redefining coffee for the next generation

Coffee and genetics - Explained

  • Vanessa Hernandez

Like most coffee enthusiasts, we first only used to care about coffee taste and its magical property of being able to wake us up in the morning. But over time, we became more interested in different types of coffee, and its origin story. This article is more for other coffee geeks (like us!) and delves more deeply into where coffee has come from and what it has turned into.

As you might already know, the two main types of coffee are Arabica and Robusta. The coffee industry treated Robusta like an ugly sister to Arabica until a rather interesting genetic discovery was made. Once scientist began sequencing the genes, it became clear that the two species are not cousins or siblings. Instead, it appears that Robusta is, in fact, a parent to Arabica. Most likely somewhere in southern Sudan, Robusta crossed with another species called Coffea Euginoides and produced the now famous Arabica. This new species spread and really began to flourish in Ethiopia, long considered the birthplace of coffee.

Currently, 129 species of coffee have been identified, mostly through the work of Kew Gardens in London, though most look very different from the plants and beans we are familiar with. Many of these species are indigenous to Madagascar, though others grow in parts of southern Asia, even as far as Australia. None of these species has any commercial attention at the moment, but scientists are beginning to show more interest in them because of a concern facing the coffee industry; lack of genetic diversity of the plants currently in cultivation.

The way that coffee has spread around the world means we have a global crop with common ancestry. There is little variation in the genetic make- up of coffee plants, and this exposes global coffee production to massive risk. A disease that can attack one plant can likely attack them all. This is something the wine industry suffered from where Phylloxera, an aphid, devastated huge swathes of grave vines across Europe in the 1860s and 1870s.

Whilst the coffee bean does not have a huge amount of genetic diversity, luckily for us, the growing methodology, soil, geology, altitude and roasting type affects flavour significantly, so we as the consumer are still able to benefit from a diverse set of flavours. The challenge remains on how best to proactively protect this precious crop.

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