First there was synthetic meat. Then came lab-grown milk. And now, researchers are racing ahead with cell-cultured coffee.
Like the lab-grown foods that have come before, there’s hope that cellular coffee can encourage more sustainable modes of consumption and make headway in the fight to curb climate change.
Driven by this hope, investors are now pouring millions of dollars into this emerging field of lab-grown coffee in an effort to develop beanless brews on a commercial scale.
So, just how close are we to getting our daily dose of caffeine from a laboratory?
Hold on, how is lab-grown coffee actually made?
The development of lab-grown coffee is still very much a work in progress, with most of the market leaders tight-lipped on their production processes.
Atomo Coffee, a Seattle-based start-up and frontrunner in the field, has developed a “molecular cold brew” that adventurous coffee enthusiasts can buy today.
The company says its coffee is made from upcycled plant waste: mostly date seeds and a blend of other ingredients like grape seeds and chicory roots.
These ingredients are mixed with caffeine, dietary fibre and other flavourings before being roasted and brewed just like conventional coffee.
Other research teams have had had success growing coffee plant cells in a bioreactor under closely controlled conditions, not unlike the methods used to produce lab-grown meat.
What does lab-grown coffee taste like?
The claim with lab-grown coffee is that it looks, smells and tastes the same as conventional coffee. Some supporters contend that it may actually taste better than the real thing, as it’s possible to produce smooth brews without the bitterness of a traditional cup of coffee.
These claims may have some truth to them, too: in a taste test of Atomo’s products by students at the University of Washington, 70% of participants opted for lab-grown coffee over a traditional brew from Starbucks.
A separate study in Finland found that cell-cultured coffee grown in bioreactor bore a close similarity to conventional coffee in terms of both smell and taste.
In the case of Atomo, the brand already offers three different flavours: “Classic Black”, “Ultra Smooth” and “Oat Milk Latte”. Given that the company recently raised $40 million, we can probably expect to see more soon.
Is this the future of coffee culture?
It’s been a rough couple of years for coffee farmers. Droughts and diseases have ravaged crop yields in major coffee-producing countries like Brazil and Vietnam, prompting price rises around the world.
Only a small belt of land near the Equator is suitable for growing coffee, and with this estimated to shrink 50% by 2050, increases in the production of lab-grown coffee would help immensely to ease demand.
The most compelling argument in favour of cell-cultured coffee is of course environmental: according to Atomo, its beanless blends produce 93% fewer carbon emissions and use 94% less water than traditional coffee.
Should lab-grown coffee continue in its development along the lines promised by brands like Atomo, there’s little doubt that it will be the best choice for the planet. The only roadblock may be getting coffee farmers on board – if they’re not already put out of a job by climate change.
Still, there are winners and losers with every industry shift. The big picture is a future in which everyone can enjoy their favourite brew with a remarkably reduced impact on the environment.