you can’t wait that long, there’s a molecular coffee you can buy today that does away with the coffee plant entirely. Made by Seattle-based Atomo Coffee, it’s a “molecular cold brew” sold in a can that comes in two flavours. It’s made from upcycled plant waste products: mostly date seeds, with some chicory roots and grape skins. These undergo a chemical process and are mixed with dietary fibre, flavourings and caffeine, creating a drink that produces 93 per cent less carbon emissions and uses 94 per cent less water than conventional coffee, according to Atomo.
“This is molecularly and organoleptically analogous to conventional coffee — it is coffee,” says Atomo co-founder Jarret Stopforth.
Atomo debuted in late September and quickly sold out, despite a hefty price tag of $60 for each bundle of eight cans.
“We are only able to do limited scale right now. We realise it seems like a high price, but this is the first launch into the market; we will be able to match the cost of premium conventional coffee as we grow and scale,” says Stopforth. It will take a couple of months for Atomo to be able to offer more stock, with sales initially limited to the US online market.
Another US-based company, San Francisco startup Compound Foods, is also a year away from launching its own “beanless” coffee, made with a process that has similarities with Atomo’s.
“We started by asking ourselves the question of what coffee is,” says founder Maricel Saenz, a native of coffee-producing Costa Rica. “It’s a plant, but ultimately the product that you consume is made of chemical compounds that have been brewed through water.”
She then looked for those key compounds elsewhere in nature, much like Impossible Foods did to create its famous burgers based on heme, a molecule that “makes meat taste like meat.”
Compound Foods also uses fermentation to recreate coffee, and although Saenz won’t reveal exactly what her equivalents for heme, soy and yeast are, she says they come from sustainable plants that are low in carbon emissions and water use, and are locally sourced.
“We then grow these microbes in controlled settings where we can change different parameters to try and modulate flavours and aromas,” she says. The end products will be a cold brew and a powder, to be used in the same way as ground coffee.
Saenz says that her goal is to create different brews that resemble traditional coffees, drawing inspiration from actual coffee processing methods, such as fermentation. Compound Coffee’s first brew is modelled after the Mocha Java blend, offering “bright acidity, chocolate notes and dry fruit flavours,” she says. Having just received $4.5 million in venture capital funding, Compound Coffee shows there’s appetite for alternative coffee among investors, too. It’s hard though to predict whether these products will be truly sustainable once at scale.
“The environmental advantage would be that you’re not importing coffee from other countries,” says Lynn Frewer, a professor of food and society at Newcastle University. “You would also be less vulnerable to system shocks if there’s a geopolitical change or climate change. The disadvantage is that a lot of people make their living growing coffee, it’s their cash crop. So, in terms of the food system there’s pluses and minuses.”
Societal acceptance is likely to be another issue: “I think coffee has more potential than other products,” says Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food policy at Dalhousie University in Canada. “People won’t necessarily be thinking that because a coffee is lab-produced or synthetic, the integrity of the product itself is compromised. That’s a concern with lab grown meat, which is perceived as more denaturalised.” Frewer, however, believes there will be variability between consumers, and some will also see lab-grown coffee as unnatural.
On the flip side, making specialty coffee will be easier than ever: “You would certainly have the potential to design whatever taste you want,” says Charlebois. “You could actually design the perfect bean.”