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Forget meat, there's now lab-grown coffee that tastes like the real thing

Coffee cell cultuures (right) and roasted coffee produced by VTT's cellular agriculture method. Picture: VTT

Coffee cell cultuures (right) and roasted coffee produced by VTT's cellular agriculture method. Picture: VTT

Published Dec 3, 2021

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In recent years, lab-grown meat has become a popular alternative to meat that comes from livestock or poultry.

You can get a ribeye steak, burger, or chicken tenderloin that comes straight from a lab, which skips the massive environmental costs that come with livestock and poultry production.

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Now the coffee industry has plugged into this trend and has been looking for an alternative means of production to meet the growing population. And a team of Finnish scientists has created coffee in the lab from cell cultures that both smell and taste like the real deal.

Using a bioreactor designed for cellular agriculture, researchers at Technical Research Center (VTT) in Finland – a country that consumes the most coffee per capita in the world – reportedly brewed a batch from cultured cells derived from the leaves of coffee plants for the first time.

In the statement, the project's lead researcher, Heiko Rischer, said the whole procedure required input from several disciplines and experts in the fields of plant biotechnology, chemistry and food science.

“In terms of smell and taste, our trained sensory panel and analytical examination found the profile of the brew to bear similarity to ordinary coffee. However, coffee making is an art and involves iterative optimisation under the supervision of specialists with dedicated equipment. Our work marks the basis for such work,” said Rischer.

He added that the experience of drinking the very first cup was exciting.

“I estimate we are only four years away from ramping up production and having regulatory approval in place. Growing plant cells requires specific expertise when it is time to scale and optimise the process. Downstream processing and product formulation, together with regulatory approval and market introduction, are additional steps on the way to a commercial product. That said, we have now proved that lab-grown coffee can be a reality,” said Rischer.

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Speaking to coffee industry legend and Beverage and Operations Resource Lead at Starbucks South Africa, Ishan Natalie, about lab-grown coffee, he said as much as lab-grown coffee is being promoted by scientists as a way of reducing climate change, it has a negative effect on other things, such as loss of livelihoods of millions of coffee farmers and coffee farmworkers across the world, who rely on growing coffee as their sole or primary source of income, as well as “poor coffee drinking experiences” for consumers.

Natalie said while this coffee is not promoted as a speciality or for commercial coffee shop use, and is more of a commercial style conventional coffee such as instant coffee, he does not believe consumers will have the “full sensory experience” that farmers, processing mills at growing origin, roasters and retailers work so hard to develop and offer.

“Decades of work has gone into improving and supplying better quality coffee into the market as more and more people are growing into coffee as a sensory experience, more than just a cup of good-smelling caffeine for their daily kick. Naturally-grown coffee is vibrant, and unique across every growing region, country, district, and farm – every coffee grown is different, which is what makes coffee exciting.

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For example, coffees from Central America are more delicate and sweet like sugar, with tones such as milk chocolate, nuts, etc, while African coffees are complex, fruity, and floral. But within these countries, the millions of farmers all produce coffees that have their own signature taste and flavour profiles based on the micro-climate that their coffee grows in,” he said.

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“Coffee is prized for its natural acidity, which adds vibrancy and complexity in a cup as it comes into balance with its natural sweetness, mouth feel, and sometimes bitterness. Acidity in coffee becomes more refined at higher altitudes and cooler temperatures and is dependent on the PH of the soil, which also plays a role in sensory attributes such as aroma and flavour.

“Coffee out of a lab cannot be called coffee and should not be sold as such. Coffee is about igniting the senses and about flavour and sensory enjoyment, over and above a caffeine boost,” Natalie concluded.

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