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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Researchers unearth the world’s best coffee bean

To find a coffee species that flourish at higher temperatures and has an excellent flavor is a once-in-a-lifetime scientific discovery – this species could be essential for the future of high-quality coffee.

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Manish Saini
Manish works as a Journalist and writer at Revyuh.com. He has studied Political Science and graduated from Delhi University. He is a Political engineer, fascinated by politics, and traditional businesses. He is also attached to many NGO's in the country and helping poor children to get the basic education. Email: Manish (at) revyuh (dot) com

It boasts a superior flavor to most varieties – and is resistant to climate change. It offers caffeine addicts a better-tasting – and cheaper – pick-me-up.

The species named stenophylla has been found growing for the first time since 1954. It was thought to have gone extinct.

The multi-billion dollar industry is in crisis because of warmer temperatures and lower rainfall – coupled with leaf rust, other fungal pests and loss of habitat.

It’s feared a decent cup of coffee will soon become a luxury – and too expensive for most consumers.

Lead author Dr Aaron Davis, head of coffee research at Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG), Kew, said:

“Future-proofing the coffee supply chain to deal with climate change is vital.”

It supports the economy of several tropical countries – providing livelihoods for more than 100 million farmers.

There are 124 different coffee plants but we rely on just two for 99 percent of our consumption – Arabica and Robusta.

Computer modelling showed Stenophylla can tolerate average annual temperatures of around 25 ºC – up to 6 ºC hotter.

Dr Davis said:

“To find a coffee species that flourish at higher temperatures and has an excellent flavour is a once in a lifetime scientific discovery – this species could be essential for the future of high-quality coffee.”

Stenophylla was found in the wilds of Sierra Leone after decades of searching.

Independent taste tests found it’s on a par with “high-end Arabica” – the world’s most popular coffee.

They included panellists from beverage giants Nespresso, Jacobs Douwe Egberts and Belco.

Its unique qualities mean Stenophylla could soon be grown commercially – in much warmer places than Arabica, say the international team.

It also has the potential to be used as a breeding resource for new, climate resilient coffee crops for global consumption.

Previous suggestions have included relocating farming areas and adapting the environment – both of which are costly and damage local communities.

Arabica originates from the highlands of Ethiopia and South Sudan. It’s a cool-tropical plant with an average annual temperature requirement of around 19⁰C.

Robusta grows at lower elevations across much of wet-tropical Africa at around 23⁰C. It’s regarded as inferior in flavor and only suitable for instant coffee.

An expedition led by Dr Davis used historical specimens from RBG Kew to provide details of the last known locality of stenophylla – which was once widely farmed.

They visited the main target location – where they found a single plant. After several hours trekking east through dense forest they stumbled on a healthy population.

Co-author Dr. Jeremy Haggar, professor of agroecology at Greenwich University, said:

“On average, smallholder farmers in Sierra Leone earn less than £100(about $140) per year from coffee production.

“So the re-discovery of this native coffee species might finally offer an opportunity for some of the world’s poorest farmers to grow a crop that commands a decent price.”

Endemic to Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast, Stenophylla grows in hot-tropical areas at low elevation – only 1,300ft (400 meters) above sea level. It’s also believed to be tolerant of droughts.

Dr Justin Moat, of RBG Kew who carried out the climate analysis, said: “It’s widely known our beloved Arabica coffee in being impacted by climate change.

“The results of the study are extremely exciting. Stenophylla coffee grows at substantially higher temperatures than Arabica, providing the sort of robust differences we need if we are to have any chance of a sustainable coffee sector under climate change.”

Obtaining a small sample from partners in Sierra Leone, Stenophylla was assessed by an expert tasting panel at Union Hand-Roasted Coffee in London.

They awarded the coffee a specialty score of 80.25 – based on the protocol of the Specialty Coffee Association – and identified Arabica-like qualities.

To reach ‘specialty’ status, a coffee needs at least 80 points.

Jeremy Torz, from Union Coffee, said:

“Arabica is currently our only specialty coffee species, and so this score, particularly from such a small sample, was surprising and remarkable.”

An evaluation of a much more substantial sample presented to coffee experts meeting in Montpelier, France, then revealed it has a complex flavour profile.

Judges noted its natural sweetness, medium-high acidity, fruitiness and good body or texture – the way it feels in the mouth.

Desirable notes included peach, blackcurrant, mandarin, honey, light black tea, jasmine, spice, floral, chocolate, caramel, nuts, and elderflower syrup.

They are all attributes one might find in high-quality Arabica. Around half described it as “something new” – suggesting a market niche for the coffee.

Dr Delphine Mieulet, of the French Agricultural Research Center for International Development who led the tasting, said:

“These results provide the first credible sensory evaluation for Stenophylla coffee, from which we are able to corroborate historical reports of a superior taste.

“The sensory analysis of stenophylla reveals a complex and unusual flavor profile that the judges unanimously found worthy of interest.

“For me, as a breeder, this new species is full of hope and allows us to imagine a bright future for quality coffee – despite climate change.”

David Behrends, head of trading at Geneva-based coffee company Sucafina, said:

“These findings open the way for farming high-quality coffee in warmer climates, and could be part of the solution for ensuring a climate-resilient coffee sector.”

Daniel Sarmu, development specialist from Sierra Leone, said:

“We hope Stenophylla coffee will become a flagship export crop – providing wealth creation for our farmers. It would be wonderful to see it reinstated as part of our cultural heritage.”

The study is in Nature Plants.

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