Is Lab-Grown Coffee Worth A Hill Of Beans?

Regular coffee grounds and lab-grown coffee.

Historically, coffee has needed two things to grow successfully — a decent altitude and a warm climate. Now, a group of scientists from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland have managed to grow coffee in a lab. They started by culturing coffee plant cells, and then planted them in bioreactors full of nutrient-rich growing medium. But they didn’t grow plants. Instead of green beans inside coffee cherries, the result is a whitish powdered biomass that resembles pure caffeine. Then the scientists roasted the powder as you would beans, and report that it smells and tastes just like regular coffee.

There are plenty of problems percolating with the coffee industry that make this an attractive alternative — mostly worker exploitation, unsustainable farming methods, and land rights issues. And the Bean Belt, which stretches from Ethiopia to South America to Southeast Asia is getting too hot. On top of all that, coffee production is driving deforestation in Vietnam and elsewhere, although coffee could help the forests regenerate more quickly.

Coffee purists shouldn’t be dismayed, because variety is still possible using varying cell cultures to dial in the caffeine level and the flavors. We’ll drink to that.

Another thing in the industry that’s a real grind is coffee cupping, but spectroscopy could soon help determine bean quality.

36 thoughts on “Is Lab-Grown Coffee Worth A Hill Of Beans?

  1. For what it’s worth I was peripherally involved in the coffee industry’s efforts to prop up sagging demand in the early 1980s as new coffee drinkers failed to materialize among young people who considered it lowbrow, stodgy and unhealthy. The solution, as always, was fat, sweeteners, marketing, and the creation of perception of a Veblen Good — which drove the hive mind, price points and profits very nicely. The source of the product (now often a syrup or extract even in high-end coffee shops) is very secondary.

    The lines of SUVs wrapped around our local Starbucks patiently waiting for their “quad long shot grande in a venti cup half calf double cupped no sleeve salted caramel mocha latte with 2 pumps of vanilla substitute 2 pumps of white chocolate mocha for mocha and substitute 2 pumps of hazelnut for toffee nut half whole milk and half breve with no whipped cream extra hot extra foam extra caramel drizzle extra salt add a scoop of vanilla bean powder with light ice well stirred ” (of course I looked that up) is a testament to the results.

    1. I don’t know where you live, but i haven’t seen a syrup/concentrate based coffee machine outside of school/office catering in a decade or so.
      Even in trains they serve freshly brewed coffee these days. Before, they served instant coffee.

        1. The fat and sweeteners method of selling coffee seems to be a very American phenomenon, in line with having dessert recipes that are based on combining store-bought cookies and candies with ice-cream and other foods which are already desserts in their own right.

          Or like the Swedes say, “tårta på tårta” – “cake onto cake”.

          1. I think the technical term for that is “recombinant cooking”
            A can of green beans, a can of cream of mushroom soup and some fried/dried onion rings, oven -> green bean casserole is the classic iiuc.

    2. I love that. :) I personally enjoy standing in line with those people and then ordering a Café Americano and add as few sugar as posibble, while still keeping it drinkable. Thanks for the entertainment! :P

    3. I don’t know where you live but here all coffee enthusiast, hipsters, etc. myself included wouldn’t even touch something with any addition whatsoever be it vanilla or sugar or milk.

      The taste is all about where it was grown, how was it processed, roasted, and finally how it was brewed.

      1. I’m sure you and your friends are great, but Thinkerer is referring to the vast majority of ‘coffee enthusiasts’ that drive the market. There are roughly 37k coffee outlets in the US and 25k of them are Starbucks or Dunkin’. Those two brands also accounted for more than 80% of the new store openings in the last year.

  2. If I can grow it at home then I’m interested. Needs to look like the dish on the left though and that other dish needs to stay in the mini fridge or whatever. Like the grinder at Tops, only you feed in a yeast packet thing and ground coffee comes out.

  3. Frankenstein coffee :)

    I see no problem with this. Quite happily eat Quorn (well, with something that gives it flavour). Beer is vat brewed and cheese manufacturing is deeply suspicious festering of milk. All good though.

    1. Uh, where did you get the info that these are cultures of coffee leave cells?
      Unless I missed something there’s no info regarding what kind of cells are being grown, only “coffee plant cells” which could be any part of the plant.

    1. “Feinfinger (M-x flyspell-mode) says:
      September 28, 2021 at 10:07 am
      Why not get pure caffeine and add flavours as desired?
      I’ll never understand all that hype about coffee…”

      Then you have probably never had a good cup of coffee… There is a lot more to a good cup of coffee, than just genetics. Only part of the flavor comes from the genetics, soil climate, environment contribute. The roasting process has a lot to do with flavor. The brewing method, the water also contribute. Roasting converts the starches in to sugar, and will make the beans subtlety sweet, if you get it right. Starbucks usually burn their beans, to hide the cheap-ass, quality, which is also hidden with flavors and sweeteners. It’s fancy, expensive, trendy, but not good coffee.

      Good coffee doesn’t need cream, sugar, or anything else. Some people just want the caffeine, and don’t bother to explore, or learn how to make good coffee. Fresh roasted coffee degrades after a few days, and will taste pretty much like any commercial offerings. Most people don’t have access to freshly roasted beans…

      1. Was thinking the same.

        But roasting your own is as easy as getting a cheap hot-air popcorn popper and some green beans. Heck, for a one-off, you can just roast them in a pan or wok — makes a lot of smoke and the chaff gets everywhere, so you might want to do it outside.

        Getting it “right” is a lot less important than getting it fresh. When I was just starting out, I would get beans with black spots here and there. (Insufficient agitation, too much heat.) Meh. Tasted great.

        But once you’re a roaster, there’s no going back. So you might as well automate.

  4. Very good, or very bad, depending on if your livelihood depends on growing coffee, because the only thing worse than being an exploited worker is being a completely redundant worker in a poor nation where there is no social welfare system.

  5. If they can recapture the amazingly wonderful flavor, aroma, aftertaste, palate pleasure, and ‘sips feel like a meal’ nature that Costco’s original Sumatra beans had (not their new French Burnt offering), I’ll invest thousands in it. Face it folks. Lab- and vat-grown food and drink are in our future.

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