A newly rediscovered coffee plant could save our favorite cuppas from climate change

22 April 2021

Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in the world with some 2.25 billion cups of coffee consumed daily around the planet.

Yet coffee plants are falling on hard times in the face of warming temperatures. In fact, say scientists, global coffee production rates could halve in coming decades as fragile plants come under increased climate stress.

That’s the bad news.

Now here is some good news: a newly rediscovered coffee plant called Coffea stenophylla, a narrow-leaved species that grows in the wild in Upper West Africa, is far better able to handle changes in temperatures.

The plant, which was recently rediscovered in Sierra Leone after it was believed to have gone extinct in the wild, grows under the same range of climatic conditions as hardy Robusta coffee plants at a mean annual temperature between 6.2°C and 6.8°C higher than flavorful Arabica coffee, which prefers more moderate climates in the tropical belt.

In other words, stenophylla offers the best of both current coffee types. It can endure higher temperatures and at the same time produce beans that taste as good as highly prized Arabica brews.

Or as the scientists who tested the wild coffee plants put it in a paper on their findings: “We confirm historical reports of a superior flavour and uniquely, and remarkably, reveal a sensory profile analogous to high-quality Arabica coffee.”

In blind tests coffee experts have confirmed that stenophylla brews taste very fine indeed. “[W]e were completely blown away by the fact that this coffee tasted amazing,” attests Aaron Davis, a leading coffee researcher at the Royal Botanic Gardens in the United Kingdom.

“It has these other attributes related to its climate tolerance: it will grow and crop under much warmer conditions than Arabica coffee,” Davis adds.

What the welcome hardiness and positive flavor profile of the newly rediscovered species means is that it “substantially broadens the climate envelope for high-quality coffee and could provide an important resource for the development of climate-resilient coffee crop plants,” explain the scientists in their study.

Although it will take time for coffee growers around the planet to switch to the new species, there are already seedlings of stenophylla being planted as part of an ongoing experiment to “future-proof” global coffee production by help of the hardy new plants.

“It’s not going to be in coffee shops in the next couple of years, but I think within five to seven years we’ll see it entering the market as a niche coffee, as a high value coffee, and then after that I think it will be more common,” Davis says.

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