Lab Coats and Bioreactors: Is This the Answer to Sustainable Coffee Production?

September 23, 2021Kelly Getzelman

Coffee cell cultures, right, and roasted coffee produced by VTT’s cellular agriculture method. Photo courtesy of the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.

When frost hit many of Brazil’s major coffee-growing regions in July 2021, coffee prices on the commodity futures market swiftly went haywire. At the time, Brazil, the largest producer of coffee globally, was still recovering from a devastating drought that crippled many of the coffee-producing regions.

Industry professionals began to worry that climate change would create more extreme weather events like those, hindering coffee production for years to come.

With increasing demand and numerous sustainability challenges facing traditional coffee agriculture, there is a pressing need for alternative ways to produce coffee.

Elviira Kärkkäinen preparing coffee at the VTT laboratory in Finland. Photo courtesy of the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.

Marking a breakthrough in cellular agriculture, researchers at Finland’s VTT Technical Research Centre have successfully produced coffee cells in a bioreactor. Bioreactors are vessels built to provide effective environments for enzymes or whole cells to transform biochemicals into products.

The groundbreaking scientific process uses cell cultures, which float in bioreactors filled with a nutrient medium, to produce various animal- and plant-based products.

Per capita, Finnish people consume more coffee than any other nation in the world — explaining the country’s diversion of resources into the coffee industry.

The innovation may help make the production of coffee more sustainable. The first coffee batches VTT produced in the laboratory in Finland smelled and even tasted like conventional coffee.

“At VTT, this project has been part of our overall endeavor to develop the biotechnological production of daily and familiar commodities that are conventionally produced by agriculture,” Heiko Rischer, a VTT research team leader, said in a statement. “For this, we use many different hosts, such as microbes, but also plant cells.

According to VTT’s website, “The work was started by initiating coffee cell cultures, establishing respective cell lines in the laboratory and transferring them to bioreactors to begin producing biomass. After analyses of the biomass, a roasting process was developed, and the new coffee was finally evaluated by VTT’s trained sensory panel.”

At last, a taste test is in order. “The experience of drinking the very first cup was exciting,” Rischer said. “In terms of smell and taste, our trained sensory panel and analytical examination found the profile of the brew to bear similarity to ordinary coffee. However, coffee making is an art and involves iterative optimization under the supervision of specialists with dedicated equipment. Our work marks the basis for such work.”

Creating coffee cell cultures at the VTT laboratory in Finland. Photo courtesy of the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.

Currently, all coffee material produced in laboratory conditions is considered experimental food and would require regulatory approval by the Food and Drug Administration to be marketed and sold to consumers in the United States. In Europe, lab-grown coffee should first be approved as Novel Food before being marketed.

VTT estimates it is only four years away from securing regulatory approval and ramping up commercial production.

Because of the high demand for coffee worldwide, the VTT research team hopes that advances in coffee sustainability may one day aid in protecting coffee-producing regions affected by deforestation, such as the world’s tropical rainforests.

Read Next: Partly Smoky, With a Chance of Shrapnel — The Failed Weather Underground Movement

Kelly Getzelman
Kelly Getzelman

Kelly Getzelman is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. A retired Navy SEAL chief petty officer, Getzelman has nearly two decades of special operations experience and is always ready to ship out on his next epic coffee adventure.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
Curtis LeMay
Curtis LeMay: The World War II General Who Firebombed Japan

Who exactly was Gen. Curtis LeMay? And how did he become the commander who razed more than 60 Japanese cities during World War II?

eric smith marine corps commandant nominee
Highly Decorated Marine Officer Nominated To Be Next Commandant

President Joe Biden has nominated a highly decorated Marine officer who has been involved in the transformation of the force to be the next Marine Corps commandant.

USS Arizona
Profile of a Ship: USS Arizona

When the USS Arizona sank, it took 1,177 crew members with it. Today it remains beneath the water as a memorial to all those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor.

b1 bombers bosnia
US Bombers Fly Over Bosnia in Sign of Support Amid Continued Secessionist Threats

A pair of U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers flew low over Sarajevo and several other Bosnian cities...

SR-71 Blackbird
SR-71 Blackbird: The Spy Plane That Could Outrun Missiles

Lockheed Martin’s SR-71 Blackbird was a government secret for years. Now retired, a newer version plans to take its place.

medal of honor recipient remains returned
Missing 73 Years, Medal of Honor Recipient's Remains Return To Georgia

Soldiers of the 9th Infantry Regiment made a desperate retreat as North Korean troops closed in arou...

dear jack
Dear Jack: My Battalion Is Out of Control

In this installment of “Dear Jack,” Marine veteran and amateur life coach Jack Mandaville advises a lieutenant colonel on how to restore order in the lower ranks.

  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
  • Request a Correction
  • Write for Us
  • General Inquiries
© 2023 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved