Made without beans: Could lab-grown coffee solve the global coffee shortage?

Kaycee Enerva

Kaycee Enerva

Every year, around 10 billion kg of coffee is produced worldwide to meet growing demand.

This has resulted in extensive deforestation as coffee plants require direct sunlight and furthermore – according to recent studies – coffee is vulnerable to climate change, which is now beginning to result in falling yields and global shortages. 

Given these scenarios, several companies have been researching sustainable alternatives – such as lab-grown coffee.

The global coffee shortage

Made without beans: Could lab-grown coffee solve the global coffee shortage?

Coffee prices have risen heavily this year – in the case of Colombia’s premium Arabica crop, by 55 per cent – owing primarily to bad weather conditions in top producing countries such as Brazil where growers have defaulted on supply agreements.

Supply-chain squeezes due to a shortage of containers and disrupted shipping schedules related to Covid-19 are also impacting the industry. Christian Wolthers, president of Douque, a coffee importer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, told Bloomberg that the company’s shipping costs from Latin America have doubled this year.

“Everybody is feeling the pinch,” he said.  “These bottlenecks are turning into a container nightmare.”

So coffee supplies are shrinking causing wholesale prices to surge and shipping costs are rising – something of a perfect storm for the entire coffee industry.

Lab-grown coffee in Finland

With climate change threatening traditional coffee farming, Finnish scientists lay claim to have produced coffee from cell cultures with an aroma and taste resembling the real thing.

Researchers from the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland have discovered a sustainable alternative to growing coffee beans by floating cell cultures in bio-reactors filled with a nutrient medium used to make various animal and plant-based products.

Lead researcher Heikki Aisala says that while their process uses real coffee plant cells, the resulting taste may not pass consumers’ standards yet. However, he claims that it has great potential, especially for a multi-billion dollar industry.

“It tastes like a combination of different types of coffee,” said Aisala. “We’re not there yet with the commercial variety, but it certainly does resemble coffee at the moment.”

Compound Foods’ Beanless Coffee

San Francisco-based startup Compound Foods uses synthetic biology to produce coffee without using beans by extracting molecules from the organic material in the USA.

Maricel Saenz, founder and CEO of Compound Foods, told TechCrunch that the company spent a lot of time studying what makes coffee “tick”, trying to correlate flavours and aromas in different ways.

The startup’s “beanless coffee” uses food science to recreate a base formula using sustainable ingredients that don’t use a lot of water. The company also says it is working towards recreating coffee flavours from different parts of the world like Costa Rica or chocolate notes from Brazil.

“We love coffee and know the farmers, and we are providing an alternative solution,” she added. “We want to recreate it and even drink it on Mars one day, and we want to bring the coffee farmers and the industry with us on the journey.”

Atomo’s Molecular Coffee

Seattle-based startup Atomo has developed a “molecular coffee” that claims to make a cup without harvesting a single bean. According to the company, its product is engineered from the ground up to produce the flavours and aromas of real coffee.

Andy Kleitch, CEO of Atomo, claims they’ve identified the 40 compounds found in the proteins and oils of coffee that represent the body, aroma, mouthfeel, and colour of the popular drink. The product is not instantly soluble in water but can be brewed with the traditional ritual of using “coffee” grounds instead.

“This is the smoothest coffee you’ve ever had – with a caffeine kick you’d expect”, their Kickstarter page reads. 

However, while Atomo says the grounds are made of “upcycled plant-based materials”, they do not fully disclose the ingredients, reads the FAQ in the company’s press release.

The future of coffee

Made without beans: Could lab-grown coffee solve the global coffee shortage?

Climate change and deforestation are having an increasingly severe impact on coffee growers, and according to a 2019 study, 60 per cent of wild coffee species are on the verge of extinction. These are just several reasons why businesses shouldn’t rely on growing coffee alone, and lab-grown sustainable coffee might be the viable alternative in the future.

“These solutions have a lower water footprint, and less transport is needed due to local production. There isn’t seasonal dependency or the need for pesticides either,” Aisala concluded.

Kaycee Enerva

Kaycee Enerva

A digital content manager based in the Philippines, Kaycee Enerva has written for multiple publications over several years. A graduate of Computer Science, she exchanged a career in IT to pursue her passion for writing. She's slowly practicing sustainability through period cups, and eating more plant-based food.

3 comments

  1. Avatar

    Deforestation and climate change as well as its effect on coffee industry is really saddening. I’m really curious if these lab grown coffee is really a viable alternative. I still hope that they can give make solution to these problems

  2. Avatar

    Wow thank you for sharing this , isa dn tlga sa pinka masarap ito . Kaya nkakatuwa ay may altenative ways sila ng coffee 😍❤️

  3. Avatar

    This is one of the reasons why we should be more responsible to our environment.
    Coffee growers main problem is deforestation which affect the growth of their coffee.
    We will suffer shortage of coffee someday.
    Good to hear that there’s an alternative ways of growing coffee.

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