A new brew with potential — lab-grown coffee

Wednesday, 20 December, 2023

A new brew with potential — lab-grown coffee

Is it time to wake up and smell the lab-grown, cultivated coffee?

Two years ago, scientists in Finland successfully made coffee in a lab. VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd has now released detailed information on the process in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. The study also found that some of the comforting aromas and tastes of a conventional cup of coffee could be reproduced by roasting and brewing coffee cell cultures.

Demand for coffee is rising, but the production of coffee beans faces multiple sustainability challenges, concerning land and water use, labourers’ rights and climate change.

Lab-grown coffee also has the potential to speed up coffee production, allowing for a batch to be made every month, compared to traditional agriculture which provides one to two harvests each year.

To create the coffee, the scientists cultured cells from chopped Coffea arabica leaves in a laboratory-scale bioreactor. Those cells were then freeze-dried, ground into a fine powder and roasted under three different conditions. Longer roasting time produced colours similar to dark roast coffee beans, which, according to the researchers, is important for flavour perception. The current lab-grown powders contained twice as much caffeine as previous bioreactor coffee products, though this was still much lower than the caffeine levels in farmed beans.

When coffee plant cells grown in a bioreactor (top left) are roasted (top right and bottom powders), they develop colours similar to conventional light or dark roast coffee. Image adapted from the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2023, DOI: 10.1021/acs.jafc.3c04503.

Trained taste-testers found that the lab-grown brews:

  • had similar levels of bitterness and sourness as conventional drinks;
  • had more roasted, burned sugar and smoky smells;
  • didn’t contain some of the Maillard reaction products that give coffee its distinct flavour, such as guaiacol and several pyrazines, though other Maillard reaction products were present.

While roasting cultured cells can produce some of the tastes and smells of a bean-based coffee, more work is needed to explore processing techniques and further boost the flavour of it.

Dr Heiko Rischer, Principal Scientist and Head of Plant Biotechnology at VTT, said, “It’s one thing to grow coffee cells in a bioreactor — 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 end customer — the consumer.”

Top image credit: iStock.com/pixelfit

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