Lab-grown coffee from Finland – the future of coffee?

Lab-grown coffee made in Finland. And no, Paulig didn’t make a sudden turn in business plans. The Finnish Technical Research Centre (VTT) is behind this project. Led by Dr Heiko Rischer, these guys are definitely up to something! Let’s take a look.

Finland’s position in the coffee universe

Finland. Estonia’s northern neighbour and favourite tourist destination. Of course, the feeling is mutual.  Every weekend you can see Finnish tourists casually walking the streets of Tallinn and wondering where can they drink a good cup of coffee. Not lab-grown. Natural stuff.

Finns know a thing or two about drinking coffee. We can say that for sure. On the list of the worlds coffee consumption per capita, Finland takes first place. Average Finn consumes 12 kilos of coffee per year. The average Norwegian guy is in second place, with 9.9 kilos per year. Estonia takes a decent 22nd place with 9.92 kilos per capita. You can look at the rest of the list here.

We can do better, guys. 2022 is our year.

So, an average Finn drinks 4-5 cups of coffee per day. It doesn’t seem too much. But rule out the children, tea-lovers and people who don’t consume coffee (!), then you might understand how much coffee the Finns drink. And their pledge to never run out of coffee. 


Ever.

Lab-grown coffee - brewing process
Elvira Kärkkäinen preparing some lab-grown pour-over coffee – image from vttresearch.com

Cell-based coffee made in Finland

Does it surprise you now that it was the Finnish scientists that made the first lab-grown coffee? Let’s take a look at the few basic but not less important questions about the whole idea.

Why grow coffee in a lab?

Coffee is a sensitive plant. We are not talking about growing a coffee plant at home now. Anyone can do that. Nah, we have a math problem here. As the number of people on this blue planet grows, so does the demand for coffee. But, the coffee plant is picky about the soil, climate and temperature, especially the Arabica types.

So, the coffee industry faces these problems:

  • Deforestation, as a direct consequence of planting more coffee to meet the market expectations
  • Rising temperatures make growing Arabica harder and harder
  • Price fluctuations on coffee markets 
  • Inability to transport coffee due to pandemic restrictions

Long story short, we need alternative ways to grow coffee. Don’t stash beans in your basement yet. The situation is not that serious. But it probably will be, in a few decades.

Lab-grown coffee means fewer pesticides, chemicals, and fossil fuels used. Also, it means not looking into the sky and wondering will the next storm destroy all the yield.

How did they grow coffee in a lab?

The idea of growing coffee in labs is nothing new. P.M.Townsley wrote about it in 1975. in his work Production of Coffee from Plant Cell Suspension Cultures. But it was just a theory. Almost 50 years later, the idea came to life. 

Finnish Technical Research Centre (VTT) has been growing coffee in laboratories. They cultivate the coffee cells using cellular agriculture. That process was already successful in growing dairy, meat, and egg substitutes in laboratories. But we appreciate how the VTT did not forget the coffee drinkers.

In the process, the scientists use coffee cell cultures and put them into bioreactors to produce biomass. The principle is somewhat similar to growing meat in labs. However, as the nutrient for plant cell culture is simpler than animal ones, the process of lab-growing plants is cheaper than lab-grown meat. 

After the growth, coffee cells look like wet, weird popcorn.

Yes, that’s lab-grown coffee
Yes, that’s lab-grown coffee – image from vttresearch.com

The cells are then examined, “harvested”, dried, roasted and brewed into filter coffee.

Wow, it sounds so simple. It sounds like we are one step away from selling DIY lab coffee kits. But not a single second of this magnificent process was simple. It involved the cooperation of countless experts from different science fields. Here is also a link to the short video for more details – here

Lab-grown coffee cell cultures
Creating coffee cell cultures – image from vttresearch.com

How does lab-grown coffee taste?

The first impressions are promising. Of course, it is not exactly a gourmet coffee, but it has similarities to ordinary coffee. This is, after all, a pilot project and a possible start of something great.

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.

Dr Heiko Rischer

Heikki Aisala, the VTT researcher and evaluator, says that this first version of coffee wouldn’t pass the usual taste tests just yet. However, it has potential. Honestly, that’s all we wanted to hear.

The fun part. As lab-grown coffee is technically not yet a food by the EU laws, the researchers cannot swallow a healthy sip. No, they are limited to tasting the coffee and spit it out then. The scientists also admit they are not master roasters, so they don’t know that much about the roasting process. And we know that’s where most of the coffee magic happen.   

When will we have a chance to drink a cup of lab Joe?

Not soon enough. This scientific research just opened the door for lab-grown coffee a little bit. Not wide open. There are a few things new lab-grown coffee must solve first. Like:

  • Novel Food approval for the European market
  • FDA approval for USA market
  • The price. The process is still too expensive.

Although the idea of lab-grown coffee still sounds like a distant future, the future is near. Meet Eat JUST, a US company famous for their plant-based JUST egg, made from mung beans. Eat JUST has become the first company that produced lab-grown meat AND got a licence from the Government of Singapore. Yes, you can order their lab-grown chicken in a Singapore restaurant. Technically, their chicken nuggets are 70% lab-grown meat.  The rest is plant proteins, water, oil, salt, pepper and crumbs.

But, yeah, lab-grown food is possible. Who knows, perhaps we will one day make a raktajino.  

Raktajino - not a lab-grown coffee
I am so not a geek. 

Will the people buy it?

Yes, they will, as long as it has the taste and moderate price. When you are inside the coffee bubble, you often forget the people outside. Many people don’t put much thought into the coffee origin, roast or grind size. I mean, look at the number of low quality coffee brands on the market. And they still sell. That is sad. Also, some people drink coffee for caffeine intake. That is also sad, but they still buy it.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that the lab-grown coffee will be an inferior product. It just means people will have to get used to it. It’s like that with every other invention. At the beginning of the espresso revolution in Italy, people repeatedly asked baristas to remove that ugly, weird crema on top of their coffee. True story.

Lab-grown coffee alternatives

Not all coffee startups turn ugly. We have two positive stories. At least for now. 

  • Compound Foods, a startup from San Francisco, is dedicated to making beanless coffee. They secured $4.5M, and some big names, like SVLC, Humbolt Fund, and Collaborative Fund are included in the story. This biotech company had developed a coffee-like beverage using microbial fermentation technology. 
  • Atomo Coffee has already started selling their Beanless cold brew in cans. The price will hurt your wallet – $7.50 per can. However, consider it more like an investment in the future. They are at the start of their journey, and we are sure the prices will go down.  

The downside of lab-grown coffee

Everything has a downside. Lab-grown coffee too, and it is not about the price. The question that bugs people is: what will happen with the coffee farmers? Small coffee farms, 12.5 million of them. They are all in third world countries. These farms are usually the only source of income for poor farmers. And we don’t mean poor as a metaphor.

44% of the world’s smallholder coffee farmers are living in poverty, and 22% of them are living in extreme poverty.

World Bank 

When the coffee prices drop on the worlds market, the small farmers feel it the most. And lots of these small farmers will abandon their coffee farms. Not because they are lazy, but because they won’t be able to feed their families. There are always other plants, more lucrative, that grow exceptionally well in tropical conditions, in secluded places, and have infinite demand. You know what they are. 

Conclusion

Natural coffee isn’t going anywhere, at least for now. But, it is nice to have an alternative or a solution if some disease wreaks havoc on the coffee plants.

Imagine a world without coffee. That is a disturbing thought. Luckily, the scientists from the VTT are here for us. And if everything goes well, we should brew our lab-Joe in 2025. 

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