Lab-grown coffee could reduce water demand

Scientists in Finland have released the recipe for lab-grown coffee

The UN estimates it takes 140 litres of water to grow, process, and transport the beans required for the average cup of coffee, and while demand for coffee is rising, production of coffee beans faces multiple sustainability challenges, especially around land and water use.

Now, two years after scientists in Finland successfully made coffee from scratch in a laboratory, detailed information on the process has been released by VTT Technical Research Centre. The scientific paper describes the exact process the scientists used to produce coffee, starting from the original coffee plant itself, and establishing cell cultures to alter its aroma in the roasting process, caffeine content, flavour analysis, and sensory profiling by a panel of tasters.

Europe is the highest consumer of coffee in the world, according to the Centre for the Promotion of Imports, and imported over 3.6 million tonnes of green coffee in 2021, with an estimated average of 5kg of coffee consumed per person each year.

"Our wish is that the publication of this scientific article ... nudges forward the creation of an ecosystem ... that has the resources, know-how and drive to pioneer an entirely new type of coffee."

Dr Heiko Rischer, VTT Technical Research Centre

Cellular agriculture is the production of foods from cell cultures that are exactly the same as those harvested from a plant (or livestock). It provides a potential avenue for solving the challenges in coffee production in a sustainable way, enabling greater regional self-sufficiency in climatic regions that are unsuitable for coffee bean cultivation.

Lab-grown coffee also has the potential to speed up coffee production significantly. Traditional farming provides only one or two harvests per year, whereas a new batch of lab-grown coffee can be made in a month, due to the controlled process and the infinitely renewable nature of coffee plant cells, which removes the need to grow new coffee plants from seeds. However, the journey of lab-grown coffee to grocery store shelves and people’s kitchens is anything but complete.

Dr Heiko Rischer, ​​principal scientist and head of plant biotechnology at VTT, calls for an ecosystem dedicated to the production and commercialisation of lab-grown coffee.

“It’s one thing to grow coffee cells in a bioreactor," he says. "Making it a commercially viable product is a whole other matter.

"The raw material derived from different cultivars and species, and the soil, the elevation, climate, and even the year when the particular coffee beans were grown, plus the processes of roasting, fermentation, brewing, are all factors that impact the end-product. While lab-grown coffee is much more controlled, different approaches to, for example, roasting, significantly impact the aroma profile of the coffee, which is a key consideration for the consumer.”

Image: Mike Kenneally / Unsplash

Ideally, players interested in the same coffee value chain, such as cultivators, roasters, blenders, fermenters and coffee brands could come together to build the processes required to produce and commercialize the new sustainable type of coffee.

Dr Rischer concludes, “Our wish is that the publication of this scientific article, which clearly demonstrates proof of concept for lab-grown coffee, nudges forward the creation of an ecosystem or a collective that has the resources, know-how, and drive to pioneer an entirely new type of coffee. It is a huge challenge but one VTT is prepared to take on with the right partners and experts.”

The paper is published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry,