If you think that coffee world is made up of Arabica and Robusta, you are only partly right. There are many other coffee species that could dethrone the monopoly of the two. Coffee with so little caffeine content that can be sold as decaf – Charrier Coffee. But let’s not forget the elusive Coffea stenophylla, which is famous for its fantastic flavor that beats Arabica.
This is what Dr. Aaron Davis does on a regular basis – he searches for new and unique wild coffee species. His work is more like an Indiana Jones’ adventures than your typical research. We are waiting for the mass production of Coffea Stenophylla that will reinvent the coffee industry. But mostly I am waiting for a hybrid between Stenophylla and Charrieriana that will let me drink a double espresso at 9:00 PM. Unfortunately, my dreams will have to wait a bit…
On a routine toilet break in the Vietnamese jungle, Aaron Davis got a nasty shock – as a poisonous snake came up out of the ground, looked around and, mercifully, slithered off.
A scare like this would send most of us back to civilisation, but it’s all in a day’s work for Kew Gardens’ head of coffee research, an explorer-cum-botanist who has discovered more species of coffee than anybody in history. If the coffee world can playfully be said to have its own equivalent of Indiana Jones, then it’s surely Davis.
He’s leading the charge to make the world’s favourite beverage resiliant to climate change – a quest to discover heat- and drought-resistant species of wild coffee that has taken him to the world’s remotest forests over the past 25 years.
In Tanzania he was nearly trampled to death by forest elephants, in Mozambique his car got stuck in the middle of a river for four hours and in Papua New Guinea he had to cross a 40 metre wide “river of death” using a slippery, chopped-down tree as a bridge.
“It was a 100-foot drop into a raging river – I wouldn’t have survived – and the only way to cross was on a wet, mossy log,” Dr Davis tells i, standing by the much tamer surroundings of Kew’s coffee plant collection.
“I’ve had worms and all sorts of weird fevers and spent a couple of weeks in the school of tropical medicine with parasites – but I’m still here,” says Davis.
“I’ve had worms and all sorts of weird fevers and spent a couple of weeks in the school of tropical medicine with parasites – but I’m still here,”
“Some of the places were really remote. We’d fly into the nearest airport and take a boat or drive for a couple of days and then walk for three days sometimes to get to a place that people have almost never been to before.”
His brushes with death have not been in vain, however, as he and his colleagues at Kew have discovered 23 of the 124 known wild coffee species in the world. Overall, Kew staff have discovered 43 of these species.
The total number may soon rise to 125, as Davis thinks he may have just discovered a new one: a wild coffee species from Madagascar. He is playing it cool until more analysis can be done to confirm this, however.
Despite this large number of species, just two types of coffee – Arabica and Robusta – have come to dominate coffee cultivation and consumption around the world in recent decades.
That’s because the vast majority of species aren’t suitable for mass cultivation. This is because it’s extremely difficult to find beans that are reasonably disease-resistant, able to grow in areas and conditions where there is land to grow them in large quantities and that taste nice, which many don’t, Davis explains.
Further complicating matters, there can be considerable variation in taste and other properties between plants of the same species depending on where they are grown.
And making life even more difficult, an astonishing 60 per cent of all coffee species face the threat of extinction from global warming, habitat loss, disease and pests, a revelation that caused shock when Davis and his team reported it to the world in January this year.
With climate change already making many traditional growing sites unsuitable for Arabica and Robusta, the race is on to find replacement beans that can grow in temperatures that are two or three degrees hotter than in the past, with around half the amount of water, he says.
Arabica and Robusta account for nearly 60 per cent and 40 per cent of global consumption, respectively. They will not disappear altogether, but because many of their traditional growing sites are no longer viable – and only so much cultivation can be moved to cooler areas – their contribution is expected to decline considerably.
Davis and others experts around the world are therefore hunting for species to replace them, to prevent huge shortages and knock-on price rises in the future – although even if some standins are found, he could see the coffee price potentially doubling in real terms in the next 30 years.
In an ideal world, Davis would identify a replacement species that is fully formed and ready to go, as Robusta was, for the new climate change era and farmers could start replacing some of Arabica and Robusta crops with that one.
Alternatively, they may need to cross breed some of the properties from other wild coffees with Arabica and Robusta, or with each other – a process that could take 20 to 30 years to get right.
Davis’s search is advanced and all being well, he hopes to identify one or two new species in the near future that could then be cultivated on a small scale within five years – and potentially on a much bigger scale beyond.
“We’re doing evaluations of coffee taste and will have a clearer idea in about a year. It will be climate tolerant and come from somewhere where coffee’s not usually grown, I’d say.”
Does he have any hints as to the Arabica and Robustas of the future? Frustratingly, it’s still to early to say, he replies – but he does have a couple of possibilities in mind.
If – and it’s still quite a big if at this point – they are found to be suitable, the coffee species Liberica and Stenophylla could start gradually replacing Arabica and Robusta in the coming decades.
Otherwise known as the ‘Highland Coffee of Sierra Leone’, represents something of an enigma among coffee species. Growing in isolated forest patches in a few countries in West Africa, it is fabled as having an exquisite flavour that is said to surpass Arabica coffee. The only problem was that no one had seen this species in the wild since 1954, and it has all but disappeared from coffee plantations and botanic gardens.
In December 2018, Kew’s Aaron Davis and Prof Jeremy Haggar, from the University of Greenwich, went to Sierra Leone in search of this elusive species and eventually found a single plant.
While paling into insignificance next to Arabica and Robusta on a global scale, Liberica is the main source of coffee in the Philippines.
It is grown on a local scale in some parts of Indonesia and in the West African countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia – from which it takes its name, although it is drunk there in large quantities.
Although it is potentially more climate tolerant than Robusta, there is a bit of an issue with its taste, Dr Davis says. “The taste of some of them is disgusting, really bad – although some of them are better. But the genetic diversity of Liberica is huge, so it might be a case of searching through that diversity to find the best tasting types – that’s a project we’re trying to get funded now.”
Alternatively, it may be possible to cross breed Liberica with something a bit tastier.