Can lab-made coffee pass the taste test?

The multibillion-dollar coffee industry faces high demand and numerous agricultural sustainability challenges.

But Finnish scientists say they have successfully produced coffee cells in a lab that they say are on the way to tasting like the real thing.

Heikki Aisala of the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.

(SOUNDBITE)(English) VTT RESEARCH SCIENTIST IN CHARGE OF THE EVALUATION, HEIKKI AISALA, SAYING: "There is a noticeable roasted odor and depending on the roast level it can also be quite fruity, quite green, quite honey-like actually, surprisingly."

Could this become the sustainable alternative to traditional coffee?

(SOUNDBITE)(English) VTT RESEARCH TEAM LEADER, HEIKO RISCHER, SAYING: "We propose an alternative process here. We skip the farming part and we use plant cell cultures instead. So actually real coffee cell cultures but they're not generated in the field but instead we're growing them in bioreactors."

That’s Heiko Rischer, the leader of the VTT research team.

"The main idea with all these processes, basically using the cellular agriculture to substitute agriculture commodities, is of course to have a better sustainable process.”

And the sustainability challenges for coffee are numerous.

Not only are many farmers throughout the world’s coffee-growing belt experiencing the negative effects from climate change, the high demand for coffee also means more acreage is required to produce enough beans, which leads to deforestation.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) DOCTOR AARON DAVIS, BOTANIST, SAYING: "A decade ago we were talking about the impact of climate change and what it might mean and now climate change is front and center for the coffee industry because we're seeing, throughout the tropical coffee belt, farmers being impacted by climate change, increasing temperatures but also more erratic rainfall and increased drought."

VTT’s process is localized to its laboratory.

Cell cultures floating in bioreactors filled with a nutrient medium are used to produce a variety of animal- and plant-based products including coffee.

(SOUNDBITE)(English) VTT RESEARCH SCIENTIST IN CHARGE OF THE EVALUATION, HEIKKI AISALA, SAYING: "At the moment we have different roast levels and different roast parameters in our coffees and now we of course want to see is there a discernible difference and in what direction does it go? So for example the hypothesis goes that when you increase the roasting temperature or roasting duration, the bitterness and roasted odor intensity increases."

But does it pass the taste test?

(SOUNDBITE)(English) VTT RESEARCH SCIENTIST IN CHARGE OF THE EVALUATION, HEIKKI AISALA, SAYING: "Not like of course 100%. It tastes like a combination of different types of coffees but of course we're not there yet with the like the commercial variety. But it certainly does resemble coffee at the moment."

In Europe, the lab-grown coffee would need to be approved as a Novel Food by the European Commission before being marketed.

But Satu, a barista at a downtown Helsinki coffee shop, thinks people will be into it.

(SOUNDBITE)(English) BARISTA, SATU (SURNAME NOT GIVEN) SAYING: "Well, that's quite a question. I think some day of course because I think we're going that way because of all the natural coffee sources vanishing, so we have to move along. But yes, I think when they come and if it tastes (good) and it's like the aroma is coffee based, so why not? I think it's possible."

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