A once-prized coffee species, rediscovered in West Africa decades after it was thought to have disappeared, is just as tasty as high-end Coffea arabica and more resilient to climate change, researchers said on Monday, adding that the forgotten bean could help future-proof quality coffee.
While there are more than 100 known coffee species, the world gets its caffeine hit mostly from the beans of just two — Coffea arabica, considered to be the superior brew, and the less-refined Coffea canephora, or Robusta, most commonly used for instant mixes.
Climate change presents a serious problem for the multibillion-dollar coffee industry and the about 100 million farmers worldwide who earn a living from cultivating the crop.
Photo: AFP / CRB Coffea, IRD-DIRAD
Arabica, which originates in the highlands of Ethiopia and South Sudan, is a cool tropical plant, preferring average annual temperatures of about 19°C.
The species is thought to be more vulnerable to global warming than Robusta, which can endure up to about 23°C.
However, the newly rediscovered Coffea stenophylla is known to tolerate conditions similar to Robusta, but with a higher average temperature of 24.9°C — more than 6°C higher than Arabica, a study in Nature Plants said.
Photo: Royal Botanical Gardens / AFP
To find a coffee species with both resilience and taste is “a once-in-a-lifetime scientific discovery,” said Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew coffee research head Aaron Davis, who led the research.
“This species could be essential for the future of high-quality coffee,” he added.
Reports from the 1800s and early 1900s considered Coffea stenophylla — endemic to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast — to be superior even to Arabica, its popularity spreading to cafes across France.
Coffea stenophylla fell out of use in the 20th century, vanishing completely from the record in 1954, until scientists finally found it growing in the wild in Sierra Leone in 2018 and set about studying its temperature tolerance — and its flavor.
Last year, they carried out a blind taste test with a jury of industry professionals from coffee brands Nespresso and Jacobs Douwe Egberts.
“The judges all found it different from what they know, with vegetal notes,” said Delphine Mieulet, scientist at the French Agricultural Research Center for International Development, which organized the tasting.
The new coffee had notes of “rose, elderflower, lychee — like the best Arabica,” she said, adding that the sample provided was so rare that not everyone was able to taste it.
Mieulet said she is confident that Coffea stenophylla would become commercially available, but that it might take several years.
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