Profiles, Research & Development

World’s first lab-grown coffee offers sustainable future solution

lab coffee

The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has brewed the world’s first cup of lab-grown coffee that could provide a sustainable and alternate option for coffee drinkers.

Using cell cultures to grow agriculture products is fast gaining momentum in the food industry. Already, cultured meat has been developed, protein has been produced by microbes, and now, a cup of coffee has been brewed from lab-grown coffee cultures.

In a series of ongoing biotechnological experiments at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, researchers took coffee cell cultures and cultivated them in labs.

“In the past, researchers had extracted individual compounds for certain purposes, but before our study, no one had really looked into the overall composition of coffee cell cultures,” says Research Team Leader Dr Heiko Rischer.

To create the coffee-like drink, Rischer says the coffee cultures had to first be “initiated”, with time spent propagating the material and allowing them to establish their cell lines.

“This stage is typically the most work-intensive part, taking half a year to one-year minimum to complete,” he says.

At this stage, Rischer was surprised to find that the cultures contained roughly 20 per cent protein content — much higher compared to other respective plant cells — with most plants storing protein in their seeds rather than the flesh.

“Once we had the culture, we transferred it to a bioreactor where we placed it in a liquid nutrient medium consisting of minerals and sugar. This stage only took a few weeks to complete, after which we harvested and processed the material,” Rischer says.

“You can imagine it like a big pot of broth in a steel container. When we ‘harvest’ the coffee, the broth is taken out and filtered, and the grainy substance left is the end-coffee product. For us, it is the equivalent of a coffee bean.”

The material is then dried to create a fine powder, roasted, and evaluated by VTT’s panel of sensory experts.

“When the powder is freeze-dried after it has been harvested, it has a white to beige colour. And after we roasted it, it became different shades of brown, like ground coffee,” he says. “We were also able to achieve different roasting grades similar to traditional coffee products.”

Rischer says the team at VTT used a simple filter brewing method to extract flavour from the powder and were pleased to find a profile that tasted and smelled very similar to coffee.

“To answer the million-dollar question, we also found that there was caffeine in the lab-grown coffee, and due to the processes ability to be altered, we predict these caffeine levels can be altered depending on the desired end-product.”

While the process takes a year or so to complete from cell to liquid, reaching this stage of development has taken even longer.

“Despite plant cells being used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics for a long time, it has had a slow uptake within the food sector,” Rischer says. “Increasing concerns for sustainability issues such as climate change have forced people to look for alternative solutions, which is where lab-grown coffee has a role to play.”

Rischer believes lab-grown coffee could help take the pressure of coffee farmers who are struggling to keep up with global demand, exacerbated by extreme weather conditions, decreasing coffee-producing land, and coffee diseases.

“We want to help the farmer [meet coffee production levels] so they can concentrate on quality over quantity, improving the coffee industry as a whole,” he says.

Using drastically fewer resources and space to grow, Rischer says this new coffee material could prove a solution to decreasing viable coffee-growing areas while circumnavigating the effects of changing climate.

One of the next steps required to bring this coffee product to the market is regulatory approval. The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland is also looking for industry collaborators to help support the project.

“Collaboration is key. When creating this coffee prototype, we realised disciplines can be isolated from each other, but through teaming up with food scientists, chemists, and processing experts, we were able to make this breakthrough,” Rischer says.

“This is why we need visionaries and front runner partners within the coffee industry to help move it to a commercial product. Regardless, we are now one step closer to making lab-grown coffee a reality.”

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This article was first published in the November/December 2021 edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.

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