Coffee is the most significant segment in the market for Hot Drinks and expected to reach global revenues at home and outside home of USD 585 billion by 2025, mainly driven by a continued boom in specialty coffees in foodservice.
COVID-19 drove record coffee consumption at home, with 85% of coffee drinkers having at least one cup at home (up 8% since January 2020.) While COVID-19 restrictions and closures continue to crimp coffee preparation away from home (workplace coffee preparation is down 55% since January 2020), on-the-go options are flourishing (drive-through and app-based ordering are both up 30%.) Additionally, more than 40% of Americans bought types of coffee they had never tried before during the pandemic.
With such positive premises pushed by the COVID-19 situation, the global specialty coffee market could reach USD 83 billion by 2026, driven by growing demand for on-the-go coffee and strengthening premium coffee shopping online.
Specialty coffee is a term for the highest grade of coffee available, typically relating to the entire supply chain (from farm to cup.) Specialty coffee uses single origin or single estate coffee grown at the perfect altitude, at the correct time of year, in the best-condition soil, and literally “cherry-picked” by hand at the right time.
The high-precision agriculture and the involvement of human labor during determined harvest conditions explain why specialty coffee is more expensive than mass-marketed coffee.
The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) defines specialty coffee in its green stage as coffee that is free of primary defects, has no quakers (unripen beans,) is adequately sized and dried, presents in the cup free of faults and taints, and has distinctive attributes. In practical terms, the coffee quality must pass aspect grading and cupping tests, reaching an overall score of at least 80 points. Coffee scoring 80–84.99 is considered Very Good; coffee that scores 85–89.99 is graded Excellent, while coffee scoring from 90–100 is graded Outstanding.
Almost all specialty coffee globally is of the Arabica type (Coffea arabica), fetching higher prices due to its multidimensional aromatic profile. Robusta (Coffea canephora or robusta) is considered a less prized option for its basic flavor taste and less input-demanding for tolerating the adverse effects of climate change.
Successful coffee farming occurs within a relatively narrow climatic envelope and is susceptible to weather perturbations throughout its growth and life cycle, rendering it sensitive to climate change. Future-proofing the supply chain under climate change is seen as a significant objective for the coffee sector, but there has been limited progress. There are three main resiliency pathways for coffee:
- The relocation of coffee farming to areas with suitable climates, especially to higher elevations.
- Adapting coffee farming practices by the use of high-precision and low-dispersion irrigation and shade provided by other crops.
- The development of either adapted coffee crop cultivars (via plant breeding) or the use of new coffee crop species.
While the proposed solutions may sound hopeful, the truth is they come at a higher cost in locations typically afflicted by restricted access to logistical, technical, and economic resources.
Furthermore, the Arabica species alone might not have the potential to attain the level of climate resiliency required for adaptation under climate change projections.
Arabica coffee is a cool-tropical plant originating from the highlands (1,000–2,200 m) of Ethiopia and South Sudan; in the wild and in cultivation, it has an optimum mean (annual) temperature range of 18–22 °C.
Robusta coffee is a predominately low-elevation species (50–1,500 m), occurring naturally across much of wet-tropical Africa, and is adapted to higher mean (annual) temperatures of 24–28 °C. It is also resistant to the prevalent strains of coffee leaf rust, a severe constraint for Arabica farming in Central and South America.
For these reasons, Robusta is often mooted as the replacement species for Arabica under a scenario of increasing temperatures and declining and increasingly erratic rainfall. However, Robusta may require as much or more precipitation (soil moisture) as Arabica, relative to other climate variables (for example, air temperatures). It could then become more temperature-sensitive than previously supposed under unfavorable environmental conditions.
Among the other 120 coffee species, some can grow in warmer and drier environments than Arabica and Robusta. So far, however, none of these species has demonstrated the required flavor and agronomic attributes for wide-scale commercial success. In this respect, Coffea stenophylla, a species endemic to West Africa (Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Côte d’Ivoire are the primary origin countries), may be of considerable interest for the future of the coffee market and the specialty coffee segment, according to a recent study by a British team of researchers.
In its native habitat, Stenophylla is a low-elevation species (~400 m), hot-tropical environments. It is also reported to be drought-tolerant and has partial resistance to coffee leaf rust. The seeds of Stenophylla are about the same size or slightly smaller than Arabica.
Stenophylla coffee may be the answer to achieving both flavor-pleasant and climate change-resilient coffee, thriving under the same range of critical climatic conditions of Robusta and at a mean annual temperature 6–7 °C higher than Arabica, even under identical rainfall conditions.
After evaluating the essential environmental requirements for the wild narrow-leaved Stenophylla, trained coffee flavor judges assessed a sensory profile analogous to high-quality Arabica coffee. Two Arabica samples, one of high quality (from Ethiopia) and one of medium quality (from Brazil), and one high-quality Robusta sample (from Indonesia) were used as the controls. The evaluation was blind (that is, the name and origin of the samples were unknown to the judges.) The assessment revealed that Stenophylla has a complex flavor profile, natural sweetness, medium–high acidity, fruitiness, and good body, as in higher quality Arabica.
Radar graph for flavor profile using a light roast for Stenophylla, Arabica, and Robusta coffee. The first four criteria (clockwise from the top: overall quality, fruity, acidity and body) are positive for coffee quality; the other four (bitterness, astringency, earthy, and burned) are usually negative.
The judging panel leader awarded a (consensus) specialty score (SCA) of 80.25. This finding was remarkable, given the crudeness of processing and lack of either domestication or pre-farm selection (the sample was from wild plants, selected at random).
The results providing sensory similarity with Arabica are surprising and remarkable because Stenophylla does not have a close phylogenetic relationship with Arabica. Populations of indigenous Arabica and Stenophylla occur on opposite sides of the African continent, separated by at least 4,000 km. The environmental requirements of these two species are different, and their seed (coffee bean) chemistry is not the same, although some of the key chemical constituents are shared.
The main chemical constituents relating to consumer preference for Arabica are two coffee aroma precursors known as trigonelline and sucrose. Levels of trigonelline in Stenophylla are similar to Arabica. Both species have considerably higher amounts than Robusta; the sucrose content of Stenophylla is reported to be greater than Robusta but less than Arabica.
Also, the seed chemistry of Stenophylla populations from Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire is the same but with some differences. In particular, Sierra Leone Stenophylla has a caffeine content of 0.9–1.9% dry matter basis (dmb), which falls within the range of Arabica (0.6–1.9% dmb), whereas those from Côte d’Ivoire are higher (2.05–2.64% dmb).
These findings open the way for substantially broadening the temperature range for farming high-quality (and thus higher value) coffee and the possibility for market differentiation in the specialty coffee sector via the re-establishment of Stenophylla coffee. This species could have critical utility in coffee plant breeding in the longer term, especially for climate resiliency.
What do you think of these recent findings for the future of the coffee and specialty coffee sector?